“Universal” is a tricky word. It has an enormous appeal, an unquestioned romance of taking everyone along. Universal human rights, universal access to basic services, housing for all. It is the barometer of inclusion done right. The dark side of the romance is that it’s one of the hardest things to achieve. Often the “universal” is a vanishing horizon and, like all horizons, the mirage is what makes you lose sight of the very real trade-offs and constraints in your way.
This week the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) announced a new horizon towards the idea of universal access to a basic urban service and human need: water. The “Jal Adhikar Connection” (a Right to Water Connection) promises to let households within slums in Delhi apply for legal, metered water connections “irrespective of the status of their residence.” This move — following the Government of Delhi’s already given pledge to extend water and sanitation services to unauthorised colonies — implies that legal, public and metered water could (like electricity) actually cover the city as it exists rather than as it is imagined in plans and laws.
The city is what it is It is critical to emphasise how important this is. In Indian cities, one of the biggest blocks to any imagination of “universal” or “inclusive” development is not lack of money, land or technology as is so often imagined. It is that a large number of our fellow urban residents are not considered urban residents at all — they are not part of the “universe” to be reached. The grounds of their exclusion are particular to the way our cities have been built. For multiple reasons, Indian cities are largely auto-constructed. Put simply: they have been built not by the intentions of planners or architects but by people themselves. From the slum to the unauthorised colony, the historical urban village trying to change its identity to the new peri-urban development, each neighbourhood has some kind of tension with law and planning. In Delhi’s last reliable statistic on this in 2000, only 24 per cent of the city lived in a “planned colony.” Everyone else, nearly three-fourths of the city, lived or lives some distance from this legal and planned norm. It is now well argued that this “illegality” is not one most of these residents perform to seek personal gains; it is simply the only way in the context of state and market failures to find a way to make life in the city. As activists have long argued: when three-fourths of a people find themselves violating law, it is the law itself that is broken.
“Spatial illegality” has been a critical — and deeply under-recognised — part of what has broken the possibility of universal access to basic services in our cities. As the rules have changed over time, utilities like the DJB have been, at worst, prohibited from giving legal water connections in “illegal” slums and “unauthorised” colonies, or, at best, such provision has been left to discretion, the dreaded “may” rather than “shall” of public policy. In multiple legal challenges, courts have refused to acknowledge the urban right to water citing spatial illegality even if this leaves the basic needs of thousands unmet, their dignity denied.
The irony is that even those who defend such exclusions do not fully realise the cost they themselves pay for them. Partly as a result of spatial illegality, our city’s infrastructure is not a network or a system. It is a set of fragmented splinters. It struggles to move to its horizon, reaching one colony but bypassing the other, reaching one now and making the other wait, trying to navigate a geography not of demand and supply but of varied degrees of legality and legitimacy. Who gets infrastructure and when thus become matters of power and patronage, reproducing social inequalities in the space of the city.
Not only does this mean that rights and entitlements are conditioned on where you live in the city, it also means that DJB chief Kapil Mishra is absolutely right when he says that without expanding access more “universally,” the DJB can build neither a scientific system nor an efficient one. Infrastructure systems are just that: systems. They need scale and connectivity to be economically viable and technically sound. The DJB’s financial health and self-sufficiency will gain enormously when thousands of new households give revenue to the public utility instead of to tankers and private suppliers. Its pipelines will map, connect and function — their geographies seeking to reach rather than bypass, connect rather than fragment. Wastage will reduce, efficiencies will rise. There are good models to learn from here. When the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board introduced a category of “shared taps” to precisely open up water connections into slums, it saw its financial health improve alongside the improvements in the city’s overall indicators of health, work, housing quality and poverty. When Ahmedabad gave networked infrastructure to its slums, overall indicators of access slowly rose for the city as a whole.
Yet herein lies the first danger of taking an important move and losing ourselves in a mirage well before the horizon is near. Technical and economic efficiency are necessary and pivotal reasons to want to make access to water universal but are not, they must not be, sufficient ones. In an auto-constructed city where spatial illegality breaks access to basic rights, expanding the right to water must be a part of a larger effort to expand the right to the city itself.
The city planner’s public Ambedkar once said that a Hindu’s public is just his caste. An Indian city’s public is too often just the legal, planned colony. The graded inequalities that follow between this imagined ideal and all other ways of inhabiting the city are real. The exclusions are simultaneously socially performed, legally enshrined, and economically reproduced. Recognising the right to water — it is a jal adhikar connection — must be the first step in taking on the spatial illegality that urban residents have been forced into and then held accountable for. It must begin to return to the Indian city its actual universal, its actual publics, to all of its residents. For this, we must begin at the most fundamental of all claims: to be recognised as being in the city, to be acknowledged, and to be valued as workers, citizens and bearers of rights rather than just the “poor,” “slum dwellers” or “encroachers.” What Delhi must do now is to stand by its Jal Board that has taken a first and important step to live up to being and becoming a truly public utility.
Gautam Bhan teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.