RESEARCH – अनुसंधान

My thesis examines the governance of urban water supply in India.  The research aims to develop understanding of the relationships between ‘informal’ water supply and public sector reforms in New Delhi.  I use reforms under both private sector management and a new progressive government to examine the challenges to private sector involvement from the existing informal water arrangements, particularly groundwater use, which households rely on in the absence of adequate public sector supply.  I draw on interviews with residents, water suppliers, project officials, government staff, politicians and party workers over 18 months of multi-sited research in South Delhi’s unauthorised colonies and urban villages.

The research analyses the politics of water supply within Delhi’s piped network and outside of it, through the decentralised infrastructures of tubewells and water tankers.  I suggest that these supply modes are socially embedded in systems of party politics, caste and land-ownership with a range of opportunities for discretion, patronage and misallocation.  The strong matrial differences between water infrastructure supply modes lead me to caution against any generalised theory of urban informality based on one resource or area.  I use this analysis to examine an additional layer of urban water governance, in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) for urban water reform.  I find that the complexity of India’s urban social hydrologies, even in wealthy areas, has been underestimated by this initiative, and that despite an evolution of the PPP model concerns over the project’s equity and viability remain.  The high level of informality across different infrastructural systems in my research sites suggests the coexistence of a submerged ‘technopolitics’ operating through bureaucratic and technical modes of governance, with both overt and covert uses of intercession, personalisation and force.

The study makes contributions to knowledge in the following areas: informal urban water supply in India, particularly in unauthorised colonies and urban villages, in a region of high groundwater use, its relationship to water supply reforms from both government and a multinational public-private partnership.


अनुसंधान प्रकल्प: दिल्ली का पानी – शासन-विधि, निति और उपयोग

मेरा नाम मैथ्यू है.  मैं एक छात्र हूँ लंडन स्कूल ऑफ एकनॉमिक्स में और पिछले पंद्रह महीने से दिल्ली का पानी के बारे में सीखने के लिए दिल्ली में रहकर रिसर्च कर रहा हूँ. मेरा काम शहरीकरण, शहरी निति और राजनीति के ऊपर है, इस में मुझे सरकारी सुविधेओं में, ख़ास तौर पर पानी में, दिलचस्पी हैं. यह रिसर्च दक्षिण दिली में दो वजह से है. दक्षिण दिल्ली बाकि दिल्ली से पानी मिलने तरिक्के ज़्यादा विभिन्न है. दुसरे करण है की ज़्यादा बड़ा ज़मीन का पानी का इस्तेमाल किया जाता है. यह चीज़ में दिल्ली इंडिया का जल्दी बढाने वाला सहारों के जैसे है. यह मुद्दे पर देश की भविष्य के लिए सुधरेंगे काफी अहम है.



My research analyses urban water supply for domestic use in Delhi’s National Capital Region[1]. I am seeking to trace how private, municipal and neighbourhood-level water supply, including the introduction of commercial models of supply, relates to organisational, political, and material processes within and outside formal norms and regulation. In order to understand how and why these processes interact, and how they may change over time, I will trace the early progress of water supply improvement projects (‘reforms’[2]) in the city. Study of these changes in service provision will be complemented by research into the ways that people obtain and supply water alongside official piped supply. Consequently, my research aims to develop empirical data on the relationships between ‘alternative’[3] water supply and access arrangements, public sector reforms and urban politics in selected south Delhi neighbourhoods.



Access to water and sanitation in the rapidly urbanizing south is a severe constraint on human and economic development. Water provision is not only inadequate in large parts of the world, but current models of use are highly unsustainable and. Of continued, scarcity and degradation of water will become an increasingly serious concern in the developing world. This situation is further complicated by the greater variability and intensity of weather patterns induced by climate change (Briscoe and Malik 2006:xv). Infrastructure is a large market, and this growing need for water supply intervention is attracting the interest of international development agencies, multinational corporations and investors. Private sector involvement as a proposed mode of address for this problematic is politically contentious, but not seriously contested at a policy level. However, both private sector and donor investment in the water and sanitation sector have been falling over recent years. Consequently, public sector reform strategies and the alternative modes of supply in areas where government provision is limited are both areas where better knowledge is required.

Alternatives to official water supply are a feature of daily life for many people in India, but, while this is a growing area of research, there are a number of gaps in the existing academic literature. From a policy perspective, alternative suppliers and consumers are a salient area of investigation and the subject of a number of recent donor-funded papers. Suppliers and consumers present a potentially sizeable constituency whose interests may or may not be aligned with service reforms. Some research in Indian cities suggests that this constituency can play a powerful role in rendering reform projects unworkable (Zérah 2001). However, the political economy of informal water access (or small scale private sector supply) in urban areas of India is not something on which there is much research. Consequently empirical understanding of ‘informal’ water supply modes in Delhi may assist in the development of closer conceptualisations of urban water access in India, and urban politics in India’s capital city. Public services have frequently been a central issue in Indian politics, and as the opening quotes indicate, the politics of water is very much a live issue in Delhi politics.



Reform programmes in the water sector tend to focus on policy, legal and administrative realms but overlook ‘informal’ governance arrangements (Shah 2007) which are often central to urban service delivery and politics in South Asia and India (Harriss-White 2003, Chatterjee 2004, 2011). While water sector reforms have been less well studied than access to water in general, several close studies of urban water reform in India have been completed recently (Walters 2013, Gopakumar 2012, Asthana 2009, Coelho 2004). Vandana Asthana’s 2009 monograph covers water reforms in Delhi from 2004-2008, examining the discourse and politics of water reforms for the city as a whole and focussing on the Sonia Vihar Water Treatment Plant. It does not touch on reforms to water distribution practices, neighbourhood level access or the informal governance, economies and politics of water and their relation to reform. Policy discourse has only relatively recently started to consider governance of ‘informal’ supply, covering both ‘small-scale private-sector’ (SSPSS) and ‘community’ supply (e.g. Zerah 2000, Solo 1998, Kacker and Joshi 2012, Mehta 2012, Plummer and Slaymaker 2007, Harris et al 2011).

A key issue arising from the literature and previous initiatives is the difficulty of establishing baseline service levels for utilities in India (Narain 2011b). This information is critical for the economic viability of reform interventions and, where available, technologies (such as water meters, SCADA, GIS, and SIM cards) play a key role in the design of systems able to capture it. These technologies throw up an important material dimension to water supply, under municipal, reforms, alternative and self-provision. Urban water regulation consequently not only involves the governance of water, but technology, and ultimately, information. For example, the widespread use of groundwater to supplement poor coverage and quality adds a vast supplement to the quantum of water consumed. This is estimated at between 25 and 50% at different times of year (Narain 2011b), however, while the amount is important for financial, economic and ecological sustainability of urban water supply, precise figures are hard to develop.

Groundwater use is mediated by economic and political power (mediated in turn by social and technological systems; booster pumps, filtering facilities, purchase and availability of tankers etc) and at current rates is a very significant environmental externality effectively subsidising the better off. Groundwater subsidises both connected users by allowing the utility to keep tariffs very low by not increasing coverage, and unconnected users by being more readily available to more powerful groups (wealthy farmers and the urban middle class) leading to a depletion in the overall resource and negative effects for poorer users and the hydrological system as a whole. The ecological dimensions to ‘social hydrology’ (Mehta et al 2013) are one of the key specificities of water provision in contrast to other urban services (sanitation, electricity, gas, roads, housing, etc), and need to be appreciated to allow an appropriate level of sectoral understanding. This ‘underground political ecology’ (Bebbington 2012) of water, both sub-soil and illicit, is an aspect of water supply that has been little explored (Rohilla 2012, Maria 2006, 2009, Narain 2011a).



[1] National Capital Region is the urban agglomeration (47,371km2), Delhi or National Capital Territory is the administrative area (1,484km2) which attained statehood in the Indian federal system in 1993. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) manages the urban area of the NCT. The MCD was trifurcated in 2006 into North, South and West Municipal Corporations. New Delhi Municipal Council (42km2) and the Delhi Cantonment Board are the Municipal Corporations for the very central area.

[2] Understood as the attempted transition to commercially viable water supply – unless stated otherwise I will follow this use throughout

[3] Alternative or ‘informal’ will have to serve as a placeholder term for the time being, justified by its widespread use in the literature to describe these arrangements.