Dossier People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues

People’s Resistance & Struggles against Water Privatization in Mumbai

, by Intercultural Resources , BHARDWAJ Richa

Access to water has widely been recognized as a basic right. For instance, the United Nations has declared that“the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full employment of life and all human rights.” The Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen fundamental rights to equality, life and personal liberty, further stating that “no citizen shall be subjected to any restriction with regard to the use of wells, tanks [and] bathing ghats [i.e. riverside washing areas].” In India, there is no legislation explicitly stating that governments have to provide water to their citizens; however, in the past, courts have ruled that the right to water is part of the constitutional guarantee of right to life. Since India became independent in 1947, it has been implicitly accepted that central and state governments have a primary responsibility for providing water for drinking, and, subsequently, for other purposes.

After the economic reforms of the 1990s, India has witnessed an increased influence of neoliberal policies in various areas. Water distribution has been the most recent to come under its ambit, as an increased emphasis has been put on privatization of water distribution in different cities and towns across the country. Experiments with water privatization have been done in different parts of the world, and in most of these places, it has resulted in widespread public outcry and resistance. The example of Bolivia is a case in point. The government privatized the water and sewer services, and there was a huge increase in the tariff, which resulted in public discontentment. The people’s resistance led to widespread struggles between the government and the people, and the government brought in the army to control the people. But in the end, the people won the ‘water wars’ and the consortium of private water companies had to withdraw and leave the country. In India, though, different states continue to engage in experiments with water privatization. Most recently, Delhi has started its experiment with water privatization in some zones. This particular case study looks at the people’s struggle in Mumbai to stop privatization of water distribution.

The Context: the Process of Water Privatization in Mumbai

Mumbai, like most Indian cities, faces a shortage of both potable and non-potable water. Multiple approaches have been explored by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM, the city-level government body) to overcome this shortage. In 1999, MCGM started exploring the possibility of privatizing the water distribution of the city. The rationale behind this thought was that privatization would ensure better water management, efficiency, better services, reduced or no corruption and so on. The National Water Policy in 2002 discussed “various combinations of private sector participation in building, owning, operating, leasing and transferring water resources facilities,” thus supporting the privatization of water. These developments facilitated the grant of approximately 30 million rupees to MCGM to hire international private consultants for water management projects. The grant was given by the Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF), a multi-donor trust fund originally established by the governments of Japan and the United Kingdom in collaboration with the World Bank. K-East Ward was selected as the site for the assessment study and pilot project for implementation. The World Bank was appointed as the chief executing agency by the PPIAF, and thus the former had a major role in shaping the Water Distribution Improvement Project (WDIP) in Mumbai. The PPIAF, along with the World Bank-appointed Castalia (a French consultancy firm based in New Zealand), conducted a study on the water supply and management system in the K-East Ward in 2005-06. The terms of reference also included a clause stating that Castalia was required to suggest a model which would “end water leakage, pilferage and contamination and subsequently ensure 24x7 water supply through a multinational private operator in K-East Ward.” The assessment study led to the start of a project titled “Pilot Project of Privatization of Water Distribution” in 2006, though widespread civil society resistance caused the project name to be changed to “Pilot Project of Water Improvement” and later to “Water Distribution Improvement Project (WDIP).” This project was to be done in three phases:

  • Needs assessment
  • Suggested alternatives
  • Implementation for better water distribution

The WDIP was pitched as a consultative process towards improvement of water supply, in which suggestions of different stakeholders, including residents and the MCGM, were sought. In order to achieve this, Castalia and MCGM proposed a series of stakeholder meetings. Three stakeholder meetings were conducted. The first was held in May 2006, following which a report was published. The second was held in May 2007, and the issues raised during the second meeting were supposed to be reviewed. However, the final report was published and shared during the third stakeholder meeting, held in November 2007, and the issues raised were not resolved in this report. The last meeting led to an abrupt end to the WDIP due to widespread protests by the civil society groups opposed to its clear privatization agenda.

Citizen Participation and People’s Struggle against Privatization of Water

The steps proposed and taken to improve the water distribution situation in Mumbai, especially in the K-East Ward, were closely observed and monitored by social activists and academicians. In the initial phase of the project, these observers pointed out that the MCGM was not made a part of the contract and was in an advisory position, even though water distribution was the sole responsibility of the MCGM. Such observations led to the formation of a group named “Mumbai Pani” (Mumbai Water), which was composed of social activists, academicians and citizens who wanted to critically observe the new water distribution plans being proposed. The main objective of this group was to monitor and track the proposed study and project. The first strategy that the group used was creating political awareness. After their initial review of the situation, they found that a project of such magnitude, both financial and infrastructural, was not even discussed in the annual session of the MCGM. Such a discussion is of foremost importance in a democratic governance process. A local elected representative favoring democratic discussion and participation raised the need for discussing the project in the MCGM’s house of representatives. But this proposal was not accepted by the house.

Therefore, Mumbai Pani moved forward with their second strategy: raising awareness and mobilizing citizens, especially the residents from K-East Ward, who would be most affected by the proposed pilot. The mobilization and awareness among people increased the community base, and people started demanding more transparency. This led to the start of a bigger movement, the Pani Haaq Abhiyan (Water Rights Campaign) to create widespread awareness on the issue of water privatization, monitor the developments under the WDIP, and raise the issue of water privatization with different political parties through awareness generation among the local elected officials, members of the Legislative Assembly and members of the Parliament.

Members of Mumbai Pani reviewed the report prepared by Castalia and found that it accurately described the major problems of water distribution in Mumbai – namely, intermittent supply hours, contamination, unequal access and distribution of water and ineffective customer complaints redressal system – but it did not provide substantial arguments in support of the need for privatization of water distribution services. Mumbai Pani’s review of the MCGM records (Castalia also used MCGM data) and the findings of the report raised multiple issues, two of which are as follows:

  • The Castalia report acknowledged that water distribution in the K-East Ward was sufficient, and the MCGM records also added that excess water from this ward was also supplied to other wards.
  • The water quality tests conducted by Castalia also provided non-contaminated results for the water samples, but the report stressed that there could still be contamination.

Mumbai Pani, Pani Haaq Abhiyan, members of local youth groups, and leaders of community-based organizations raised their voices against the undemocratic process being followed, especially for a project of this scale and magnitude. They questioned the rationale for privatization of water distribution when across the world such projects have been unsuccessful and have led to widespread people’s agitation in all stakeholder meetings. During the last stakeholder meeting in November 2007, six social activists from Mumbai Pani were arrested while they were protesting against the privatization of water distribution in Mumbai. The widespread resistance and agitation both at the community as well as political level led to the abrupt ending of the proposed WDIP after an investment of approximately 30 million rupees.


Though the collective people’s struggle was able to stop the privatization of water in Mumbai, the MCGM incorporated the recommendations of the Castalia report in its new project “Sujal Mumbai Abhiyan” (2007) which was aimed at providing the residents of Mumbai with 24x7 water at economical costs. The new project intended to prevent water contamination, increase the quantity of the water supply, improve the water distribution infrastructure and improve the customer complaint redressal systems. In order to achieve this, the new project suggested the following two steps:

  • Hiring of private contractors for different zones of the city to check leakages, construct new water distribution infrastructure, replace old pipelines and so on. The idea was to outsource the work of MCGM to private companies.
  • Pre-paid water meters were proposed to be installed for slum dwellers who did not have proof of residence before 1st January 1995. According to MCGM, a large number of the Mumbai slum dwellers fall under this category and resort to illegal connections, water thefts and use of private water vendors. Therefore, the installation of pre-paid water meters would ensure a check on water thefts and illegal connections.

Mumbai Pani and Pani Haaq Abhiyan were not in favor of the two steps proposed for the new project. According to the group, the pre-paid water meter would lead to the denial of access to water for the most vulnerable communities, as water would be rendered as a commodity to be purchased rather than a public good. There were widespread agitations and presentations made by the group, which led to the proposed steps being put on hold. The members of Mumbai Pani realized the need to broaden the base of the movement at the city level and to look at issues of lack of access to water for people with no pre-1995 residence proofs. In 2010, a city-level Pani Parishad (Water Conference) was organized by the group where residents without this residence proof shared their experiences of accessing water. During this conference a city-level Pani Haaq Samiti (Water Rights Committee) was established which included representatives from various slum communities, independent social activists, academicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The main aim of the committee is to make the people’s struggle more broad-based, which would entail:

  • Increased awareness and mobilization of people in the slum communities, especially newer communities.
  • Monitoring the MCGM initiatives for improving water distribution.
  • Conducting independent needs assessment studies in different areas to substantiate advocacy arguments.
  • Strengthening relationships between community-based groups, NGOs, academicians, legal experts and engineers to build a strong people’s group.
  • Media advocacy and highlighting the struggle of the most vulnerable in the city.
  • Advocacy for creating a constitutional amendment establishing water as a fundamental right, based on the UN framework that acknowledges water as a human right.

The exclusionary government resolutions increasingly create a divide among the most vulnerable populations, and the struggle has to overcome these challenges. The collective efforts of the people have resulted in important victories. During the 2012 municipal elections, different political parties took up the issue of water access for all residents. For now, the people’s struggle against privatization of water distribution in Mumbai has been victorious, but the fight to ensure equal access to water for all residents of the city continues.