Sitaram Shelar


In a historic judgment by the Mumbai High Court, the Right to water has been equated with the Right to life, enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.


In 1996 the Urban Development Department (UDD) Maharashtra issued a  circular to all Municipal Corporations in the State instructing that water should not be supplied to those living in unauthorized structures.  On the basis of this circular, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) prohibited regularized water connections to nearly 30 lakh people living in post 1995 slums the city. Challenging this circular, in October 2011, a PIL was filed by Pani Haq Samiti (a collective of activists, organizations, institutions and slum dwellers). Read more…..


In the final verdict made on 15 December 2014, the bench presided by Justice Abhay Oak and Justice A S Gadkari stated that whether homes are deemed ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ – in upholding Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – it is the responsibility of the government to provide water to all. Re enforcing the intrinsic relationship between water and life, the judgment established that the right to water is as fundamental as the right to life.


Key arguments made by MCGM and UDD lawyers include – providing regularized water would lead to proliferation of slums which would further lead to environmental degradation as slums destroy mangroves in the city. The court in response stated that buildings without Occupation Certificates (OCs) are illegal, yet the Corporation provides water to these buildings – why then are slums discriminated against? The court further added that slums maybe illegal but people living in these settlements cannot be deemed illegal.


Based on data from the Crime Branch sourced through an RTI, the Court pointed out that 4000 plus police constables and 81 ACP level officers live in post 1995 slums. Appalled by this fact, the Court highlighted that the state government does not provide low cost housing, and neither does it provide water to all in the city. It was stated that the Court failed to understand how the state government disallows the Municipal Corporation from supplying water to people.


Restating that water supply is mandatory despite the legality of structure, the Court ordered the MCGM to submit a water supply proposal on or before February end 2015.  As an advice to the MCGM, the Court reiterated a Pani Haq Samiti suggestion that could be included in the proposal, i.e. instead of providing individual connections, group connections could be provided for every 7-15 families as per MCGM water rules. This would help in management of water supply to all areas. The court also stated that water charges levied should be equal for all.


Water is necessary to life, yet state officials seemed nonchalant about  provision of water to slum dwellers. Through this case, the apathy of the middle class and a few mainstream political parties towards those living in slums has been extremely evident. Adv Mihir Desai representing Pani Haq Samiti has been extremely instrumental in changing the mainstream discourse and reinforcing the fact that water is a right and cannot be seen within the purview of slums and illegality alone.


For all those fighting for the right to water in the country, this is a historic judgment. This is the first time that it has been stated that in order to realise Article 21, access to water is essential. Till date there  has been no law in India that mandates water to all. The judgment is a great impetus to movements across the country fighting for the basic rights of people.


Over nearly two decades immense political injustice has been meted out dueto the non-provision of water.  Established political parties gain much leverage from illegal slums due to which the poor are far removed from, or worst impacted by the development process. Through this judgment, vote bank politics based on provision of water to slums has been squashed. Vote negotiations in slums will now be forced to go beyond provision of water.


The impact of lack of water has impacted both, people as well as the MCGM.Negative impacts of the lack of water supply that have been borne by the Corporation include:  an increase in the amount of unaccounted for water (UWF); emergence of the water mafia through which illegal connections and  leakages increased; increased contamination of water lines; lastly, revenue that could be earned by the MCGM was being pocketed by the water mafia. Various studies conducted by YUVA, TISS and other organizations on the impact of lack of access to water in slums has found that: Access to water has been only through the water mafia; while buildings are provided 1000 litres of water for Rs 4, the water mafia charge Rs 1000 for 1000 litres of water in slums – water has become a financial burden as 30 to 40 percent of a family’s income was spent on water. These studies have shown that the education of scores of children have been deeply impacted as most often children bear the burden of collecting water from far flung areas or are involved in selling water on cycles. Adverse impacts on health were recorded due to lack of consumption of water due to its high cost; moreover, skin diseases are rampant as water used for bathing is often collected from very poor sources. Having to beg for the most basic services have made people feel like secondary citizens.


In 1927 Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar began a struggle at Chavdar Lake in Mahad to allow Dalits access to water. For Pani Haq Samiti, this judgment is the second milestone in the struggle, especially because the right to water has been recognized and regularized as a fundamental right as per Article 21 of the Constitution.


Pani Haq Samiti will continue the struggle towards ensuring that those living in slums access their right to water.


(sitaram.shelar@yuvaindia.org; December 5, 2014)

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