Mumbai is a pampered city when it comes to basic infrastructure. The best of all utilities is funneled into the city on one pretext or another. This is especially so in water supply and distribution. For decades together, Mumbai has received more or less the amount of water it has needed to meet the demands of burgeoning population and the prestige of an international city.
In the face of severe and unprecedented water crisis across Maharashtra, most acutely felt in the arid eight districts of Marathwada, Mumbai still receives nearly 85% of the water that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation says it needs. And even when Latur city in Marathwada has not had water in its taps since the middle of January, and cities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region such as Kalyan and Dombivli struggle to get water once every three-four days, Mumbai continues to be provided with 85% of its usual quota of 3,750 million litres a day (mld).
There’s no denying that Mumbai’s needs are being indulged in even at the peak of a severe water crisis and cutbacks in supply in other regions. What’s worse is that dams are being built on rivers and forests denuded in the Western Ghats for projected future needs. This need of 4,400 mld has been questioned by analysts like Himanshu Thakkar who has shown that after accounting for all users and the unpardonable 27% leakage in the supply system, as much as 880 mld water is unaccounted for.
Already, Mumbai gets an average of 180-200 litres per capita per day (lpcd), higher than the national average and, significantly, higher than international cities like London (150 lpcd) or Singapore (160 lpcd). Of course, within Mumbai, there is sharp inequality in the availability and use of water – middle and upper-middle class houses consume between 200 and 300 lpcd whereas slum areas have to make do with 80-90 lpcd.
This means even in a severe crisis situation, many well-off areas in Mumbai have enough water for their gardens and swimming pools, and water theme parks on the city’s outskirts can brazenly advertise for summer packages, while taps in Latur, Aurangabad, Nanded and other cities in Marathwada run dry forcing residents to buy water from tankers at exorbitant rates and often at the cost of their lives. That Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code has been invoked in Latur and Prabhani to prevent large crowds from gathering near tankers tells its own story.
So does that mean Mumbai must turn off its taps? The simple answer is yes. The high per capita availability and use is unjustified. The less water Mumbai consumes and demands, the more there will be to go around elsewhere. The concept of demand management has been taken more lightly than it should have been. Instead of plugging the leakage in the system and tightening the demand of middle and upper-middle class areas, the official policy has been to provide for increasingly large amounts of water. With due respect to water policy makers, there are grounds to revisit this principle.
There’s a lot more that Mumbai can – and must – do. Given its annual rainfall, there is no excuse to not undertake rainwater harvesting on a mass scale. Similarly, there is no reason to not reuse and recycle sewage water for non-potable purposes after the mandatory treatment. Individual and micro experiments have yielded positive results but scaling them up to an area or zonal level is the need of the hour. Water use audits, secure water meters to regulate consumption, temporary bans on water parks and swimming pools, and recharging local water sources including wells and tanks are some routes that could be taken.
“In urban Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai, richer households were found to have larger exclusive access to their water source than poorer households…(and) other areas of the state,” noted the state Human Development Report, 2012.
It makes Mumbai look terribly spoilt. There’s no harm in scaling down at a time of distress.