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Lack of Access to Clean Water in India

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Clean water is an integral resource to all ecological aspects of the world. Whether its used domestically, for aquaculture, industrially, for irrigation or livestock, or for power, it is key for sustaining life. In the world, the water used each day in homes, businesses, and public facilities is fresh water, and while seventy-one percent of the Earth is made up of water, only three percent of that water is fresh. Within that sparse three percent, nearly sixty-nine percent of that clean water is nearly inaccessible. This leaves the Earth with a remaining one percent of water that is considered as surface water.

The fresh water that constitutes less than three percent of the Earth is responsible for cycling through the atmosphere and back into the supply of clean water for the world to use for bathing, cooking, and drinking. There are four important characteristics that the state of drinking water can be quantified by: reliability, quantity, and quality, and cost. Various national agencies, such as the World Health Organization, or WHO, have standards for drinking water quality, which specify acceptable characteristics of safe and clean drinking water. Fresh water is so important, yet its sources are often scarce because of irregularly and unevenly distributed water supplies. The quality and quantity of water sources often vary by season, year, and location, leaving some areas of the world with a dry riverbed or an abundance of contaminated water.

Additionally, contaminated water can come from chemicals and human and animal wastes, all of which cause the quality of the drinking water to suffer. “Polluted water isn’t just dirty– it’s deadly,”. Every year, roughly 1. 8 millions people die due to diarrheal diseases such as cholera. Some additional tens of millions of people are severely sickened by other water-related ailments Over many decades, water has become a commodity, thus allowing for communities with inadequate distribution systems and low income families to lack the ability to attain the vital resource. In consideration of the inequity of water distribution in the world, the United Nations believes that access to clean water is a basic human right. Should the global community take steps towards creating equal distribution and access to clean water for the water-poor communities, the continuous cycle of poverty can be lifted. India: In India, residents have been facing a freshwater crisis and as of 2016, seventy-six million people were without access to safe, potable water.

A vast twenty-one percent of the diseases that the population suffers from is related to unsafe water, thus having left 329,000 children under the age of five to die due to diarrhea in 2015. While the lack of access to clean water most directly affects the health of the population, it also affects the national economy in that an estimated $160 million USD in income is lost each year due to women missing work days in exchange for fetching and carrying water from faraway water sources. The population of India as a whole does not suffer from water crises, rather particular pockets of the country are affected. In certain regions of the country there are booming industries and cities filled with capital, whereas other regions embody rural neighborhoods and fields filled with poverty. In particular, Mumbai is the most populous city and holds country’s economic capital, yet nearly half of the population lives in slums and endure the hardships of a looming water crisis.

Mumbai Life in Slums

Many of the residents of Mumbai, city located in the Western state of Maharashtra, are challenged with the lack of access to clean water and sanitation. With more than half of its residents residing in informal settlements, some estimates declare that Mumbai has the largest slum population of any city around the globe. Because the men, women, and children who live in this impoverished state face hardships pertaining to water crises, there are short-term and long-term hardships that they endure as well. In particular, lack of access to water and sanitation disproportionately affects women and young girls. While men are at work, some women and children must obtain water by fetching it from taps in other community sources. They often face the physical strain of rolling filled water drums for up to two kilometers before reaching home. This water collecting process can sometimes take two to three hours daily, which cuts into the time that children are at school or should be doing schoolwork.

In turn, children don’t receive the education they need because they must suffer the consequences of living without access to clean water. Women often lack enough water to wash their children, dishes, home spaces, and clothes, resulting in water sometimes being saved and reused. Additionally, they also suffer in terms of sanitation and hygiene because men generally receive water priority in order to be properly ready for work. Work is extremely important for the men to go to because their job brings in the small amount of cash that they can use to spend on food or water. In these slums, there are often informal water distributors who charge exorbitant rates and engage in discriminatory pricing. The household money gets collected by these distributors who occasionally don’t deliver the expected quota of water and abuse residents who have issues paying. The informal water supply system puts an extreme amount of stress of the slum dwellers, particularly when distributors become angry and freely destroy remaining water infrastructure around their community.

During severe water shortages, women often find themselves in a situation where they must choose between spending their last bits of money on food or on water. Some residents stay awake all night in order to prevent missing water flows that can happen in the middle of the night. On occasion, water tankers enter the slums to provide extra water, but this periodical tanker water is perceived to be of very low quality. Illness and death due to unclean water is particularly prevalent in the child population of slums. These poorer residential areas resort to sourcing their water from informal water distribution systems, where water travels through hoses surrounding trash dumps and are compromised by holes, and possibly increase the risk of water-borne diseases. Poor water quality is a leading global cause of morbidity and mortality and much of its sourcing takes place right in the slums of Mumbai. Particularly during monsoon season, water sources become overly contaminated and disease and illness skyrocket. Lack of access to sewer lines and inhibited construction of sewer lines become giant challenges to sanitation. The vast majority of children and 14% of adults engage in open defecation, creating a source for much of the illness. These slums regularly experience outbreaks of diarrheal diseases, dengue, malaria, and leptospirosis.

In the city, conflict surrounding the concern of water accessibility hovers around the tension between those who provide water and those who lack water. Across the peri-urban areas of Mumbai, issues surrounding the lack of access to clean water are most often tied to the slums themselves. Without access to a clean, well-structured home or substantial money, slum dwellers must live in large, abandoned buildings or even small handmade structures. The Maharashtra Slum Areas Act defined a slum as an area that is unsanitary, squalid and overcrowded. It’s an area that poses a danger to health and is deemed unfit for human habitation. In order for a settlement to be determined fit for human-living, it must include a water supply, drainage, and sanitary conveniences, all of which most slums in Mumbai lack. The political issues concerning housing stocks and the lack of resources to build homes created the growing predicament of Mumbai residents living in areas lacking water supply and proper sanitation.

Multitude Early Slum Rehabilitation

Over a few decades, the Indian government’s responses to slums have undergone several changes. The initial reaction to the overwhelming slum population in the 1950s and 1960s was to demolish slum buildings and clear the dwellers from the streets. However, the government gained a more tolerant attitude and adopted a different approach to handle the matters. In the 1970s and 1980s, the government enacted and passed various acts and programs with aid from the World Bank, and had sought to improve the slummed areas. Through the 1970 Slum Improvement program, the government planned to provide dwellers with basic services such as small pathways, electricity, primary health care, and education, as well as improved infrastructure with community water taps, latrines, and proper drainage. However, the scale of the programs and the aid provided remained limited and was not able to prevent the proliferation of these living conditions. The following year, The Maharashtra Slum Areas Act was enacted to create a more firm foot in the battle against the poor slum conditions. While this 1971 act made more political headway for the dwellers concerned primarily with land tenure, it did not provide much relief for resources needed in everyday life. One section of the act addresses the need for provision of water taps, bathing places, drains, and latrines, however, it was an option.

The government suggests “works of improvement” in relation to slum buildings and only implies that one or more of the twelve changes, water and sanitation being two, are necessary. While few water and sanitation access changes were made, the hardships of living with minimal access to such basic amenities remained in the lives of the people for years to come. In the 1980s, government authorities allocated their attention and resources towards the problem of the worsening slums of, then named, Bombay. 1985 brought about yet another goal of slum improvement, this time for Dharavi, a locality holding nearly one million people, making it the largest slum in Mumbai as well as Asia as a whole. The Prime Minister recognized the growing issue and committed a grand financial pledge to intervention in the slum, showing that slum improvement had indeed become a political priority for Bombay. The initial plans for Dharavi included a forty-percent reduction in population, relocation of residents, residential construction, and the complete rebuilding of its sanitation infrastructure. However, there had been a pattern of efficacy of slum improvement acts and programs for the preceding forty years, and the 1985 Prime Minister’s Grant Project was no different. The government soon declared that it was incapable of fulfilling the complex plan, particularly because of opposition within the settlement. The National Slum Dwellers Federation, PROUD, and Society for the Preservation of Area Resource Centres successfully limited the transformation of the slum grounds of Dharavi and the 1985 PMGP had only built a few dozen residential buildings by the late 1980s. The failed state interventions into the slums reveal that basic sanitation, water access, and housing provision are a giant, interlocked enigma.

Granted Access – Progress

As the acts and programs were enacted during the 1970s and 1980s, legislation did begin to provide minimal amenities in slums. In 1976, a new rule began to spread throughout the city that would determine who would be able to have access to basic necessities such as water and sanitation. After a census of huts on public land was established, “photopasses” were issued to all people whose home met certain criteria and were eligible for some security. Different public agencies enabled engineering departments to recognize these slum dwellers and the dwellers were provided electricity, sanitation, water, and another small amenities.

For the first time, those who lived in slums were not only recognized by the government, but were given what they were promised decades ago. Additionally, the World Bank-funded Bombay Urban Development Project and the Slum Upgrading Programme added leases to the slum buildings in the mid-1980s. New 30-year renewable land leases were handed out to cooperative societies and not only did this secure land, but also civic amenities. While this new rule did consist of a cost-recovery basis and loans to support this upgrade, this was an advancement to the earlier policies and allowed some slum dwellers access to clean water and sanitation. As dwellers in 1976 learned of the photopasses, the population density in particular areas increased because everyone wanted these special accesses.

The government extended the eligibility of these passes to more people, but it appeared as though the slum problem was growing faster than ever. Soon, cut-off policies arose, which restricted eligibility to a time frame. During these decades, slum living policy has been increasingly dominated by “cut-off” policies, which promise free housing, water, electricity, and sanitation to those who have resided in slums prior to a certain date. This policy was enacted after slum dwellers, who constitute a large part of Mumbai’s electorate, placed a multitude of pressure on the government. After repeatedly stretching the policy to attempt to fit more people, the government began to use electoral rolls insteading of conducting censuses, causing the slum situation to become a politically driven issue. The 1995 cut-off policy, as mentioned in “Protected Occupiers, Their relocation and Rehabilitation” of the amended Slum Areas Act, states that those who reside in a slum prior to 1995 cannot be evicted, will not have their home demolished without being first resettled, and will have access to water and sanitation. The fortunate slum dwellers soon became “protected occupiers”, which gave them a chance to live with their government subsidy. Slowing down the progress The progress began slowing down once the huge slum population began fighting for equal access to the free housing, water, and sanitation. There had been numerous efforts to extend the cut-off dates.

For the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, the government was in the process of extending the cut-off date to 2000, however a Bombay High Court decision in 2006 prevent this action from going through. There had been many efforts to continue the elongation of cut-off dates, but the government was not entirely set on creating subsidized housing yet. Linking basic services like water and sanitation to hundreds of thousands of home still remained a challenge, so many people were left on the streets.


Evidently, those who did not live in slum housing prior to 1995 were left out of the access to free housing, water, and sanitation. While the 1995 cut-off policy enabled dwellers who meet requirements to have security, it also gave less security to those who do not meet the criteria. For the first time, the government enforced the cut-off date by demolishing 50,000 to 90,000 slum dwellings, causing an outcry in the few months between 2004 and 2005. This was one of the first displays of the inequality in resources that the government was handing out.

Legal Barriers to Accessing Water in Mumbai Slums

In terms of the 1995 cut-off policy, it appears as though the government has been strict on acting upon the given time frame. However, the municipal water regulations known as the Water Charges Rules state that amenity connections can be made eligible to slums that have existed before 1995, “or any other date separately notified by the Government of Maharashtra in this behalf”. This phrase in the act appears to give the government of Maharashtra the opportunity to open the gate of aid to slums that have been created after 1995. Mumbai, arguably one of the greatest cities in India, now clutches two different dimensions of slums: the “notified” and the “non-notified”. As of now in India, some slums are recognized by the government, or “notified” and they are usually entitled to access basic services, such as the access to clean water and sanitation. Additionally, the previous 1995 cut-off has now been changed to 2000, adding these additional impoverished settlements to the population of those who are granted some access to basic amenities.

However, fifty-nine percent of slum settlements in 2012 were described as “non-notified” or unrecognized by the government. The people who live in these areas inhabit the land owned by the central government and do not gain anything from the cut-off policy, despite the fact that some settlements had been established several decades ago. These non-notified slums receive far less assistance from the government than the notified slums, and they suffer from the lack of access to latrines, clean water, and electricity. Often times, this inaccessibility leads to the illegal piping to city water pipes due to desperation in their dire situation.

Human Rights Issue – Lack of Government Policy Implementation

Despite the numerous policies that have been enacted over the last eight decades, majority of the residents living in Mumbai’s slums still do not have access to adequate quantities of affordable, accessible, and safe water and sanitation. The current laws and in place prevent these impoverished people from having the access to these water and sanitation services. Back in 1979, India agreed to a document by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Organization. By complying with the ICESCR, India as a whole agreed that it would ensure that all recognized rights would be realized progressively and that the government would function in a fashion of nondiscrimination. However, the following acts and policies did not comply with what the ICESCR declared.

In reference to the policy of the 1995 cut-off rule and the ability to “notify” slums that are not located on central government land, these policies provide a prime example of the clear violation of the principle of nondiscrimination. The Slum Areas Act as well as the Municipal Water Regulations can be rewritten and reinterpreted in a manner that could include and extent leniency towards those living in non-notified slums. This change would expand the eligibility of water and sanitation services to the millions of men, women, and children who suffer each day from the lack of water resources. In 2010, India voted to adopt the UN General Assembly Resolution 10967, which “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. ” The Human Rights Council Resolution also later affirmed that “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living… as well as the right to life and human dignity. ”

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Lack Of Access To Clean Water In India. (2020, April 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from
“Lack Of Access To Clean Water In India.” GradesFixer, 30 Apr. 2020,
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Lack Of Access To Clean Water In India [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Apr 30 [cited 2022 Jan 21]. Available from:
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