Pipes as a Means to the City

-Ipshita Karmakar

Water Supply Lakes of Mumbai (Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People)

" It is 7 am on a Monday, the dawn is ripe with possibilities, and the hustle and bustle of a normal work day is yet to start. You are on time for a local train that will be seemingly less crowded, and the time is right for a cold water bath. But you turn the tap, and it runs dry. You have missed the daily 2 hour supply by less than 5 mins, and your retinue of pots, jars, and drums that you intend to fill with the day’s water requirements are dry and empty."

This grim story is perhaps one that many Mumbaikars experience daily. A need as basic and fundamental as water, and its intermittent supply, has led to life being led by the clock, and ruled simply by water and its availability. But how does this water reach us (or not)? For a child, or even many adults, the tracing the journey of water that is available in a tap or a bottle may be unfathomable. In a city like Mumbai, a large posse of engineers, sub engineers, civic officials, chaviwalas(Engineers that operate the daily switching on and off of water supply to various localities), even tanker operators, make it possible for water to reach our homes every day. Even more so, a jungle of public infrastructure, from water mains, secondary and tertiary pipelines, pumping stations, holding tanks and water meters form the infrastructure skeleton upon which this whole operation is mounted (Anand 2017). At times, even the city’s hydrology department becomes a complete maze in understanding this increasingly convoluted system, which is built as much on a technical and survey based method as it is through oral and personal relationships between engineers (Björkman 2015). In order to understand why water does not reach our pipes, we need to understand the history of this infrastructure.

The History of Modern Water Supply Pipelines

In Mumbai, water supply has not always been this way. Before 1860, water needs in Mumbai were catered by either private household wells, or public water tanks and fountains. In 1845, the city of Mumbai erupted in protests due to increasing urbanisation, and the corresponding decline in water availability  (Shirgaonkar 2011). Several drastic measures had been undertaken by this point, by the colonial administration, including moving cattle and communities of native people to the adjoining island of Salsette, simply to ensure that the pressure on the existing water systems was reduced (Shirgaonkar 2011). In 1858- the first plans for augmenting Mumbai’s water systems, by bringing in water from a distance of around 90 km from Vihar lake was initiated. At that time, only 32 MLD (million litres per day) of water serviced less than a million residents of the island.

In addition, simultaneously, water tariff was levied by the colonial administration, effectively placing the duty of water supply in the hands of a centralised government. The growing cases of malaria, and the subsequent deaths in army barracks and settlements started getting blamed on the open, uncovered sources of water such as open tanks and wells. The Municipal Act of 1863 made the filling up tanks of questionable hygiene mandatory. In 1911, Lord Bentley published a report where he established that domestic wells were the primary breeding ponds of the malarial mosquito. The aftermath of the report led to the closing or covering of almost all private wells in the Bombay region. This move cemented the move of our dependency for water supply from self-sustaining wells to a centralised piped water system, solely dependent on the municipal authorities (Kelkar 2019).

Today, the water supply from Mumbai’s numerous water supply schemes has reached over 3000 MLD (Mukherjee n.d.)

This augmented water supply comes from seven lakes including, Tulsi, Tansa, Bhatsa, Upper Vaitarna, Modak Sagar etc., with several more in construction (Mumbai Works). Water is brought in from several hundred kilometres away, from the mainland of Maharashtra, in water mains – cast iron pipelines ranging upto 3000 mm diameter. From these mains, water is further distributed into secondary pipes (that connect to supply reservoirs) and then tertiary distribution systems (supply pipelines, distribution pipes). Every year, there is a need to further augment Mumbai’s water supply with additional water sources, and the number of new connections to the existing infrastructure is increasing exponentially.  Every year, there are frantic news announcements of impending droughts in the city of Mumbai, and the dams that supply water to Mumbai not reaching their limits.

How is Mumbai experiencing this shortage of water, even at it remains a city with one of the most abundant rainfall patterns? Maybe one reason for this could be that while the island city receives abundant rainfall, the mainland where the dams are located may not (Anand 2017). But perhaps the most logical reasons for this may be the faults in our own piping system and the way that they are managed, distributed and reaches our homes. In this cast iron infrastructure, the abundance from nature starts segregating when, and how much, water can be given to whom.

First we get a Pipe, and then comes the Water

According to section 73 (A) of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act of 1888, water supply in Mumbai is metred, water tariffs are levied, and the system is managed by the Hydrology department Municipal Corporation (Mumbai Works). Water tariffs, while calculated in a number of ways, ranges from INR 3.8 every 1000 litres for informal settlements, to INR 5.09 for 1000 liters of water for apartment buildings (Financial Express 2018). This move to a privatised, saleable water infrastructure, from what was essentially a free and charitable (albeit, community based) public water system of tanks and fountains, laid the seeds for this practice of segregating who ‘deserves’ water in Mumbai. Selling water meant that not only would water reach only those who could afford it, but also that a system for supplying it door to door would have to be laid. In the wake of this, the water system on Mumbai started relying on devices known as water meters, that calculate the amount to be paid in relation to the amount of water which is supplied. Water meters are supplied to only those connections which are considered legal.

So which water connections could thus be considered illegal or ineligible? In Mumbai, that question of water supply thus became tied to the question of housing. If you had a house that you owned or rented in your name, which was essentially a property that did not belong to the government and you had all the requisite documentation to prove it, you would receive a water connection. What this excluded, of course, was informal settlements – slums. Residents of slums could still buy water connections, since water is a fundamental right by law and cannot be denied to anyone, but that would be a grey area, because they did not have land rights and were considered encroachers. To provide infrastructure to them would mean at a certain level, legalising their right to the city. On this basic irregularity in establishing a right to basic water infrastructure in the city, these settlers have had to create insidious means to access water.


Pipeline at Indira Gandhi Nagar, 2016 (Source : Author)

The Pipe is a Home

Several informal settlements have come up along the stretch of the water mains bringing water into the city. For example, the settlement of Indira Gandhi Nagar was built along the Tansa Pipeline, a pipeline constructed in 1892 and one of the major water pipelines in Mumbai in Bandra East. Here, around 5000 residents had constructed their households, and at several junctions along the pipeline, siphoned water using subsidiary connections. It is a means of obtaining water in a fairly unequal city, where water flows beneath your feet and yet you are denied access. The flipside of this way of obtaining water is that several times, the weak connections of the pipe have burst, flooding the settlement and washing away property.

A Government Pipe – A Private Appendage

When you do have access water, as Saraswati, a domestic maid living in a slum in Malad West counters, the pressure is less than desired. The water pressure in her shared water connection was so weak, she compares it to the width of her little finger. She, along with five other families, pooled in to get a legal water connection in 2018. Water was available for two hours, from 2-4 pm. In a few months, she realised that this water pressure would have to be boosted with water pumps. All five families each got their individual water motors, but switching on a motor in a tightly packed slum is a meticulously synchronised process. “The motor needs to be switched on for 25 minutes. Since we are five families, we take turns – for instance, I will switch on my motor for 25 mins, then the next family and so on. On the second day, the next family switches on their motor first. On the fifth day, I will switch on my motor last. Thus the cycle continues.” Saraswati has a preference for being last to turn on the motor, because she claims that the water that has just flown into the pipes is not of great quality and brackish. What she has done is similar to the process that the apartment owners in the building she works at have done. Each flat has one, or even two tanks, which they use to fill in water through pressurised motors. Though they have an overhead tank, water supply is sufficient for only four hours a day.

As one acquires social mobility, more and more money is spent on obtaining water; for Saraswati the total cost of a connection, motor, storage drums was around INR 30,000-40,000. For apartment owners, the cost would be much more. Water supply is a great equaliser, most neighbourhoods in Mumbai have less than six hours of water supply a day.

A Piped Connection is a Right to Life.

According to Article 21 of the Constitution, the right to access water is one of the fundamental rights to life.  This was the basis of the argument that the Pani Haq Samiti, an NGO based in Mumbai, made when it filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court in 2011 (Shelar 2018). Every household in Mumbai should have access to water, regardless of their legal status, they argued. In 2014, in a landmark judgement, the Bombay High Court upheld the PIL and instated a ‘water for all’ policy, which allowed water connections to all households, regardless of the date on which they had been constructed. While this was a momentous step towards creating a more inclusive society, the implementation of that has seen several bottlenecks and chokeholds, much like our pipes itself. It therefore remains a distant reality.

There are several stories about these pipelines and the piped water systems of Mumbai – every family has struggled with dealing with this infrastructure. It is disorienting to imagine that the city is standing on a maze of pipelines in its soil, many of which have gone years without repair. It is widely estimated that around 25 percent of Mumbai’s water supply goes unestimated – either leaking out or siphoned in undocumented connections (Anand 2017). But the city is making its own compromises with this shaky mechanism, either like the people of Indira Nagar did, or Saraswati does, or we as apartment dwellers do. But should public infrastructure be compromised with, or should better means be demanded of our state?


Anand, Nikhil. 2017. Hydraulic City : Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Duke University Press.

Björkman, Lisa. 2015. Pipe Politics, Contested Waters : Embedded Infrastructures of Millenial Mumbai. Orient Blackswan Private Limited.

Financial Express. 2018. "Mumbaikars to pay more for water: BMC hikes charges by 3.72%; see details." Financial Express. June 14. https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/mumbaikars-to-pay-more-for-water-bmc-hikes-charges-by-3-72-see-details/1206748/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20new%20tariff,Rs%205.09%20per%201%2C000%20litres.

Kelkar, Madhu. 2019. "Sanitizing Heritage—Hydraulic Water Supply and the Erosion of the Traditional Water Management System in Colonial Bombay City." Journal of Heritage Management 123-140.

Mukherjee, Dr Nita. n.d. "Mumbai's Water Supply:Understanding our Civic issues." The Bombay Comunity Public Trust.

Mumbai, Municipal Corporation of Greater. Works. Water . December 2016. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://portal.mcgm.gov.in/irj/portal/anonymous?NavigationTarget=navurl://06f20212cc919da73149e1e9ef479e42&guest_user=english.

PIL 140 of 2006. 2018. (Bombay High Court, February 16).

Shelar, Sitaram, interview by Ipshita Karmakar. 2018. Pani Haq Samiti (February).

Shirgaonkar, Varsha. 2011. Exploring Mumbai's Water Heritage. Mumbai: Aryan Books International.