Piped drinking water regimes beyond the state: insights from peri-urban Delhi

Sumit Vij, Timos Karpouzoglou, and Vishal Narain challenge the myth of the formal (state controlled) water as ‘piped’ water versus the informal (non-state) water as ‘non-piped’. Their ethnographic work illustrates how these two water regimes are entangled, dynamic, and shaped by unequal power relations.

In two recently published articles, we have conceptualised water regimes as a complex configuration of actors, institutions and technologies building on theoretical work from transition studies and urban political ecology. We have found that in practice, the configuration of piped and non-piped networks does not automatically correspond to the distinction between formal and informal regimes; rather it is the result of the control by state or non-state actors. Drawing upon ethnographic insights from Rawta, an urbanising village of New Delhi, we present here some examples of water regimes by paying attention to the constellation of formal and informal actors, institutions, and technology that shape them.

Water collection via tankers in New Delhi, India (Credits: Sumit Vij)

We would like to turn first to Meera (pseudonym), a village resident of Rawta. She said during the interview ‘Awaaz uthaane se tho jhagdaa hi hoga (If we raise our voice, it will only create conflict)’. She further explained that the upstream parts of the village are mainly inhabited by the Jaats, the group that is socially, numerically, and economically powerful. At the same time, the lower castes tend to be concentrated in the downstream parts of the village. Meera’s narration is telling of the unequal power relations between different social groups in a peri-urban village in New Delhi. In part due to unequal power relations and in part due to the characteristics of peri-urbanisation that shape this village, water delivery arrangements are far from straightforward, and different kinds of water regimes are manifested through configurations of heterogeneous technology, institutions, and actors.

In Rawta, we realized that a formal water regime becomes effective when it is matched by a parallel informal water regime. The formal water regime (state controlled) comprises a network of pipes but also non-piped technologies such as water tankers. The informal water regime comprises pipes, pumps and storage devices installed by the residents of Rawta. The institutional arrangements across actors of these regimes make water provisioning possible and it almost appears as if one regime is literally “mimicking” the other. The informal water regime tends to mimic the formal regime by introducing a network of pipes laid down by the private groundwater vendor and institutions (norms, practices, and codes of conduct) that develop around it. Moreover, in the presence of such mimicking processes, unequal power relations unravel. Higher caste and class groups continue to benefit with the water tankers, controlled by the formal (state) water regimes (as indicated by Meera). The water tankers usually stop in the lanes where the higher caste families reside, prioritising them to get in the water collection queue before the other residents arrive to collect water.

Even though mimicking is loaded with power relations, we find at the same time, that these different modes of water provisioning complement each other in a way that makes water delivery to be fulfilled, and in the absence of one regime, the weaknesses of the other regime become more visible. At the same time, both piped and non-piped technologies are essential for the functioning of both formal and informal water regimes. For example, when piped (formal) water becomes over-appropriated by residents who live in the upstream parts of the village, several households in the lower reaches remain without water. This void is filled by the non-piped water supply in the form of water tankers (state controlled) or groundwater borehole (privately controlled).

Informal piped networks (Credits: Sumit Vij)

For piped and non-piped technologies to become aligned, we find strong evidence of cooperation despite the general volatility of water supply in Rawta. In our fieldwork we found that this void is filled by the non-piped water supply in the form of water tankers sent by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the public utility engaged in water provisioning. Through our interaction with village residents, we found that this was made possible due to the cooperation among the residents of Rawta to supplement piped with non-piped water supply. While this cooperation starts in Rawta, it requires the involvement of city level actors such as the local politicians. In this case, the local politician (member of the legislative assembly) depends on the residents of Rawta for electoral votes, and in return, provides them water. As elections approached, we learnt that he became more sympathetic to the water woes of Rawta’s residents.

This research leads us to understand formal and informal water as water that can be both ‘piped’ as well as ‘non-piped’ and suggests both piped and non-piped water to be dynamic and socially negotiated categories. Furthermore, our fieldwork insights suggest the need for a new direction in the study of socio-technical regimes, accounting for their function and unique characteristics in Global South settings and with particular attention to processes of heterogeneity, cooperation, and conflict. The entanglement of formal and informal water regimes points to the need for further analysis, particularly in the context of peri-urban spaces, while also being relevant in more urban contexts in Global South and the Global North.

With SDG 6 shaping the global policy discourse, some countries are now recognising diverse contributions to water services by public, private and community providers of water. These initiatives are embedded in policies that are more receptive of formal-informal interlinkages for achieving sustainable and inclusive water access. And yet relations between local authorities and the informal sector can often be strained and there is still a tremendous need for developing constructive engagement across formal and informal sectors. Ultimately, we believe that attention towards the critical interface of formal and informal water regimes can make a difference in improving the understanding of the role of the urban poor as critical actors in the urban water sustainability transition.

For further analysis and details, see the published articles:

Narain, V., Vij, S., & Karpozouglou, T. (2023). Demystifying piped water supply: Formality and informality in (peri) urban water provisioning. Urban Studies, 60(6), 1066-1082.

Karpouzoglou, T., Vij, S., Blomkvist, P., Juma, B., Narain, V., Nilsson, D., & Sitoki, L. (2023). Analysing water provision in the critical interface of formal and informal urban water regimes. Water International, 1–15.

Cite this blog post
Sumit Vij (2023, September 8). Piped drinking water regimes beyond the state: insights from peri-urban Delhi. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os32

Sumit Vij

Sumit is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology & Development Change Group at Wageningen University. His research focuses on questions of power and politics within the themes of transboundary waters and (peri)urban infrastructure in South Asia.

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1 Response

  1. 02/10/2023

    […] Piped drinking water regimes beyond the state : insights from peri-urban Delhi, par Sumit Vij, sur le Carnet FLOWs ; […]

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