Has urbanization delivered its promise of a good life to people who migrate to the cities to pursue their dreams?

While generally considered a symbol of progress, rapid and uncontrolled urbanization can lead to major socio-economic problems, which unfortunately is happening in many Indian cities today. While migrating to cities might evoke images of comfortable modern living, the reality is totally different as most of the migrants are compelled to live in remote, unhygienic and marginalized communities. Of the sixty (60) million new urban residents (globally) every year, most live in urban slums. Services provided by the state (which are already stretched to their limits because of ever-increasing population) do not reach the unauthorized slum areas.

With nearly 30% of her population living in urban agglomerations/towns, India is facing a serious crisis of urban growth currently. Among numerous other socio-economic problems, safe drinking water and sanitation are leading health challenges for Indian urban slums. Water, especially safe drinking water, is a scarce ‘commodity’ for the urban poor.

According to reports, there is a disproportionate access and use of water between the haves and the have nots in the cities i.e. authorized (planned) colonies versus unauthorized urban slums. Mumbai’s water supply meets only 65% of the city’s water needs, of which only 33% is provided to the poor slum residents. A field survey in Ahmedabad established that 25% of the population consumes 90% of the water, which leaves 75% of the population with only 10% of the available water supply. In Calcutta, water supply in the slums is about 75 liters per day while in the non-slum areas it is more than 225 liters. Further lack of consistent quality of clean water forces the urban slum dwellers to consume contaminated and unsafe water which leads to water-borne diseases. Alternatively, some rely on ‘so called’ private local safe water distributors who charge exorbitant prices for (supposed safe) water.

Surveys of groundwater quality in many cities reveals that a number of waterborne diseases are effected due to pathogenic contamination, generally caused by sewage mixing with drinking water. Ill maintained infrastructure, old pipelines and poor (or no) drainage systems are the key reasons for this kind of contamination. Consuming such water leads to epidemics and outbreaks of diseases like jaundice, cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea etc. As much as 60% of water and vector-borne (i.e. malaria, dengue etc. which are caused by mosquitoes) diseases in urban areas are reported from slum clusters. Given that majority of slum colonies in India are unauthorized, no one in the administration owns the responsibility or the accountability for its cleanliness (or lack of it) or providing other amenities including water supply.

While there are several inadequacies impacting the urban communities of India, water is the most important one as no one can live without clean and safe water. Fortunately, many multinationals, social enterprises and NGOs are taking note of this problem and partnering together to deliver suitable solutions to underserved urban communities.

Considering the scale and the impact of the problem, it is indeed time to address this problem in a more comprehensive manner. The clamor and focus on Smart Cities notwithstanding, one needs to prioritize and address the water problem in the Indian cities on a war footing.

These are also known as the water mafias, who control the water distribution in given slum catchment areas.