"Water thieves" : women, water, and development in New Delhi, India
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As Indian cities expand, conflicts over limited potable water supply and access are intensifying. These conflicts place water at the center of socio-spatial, cultural, political and ecological tensions in the city. Women from urban poor neighborhoods resort to stealing, storing, buying and borrowing water to meet the daily needs of their households. However, land tenure determines access to water. Exercising its juridical powers, the state legalizes certain spaces and practices (planned neighborhoods; buying and storing water) and criminalizes others (slums; stealing water). Thus, the state controls: i) who has legal access to potable water; ii) how potable water is legally collected; and iii) where potable water is legally available. My research uses a mixed methods approach to analyze water access, supply and management in New Delhi, India. Using primary data collected in 2009-2010 through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and participant observation, I analyze how women from two urban poor neighborhoods of New Delhi (one, a regularized inner city slum and the other, a resettlement colony) access and use potable water. I also investigate how city planners, state officials, and engineers, perceive water needs and water collection strategies of the residents from low-income neighborhoods. My findings indicate that the state’s responses to the lack of water security in Delhi are limited to technical and engineering solutions aimed at addressing the ‘water problems’ (Zerah, 2000), which, in turn normalize discourses of scarcity (Mehta, 2005; Swyngedouw, 2003), theft and overuse (Baviskar, 2003). I argue that water security is a discourse that draws on the technicist and economistic approaches of Western-dominated international planning, and therefore all attempts to address water (in)security that emerge from this discourse leads to water policies that ignore social constructions and context of water, especially gender. I found that women from low-income neighborhoods bear a disproportionate burden of the social, political, and physical consequences of limited potable water access. In planned low-income neighborhoods, women’s vulnerabilities emerging from lack of access to potable water are exacerbated. This implies that planning in cities such as New Delhi is unable to address the daily water needs of urban poor women. These findings indicate that planning initiatives in cities such as New Delhi, should explicitly respond to the current practices and needs of women, thus minimizing the distance between technocrats and the urban poor.