Power at play in water business

While informal water market plays an important role in meeting the water needs of peri-urban Hyderabad, its power dynamics with the authorities determine its efficiency.

The informal water market plays a crucial role in meeting the drinking and domestic water security of peri-urban communities. The increasing reliance on private informal water vendors in all our study villages speaks of their significance. Informal players like private RO companies, households or individual farmers selling water, however, do not operate in isolation, but in agreement with the formal players. The interplay between the formal and the informal players mediated by power and politics determines who accesses water and how. In fact, a change in power dynamics shows stark changes in the way the market plays out in peri-urban spaces.

Kokapet demonstrates a case where the institutional arrangements between the gram panchayats (GPs) and informal water vendors have altered the water-selling situations during crisis periods. The formal arrangement lays provision for the GPs to hire private water vendors (tankers) for drinking water supply, particularly during lean season and droughts. The arrangement determines the quantum of water that needs to be mined from Kokapet. The panchayat has the discretion of controlling the water extraction and transfer outside the village. It puts a halt on the spatial flow of water outside the village unless the water sellers provide water to the panchayat first so that villagers have access to this water. 

This is what happened twice in the month of April 2016. The first time, the panchayat asked the water sellers to sell water to the panchayat for a few days before selling water outside. When the sellers didn’t oblige, the panchayat tampered with their electricity connection without which they could not extract water from borewells. So the water sellers were forced to provide water to the panchayats first. Although the panchayat promised to pay each seller Rs 15000, none of the sellers got paid, except T1K (name changed).

The second time this happened, water sellers had stopped providing water to the panchayat as they never got paid. This time around, they were more prepared and used diesel generators to pump water. But the panchayat confiscated their generators, leaving them helpless again. The sellers protested and asked the panchayat to give them an alternative source of livelihood if it did not want to pay them or let them continue their business. After many negotiations, the generators were returned with a warning that they must provide water to the panchayat whenever it was absolutely necessary. The community had protested several times to persuade the local authorities to let them access even the paid water sources.

It has been observed in Kokapet that nepotism of the local government also influences informal water operations significantly. The private water market has always been oligopolistic. The political nexus between the dominant casts and government, however, has made it largely monopolistic. The dominance of a single seller narrates the story of power politics. When questioned about paying only T1K, the panchayat claimed that it was because this particular seller never sold water outside the village. Thus, his payment came as a sort of incentive for his loyalty to his village. But when the other water sellers were asked, they said that everyone, including the panchayat, knew that T1K sold water outside the village, especially in the night. An inquiry into the background of this seller made us realise that T1K’s father used to be a former MPTC (Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency) member and that the sarpanch of the village was in good terms with him. Apart from that, T1K was the most educated of the sellers and belonged to a well-to-do family in the village. It could also be because of the higher social status he enjoyed over the others that the panchayat decided he needed to be paid promptly. 

Privatisation of the drinking and domestic water market is rampant in urban and peri-urban spaces. How the market will behave and the extent to which it will exploit the villagers, however, depend on the complex relationship between the formal and the informal players. 

This is one from a series of blogs written by the researchers of SaciWATERs after their work on a two-and-a-half-year-long project titled ‘Ensuring Water Security in Metropolitan Hyderabad: A study of Hydrological Settings and Informal Institutional Dynamics’ to understand the contribution of informal markets to the overall water security of metropolitan Hyderabad.