Right to water and sanitation: Looking beyond legal and policy frameworks to sites of entitlement

An illegal settlement (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
An illegal settlement (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Increasing concerns over the consequences of inadequate urban sanitation and water with regard to poverty, health, livelihoods, and education have spurred global declarations on the human right to sanitation and water. However, the social and spatial heterogeneity of urban poverty is often missing in global policy debates.

The paper titled 'Sites of entitlement: claim, negotiation and struggle in Mumbai' published in the journal Environment and Urbanization, argues that sanitation interventions usually focus on informal settlements that are officially recognised, but there is a weak understanding of the micropolitical realities of these urban water and sanitation services in informal settlements over time and space.

Rights and entitlements explained

The paper makes a distinction between “rights” and “entitlements”. Entitlements are or can be what people claim as a product of the rights available to them. Thus while rights take the form of legally binding statements, entitlements are produced through social relations and are based on people’s experience and perceptions. Thus, entitlements are shaped not only by legal rules but also by socially shared rules which help set the conditions through which entitlements are conceived, claimed and contested.

The paper argues that while research, policy and practice debates routinely talk about the human right to sanitation and water, there is comparatively little grasp of how these are translated to entitlements and contested, and how they vary across social groups and spaces. Thus there is a need to look at the geographies of entitlement in approaches to water and sanitation, which depend on social, economic, political, institutional, technological and historical processes. Even when certain rights are granted, they are often not realised because of the uneven power relations that shape the everyday life of the city, and the poor very often turn to diverse informal arrangements, social networks and negotiations to meet their sanitation and water needs.

Understanding sites of entitlement

This paper develops the concept of “sites of entitlement” as a basis for better understanding how infrastructure and services are perceived and experienced in informal settlements, and argues that universal rights to sanitation and water can only emerge through a focus on the everyday experiences, claims, negotiations and struggles that continually take place, either through individual or collective action or through quiet processes of subversion in informal settlements.

Although sources of entitlements to infrastructure and services arise from legal and policy frameworks that focus on rights of individuals as citizens, as human beings with basic rights, how these get translated into entitlements depends on the contexts where they get implemented. The paper presents the case of Mumbai by discussing the findings of an ethnographic study conducted among  two informal settlements in Mumbai namely Rafinagar and Khotwadi. The research involved participant observation of different areas in both neighbourhoods, interviews with people from both neighbourhoods, and interviews with municipal staff, non-governmental organisations, and community groups working on sanitation and water.

Findings of the study

  • Sites of entitlement are not fixed. They are ongoing processes that are reshaped through changing interactions between residents, between residents and states, between residents and civil society and private actors, and through the experience of living in often uncertain, precarious neighbourhoods.
  • Sites of entitlement are not one way causal relations triggered by particular events, legal conditions or moral economies, but they can appear as unexpected events in which different moments and processes shape one another in fluid and sometimes provisional ways.
  • Understandings of entitlement, like the provision of services and infrastructure themselves, are not just translated into local contexts, but are actively made and remade through spatial and temporal processes that interact with multiple sites and actors.
  • The success of any intervention depends upon a strong understanding of people’s lives, expectations and preferences, and crucially the ways in which they vary within and between spaces. Rather, the paper argues that the shift in focus from abstract entitlement to sites of entitlement holds the seeds of genuine success in understanding and addressing sanitation inadequacies.

The paper highlights two important challenges for future research on sites of entitlement. 

  • Understanding the connections between legality, rights, moral economies, entitlement and everyday life is fundamental to both people’s experiences and perceptions of water and sanitation, and the possibilities of developing solutions.
  • The need for better comparative understandings of basic urban services in informal settlements, not only between cities but within them.

The paper ends by arguing that research, policy and practice often tend to assume that spatial differences will be more pronounced between cities, and especially between countries, than within cities. However, experience shows that spatial diversity can be strong even within cities and particular neighbourhoods across different cities in different countries, may provide challenges to sanitation and water provision, and may have more in common with one another than with other neighbourhoods in the same city.

Download a copy of the paper below.