Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152
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(Re-)Conceptualizing water inequality in Delhi, India through a feministpolitical ecology framework
Yaffa TrueloveDepartment of Geography, Cambridge University, Downing Site, Cambridge CB2 2EN, UK
a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t
Keywords:Feminist political ecologyWaterInequalityGenderUrban IndiaCriminalityEnvironmental politics
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This article demonstrates how a feminist political ecology (FPE) framework can be utilized to expandscholarly conceptualizations of water inequality in Delhi, India. I argue that FPE is well positioned to com-plement and deepen urban political ecology work through attending to everyday practices and micropol-itics within communities. Specifically, I examine the embodied consequences of sanitation and ‘watercompensation’ practices and how patterns of criminality are tied to the experience of water inequality.An FPE framework helps illuminate water inequalities forged on the body and within particular urbanspaces, such as households, communities, streets, open spaces and places of work. Applying FPEapproaches to the study of urban water is particularly useful in analyzing inequalities associated withprocesses of social differentiation and their consequences for everyday life and rights in the city. Anexamination of the ways in which water practices are productive of particular urban subjectivities andspaces complicates approaches that find differences in distribution and access to be the primary lensfor viewing how water is tied to power and inequality.
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1 Identity and subjectivity, while often used interchangeably in literature, stem
On any given day in Delhi, India, residents across the city de-pend on a variety of informal, and often illegal, techniques andpractices to access water and sanitation. Although Delhi reportsrelatively high levels of water running through its piped infrastruc-ture, the water supply is characterized by such unreliability thateven some of Delhi’s more elite neighborhoods average only0–2 h of running water per day (Zerah, 2000; Sagane, 2000). Forexample, official data estimate that the municipal water supplyprovides 250 l per person per day, yet a combination of unequaldistribution, ‘‘missing or wasted water,’’ and chronic unreliabilityleave many households’ water and sewerage requirements unmet(DJB, 2007; Delhi HDR, 2006; Zerah, 2000; Kandra et al., 2004).
Research on Delhi’s water elucidates the broad range of every-day ‘‘compensation’’ practices that residents utilize to access waterand sanitation facilities, including staying back from work to ac-cess water, walking miles in search of sanitation, and procuringwater from illegal and informal sources (Zerah, 1998, 2000; Haider,2000). The meanings and consequences of such practices challengescholars to grapple more fully with the complex ways that social
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power, identity and subject formation1 are tied to the regulationof water resources. Water is closely linked with gender, class, andreligious identities and is embroiled in competing understandingsof the urban environment and the state (Batra, 2004; Coles andWallace, 2005; Bapat and Agarwal, 2003). As such, the meaningsand consequences of water practices vary considerably, shapingpower, rights and citizenship in the city (Swyngedouw, 1999,2004). While urban political ecological (UPE) analyses have givenattention to the socio-environmental processes that produce waterinequality in the city, such studies have been more inclined towardsanalyzing the production of class and distributional dimensions ofinequality on a city-wide scale rather than illuminating how multi-ple social differences are (re)produced in and through everydaywater practices (Swyngedouw, 1995, 2004; Bakker, 2000, 2003;Gandy, 2008; Kaika, 2003).
This article contends that a feminist political ecology (FPE)framework is particularly useful for analyzing everyday dimen-sions of resource inequality through directing attention to the
from two theoretical strands. Subjectivity comes from a Foucauldian approach topower that gives less attention to human agency, but rather attends to the discursiverendering of subjects. Studies of identity are more inclined to acknowledge howhuman agency interacts with a variety of other (discursive and structural) forces inshaping identities (Silvey, 2004, pp. 498–499). In this article, I analyze how discoursesand practices shape subjectivities, but also attend to the agency of urban dwellers increatively navigating their lives and identities.
2 Baud et al. (2008) reveal that poverty in Delhi may be highest in areas that are notslums. My focus on slum women is not intended to suggest that they constitute themost impoverished group.
144 Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152
ways daily practices are produced by, and productive of, gender,class and other social power relations. In particular, throughexamining the embodied consequences of water and sanitationpractices, I will argue that an FPE framework enables a re-conceptualization of water inequality to more fully includeinequalities associated with processes of social and spatial differ-entiation and their consequences for daily life in the city. Feministapproaches to political ecology are particularly useful for under-standing the production of, and inter-connections between, scalesof analysis, specifically revealing how everyday practice is tied tothe construction of scales such as the body, household, and cityat large. An understanding of the ways in which gendered and cul-tural water practices are productive of particular social differencesdisrupts a framework in which distributional differences and‘‘access and control’’ become the only means for understandinghow water practices are tied to power and inequality.
Understanding the ‘everydayness’ of water is particularlyimportant and timely given recent global efforts to create a unifieddiscourse of how to solve global ‘water problems’ (Goldman, 2005,2007). For example, Goldman (2007) demonstrates the ways thatinternational discourses on water are converging to serve the nar-row interests of international water companies, primarily support-ing privatization as the key mechanism for providing ‘water for all.’Internationalized discursive formations on privatization serve topromote a nearly uniform set of proposed solutions for addressinghighly diverse water problems that range from irrigation watershortages in India to inadequate water flows in townships inJohannesburg, South Africa. Goldman reports an alarming lack ofdebate and difference within forums such as the World Commis-sion on Water and the World Water Council, illuminating how alimited set of global actors and interests dominate internationalwater doctrine and policy, and are congruently able to wield apowerful influence on both the state and even local water-relatedNGOs (Goldman, 2007). The silencing of a diverse range of ideas,opinions, and actors within international water forums ultimatelysidelines the complex ways that place specific dynamics and dailylived practices shape drastically different waterscapes. By attend-ing to embodied experiences, this research seeks to further under-stand how urban water regulation is experienced within theunique context of Delhi’s urban geography.
The article stems from qualitative fieldwork conducted in Delhi,India between January and August of 2008. Everyday water prac-tices are predominately carried out by girls and women (Agarwal,1992; Bapat and Agarwal, 2003; Haider, 2000), and this group alsofaces a unique set of obstacles with regard to sanitation. I workedwith women whose socio-economic class gave them little financialrecourse to invest in purchasing water or water-related technolo-gies, conducting 40 interviews with women either living in slums,or former slum-dwellers who have moved to a resettlement col-ony. Three focus groups (one from each colony studied) and partic-ipant observation included men in order to gain data across gendergroups. The research specifically took place in two slum settle-ments in South Delhi and one recently developed resettlement col-ony on the periphery of Delhi. The two slum settlements areclassified as illegal within government discourse, housing shortand long term slum-dwellers who have no legal rights or owner-ship over their homes. The resettlement colony consisted of legalhousing lots established for some of the families who lost theirhomes in recent slum demolitions. However, many families inthe resettlement colony were unable to access legal deeds to ahouse, becoming homeless squatters on land far outside of Delhi’surban center.
Lastly, while the experiences of slum and resettlement colonyresidents differ, the inclusion of a resettlement colony in the re-search helps to further capture the range of experiences and prac-tices that women engage in to supplement water insufficiencies
across Delhi’s diverse land space.2 The two slum colonies in SouthDelhi were made up of Hindu families, spanning multiple castegroups; participants from the resettlement colony included bothHindu and Muslims, although the connection between water andreligion in Delhi requires further ongoing research. Data from eachcolony illustrates the ways that the conceptual scope of waterinequality can be broadened and deepened by attending to the waysthat practices are tied to space, identity, and local politics that serveto produce gender, class and other social differences.
2. Gaps and intersections between UPE and FPE
By focusing on the politics of water, and critiquing purely tech-nocratic approaches, urban political ecology (UPE) scholarship of-fers a critical framework for dissecting how water is connectedto social power in the city. Through employing the concept of‘socionature,’ or the idea that environments (in this case urban)are both socially and ecologically produced, urban political ecolo-gists focus on the ways that resources such as water are shapedby social relations of power, not just ‘‘natural’’ or ‘‘scientific/tech-nological’’ factors (Heynen et al., 2006; Gandy, 2002). Gandy states:
Water is a multiple entity: it possesses its own biophysical lawsand properties, but in its interaction with human societies it issimultaneously shaped by political, cultural, and scientific fac-tors (2002, p. 22).
It is through dissecting the links between control and access towater and social relations of power that scholars demonstrate theways that urban waterscapes are never socially, nor ecologically,neutral (Swyngedouw et al., 2002, p. 125).
For example, recent UPE research seeks to tease apart the his-torical social power geometries that shape urban water flows,and thus who benefits, and who is disadvantaged, from particularwater regulation mechanisms (Bakker, 2003; Kaika, 2003;Swyngedouw, 1995, 2004). By placing class and water distributiondifferences in the center of analyses, this scholarship is particularlyuseful in illuminating the production of uneven waterscapes,including the production of inequalities in water access, controland pricing for urban residents. For example, Swyngedouw’s workon Guayaquil, Ecuador illuminates the exclusions inherent in theorganization of Guayaquil’s public water that work to continuallymarginalize and disempower the urban poor, primarily migrants(Swyngedouw, 1995, 2004). While he notes general ecological lim-itations on the availability of fresh water resources in the region,Swyngedouw finds the aggregate water supply in the city to benonetheless sufficient for providing high per capita water levels.Tracing the politics that have shaped city decisions concerningthe infrastructure of the piped water supply, Swyngedouw uses aMarxist-informed analysis to reveal the mechanisms that locateprivileged middle and upper class homes with subsidized, low-costcity water, while the poor remain disconnected and continuallydependent on expensive privately vended water supplies. Thestate’s discursive deployment of a ‘productivist logic’ authorizespriority to be placed on water production and transmission overproblems associated with maintenance, organizational reform,and water treatment.
In terms of conceptualizing water inequality, critical urbanpolitical ecology examinations of water have largely focused ondetailing how social power relations serve to produce class andcommunity-wide distributional inequities within the regulationof water in cities. However, by conceiving the politics of control
Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152 145
as primarily nested in city-wide structures of water governance,urban political ecologists devote less time to everyday practicesand the micropolitics of control that are forged between residentsas they respond to inadequacies in the public water supply. Hence,urban political ecology studies focusing on unequal ‘‘access andcontrol’’ may inadvertently sideline additional dimensions, scalesand spaces of water-related inequality. These include investiga-tions of how informal everyday water activities forge subjectivitiesand additional dimensions of inequality, such as unequal bodilyexperiences, access to rights and critical life opportunities within(and through) specific urban spaces. This article seeks to detailsome of the ways that FPE is well situated to address current gapsand silences in the UPE literature, asserting that the two over-lapping frameworks provide a deepening of how both literaturesconceptualize and analyze urban water inequality.
Specifically, an FPE framework shares a UPE focus on waterinequalities that extend beyond differences in water quantitiesand quality to show how water is connected to social power. How-ever, an FPE approach provides a more focused attention on con-structions of social difference and micropolitics within the scaleand spaces of the everyday, an area of analysis often under-explored within UPE. In particular, FPE approaches help illuminateinequalities forged on the body and within particular urban spaces(such as households, communities, streets, open spaces and placesof work) that UPE has been slow to account for, demonstrating howgender and other social differences operate (and are re-produced)within communities and class groups themselves. Such an ap-proach is well positioned to deepen UPE work that focuses on classand city-wide inequalities by more specifically tackling the multi-ple meanings and micropolitics of daily water and sanitation prac-tices. For example, an FPE framework supports analyses of whoaccesses water and sanitation, the practices by which access isachieved, and the physical, social and spatial meanings of the mul-tiple water activities of everyday life. As FPE has had a predomi-nately rural focus (occasionally including cities in the globalNorth), the rich literature within UPE on the socionature of waterin cities provides a strong foundation for FPE analyses to branchinto cities in the urban South.
3. FPE Contributions to conceptualizations of urban waterinequality
Rocheleau et al. (1996, p. 4), in their initial volume FeministPolitical Ecology, state: ‘‘[FPE] seeks to understand and interpret lo-cal experience in the context of global processes of environmentaland economic change.’’ By drawing from a rich tradition of feministanalyses of informal practices and the economies and micropoliticsof everyday life (for example, Cameron and Gibson-Graham, 2003;Nagar et al., 2002; Mohanty, 2003), this work examines how livedexperiences and practices are productive of, and produced through,gendered ideologies, structural power relations, and processes ofboth local and global change. For example, Nagar et al. (2002) callfor increasing research into the ‘‘informal’’ spaces and practices ofglobalization, including household relations and the feminizationof spaces and labor within communities in order to reveal howgender and women’s lives are shaped by larger economic forces.Similarly, Mohanty (2003) argues that the ‘‘micropolitics of con-text, subjectivity, and struggle’’ provide critical insights into theoperation and consequences of global economic and political sys-tems. Such analyses allow us to link ‘‘everyday life and local gen-dered contexts and ideologies to the larger, transnationalpolitical and economic structures and ideologies of capitalism’’(Mohanty, 2003, p. 225).
One way in which FPE studies examine everyday environmentalpractices in the context the production of inequality and difference
is by focusing on shifting regimes of gendered access and controlover resources at the local scale of households and communities.For example, Mehta’s work (1996) on the Garhwal Himalaya regionin India analyzes changes in rural women’s agricultural practices inorder to understand the ways that land reforms have diminishedwomen’s control over and access to agricultural resources, andconsequently re-shaped the meaning and lived experience of gen-der and space in local communities. While men and women usedto work together on agricultural plots, Mehta (1996) demonstrateshow men’s increasing roles in cash economies serve to further seg-regate and de-value women’s ‘‘private’’ work on agricultural plotsas non-monetary and lacking social prestige. Mehta notes:
‘‘While men’s spaces are expanding (if not literally, then interms of the importance associated with them), women’s areshrinking without enabling them access to new arenas of pres-tige’’ (1996, p. 193).
Recent feminist contributions to the study of water and sanita-tion specifically analyze the importance of everyday practices inshaping gender ideologies and processes of social differentiation,illuminating the complex ramifications of water and sanitationgovernance strategies (O’Reilly, 2010; Sultana, 2009; Harris,2009; Laurie, 2005). Work in South Asia particularly illustratesthe complex ways that gender is experienced, contested and re-enforced within households and communities through differinglived experiences of water and sanitation regulation (O’Reilly,2010; Sultana, 2009; Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen, 1998;Zwarteveen and Meinzen-Dick, 2001). For example, O’Reilly(2010) details the ways that a German-funded sanitation projectin rural Rajasthan re-shaped gendered practices, consequently pro-ducing new gendered ideologies and unequal gender spaces forwomen and men. While the project was intended to alleviategender inequalities by including women and focusing on theirempowerment, O’Reilly finds that the installation of latrines withinhomes re-configured gender inequalities, at times with the unin-tended consequence of confining women’s mobility. She states,
‘‘Having a latrine at home did not eradicate gendered, socialconventions about women’s modesty. Latrines did not enablewomen to move about freely or relieve themselves uncon-cernedly. Instead, women’s need for privacy from men wasreconfigured around having a latrine at home’’ (O’Reilly, 2010,p. 53).
Similarly, Sultana’s examination of the materialities of the bodywithin her work on arsenic and the water supply in Bangladeshilluminates the ways that socio-spatial subjectivities are re-produced in water management that reinforce existing inequities(Sultana, 2009, p. 427). By demonstrating the ways that waterexperiences are inherently bodily and physical, she finds that theembodied practices of navigating arsenic and accessing householdwater produce particular gender subjectivities. For example,Sultana details the ways notions of femininity are reinforced and/or challenged as a result of the spatialized nature of tubewell con-tamination. Women’s entry into formerly masculinized spaces toprocure safer water reconfigures notions of femininity, whilewomen’s avoidance of such spaces requires them to access waterwith greater contamination, yielding physical and symbolicramifications. Sultana highlights the need for further research oneveryday bodily practices of water, stating:
‘‘Paying attention to embodied subjectivities demonstrates theways that embodiment and spatial relations both enable andconstrain certain relations to water’’ (Sultana 2009, p. 439).
Such studies demonstrate the ways that everyday practicesrelating to resources and technology contribute to social
146 Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152
differentiation and new gender configurations of power. This worksupports the recent call within a special issue on gender and waterwithin Gender, Place and Culture for increased work on ‘‘the multi-faceted ways that experiences, discourses and policies are gen-dered, and how gender is created through processes of access,use and control of water resources’’ (O’Reilly et al., 2009, p. 381).
Feminist approaches that give attention to embodied experi-ences and the micropolitics of resource use and management areparticularly relevant for broadening and deepening scholarly ap-proaches to water inequality. By examining the meanings and spa-tialities of everyday practices, particularly in reproducing patternsof social difference and exclusion, FPE scholarship gives analyticalattention to the myriad and diverse water practices that residentsemploy unequally within communities. If practices are conceptual-ized as anything a person does that has ‘‘intentional or uninten-tional political implications’’ (Ortner, 1984, p. 393), thenanalyzing unequal water access practices and their consequencesbegins to open a whole world of activities that are marked by a pol-itics of difference and inequality. Consequences of the practices ofaccess may range from the effects of unequal labor and missedwork to gain water and illnesses associated with contaminatedwater sources, to the gendering of particular bodies and spacesthat become associated with specific water roles (Zerah, 2000;Mehta, 1996). Only when analyses target inequalities that resultfrom differing everyday practices does it become apparent that in-creased quantities of water and lower pricing may nonetheless dolittle to improve either water justice or the equitable distributionof benefits across communities (Truelove, 2006; Coles and Wallace,2005). Such analyses are thus needed to further illuminate theways that some actors are both dominant and subordinate withinthe relationships that shape access, an area within urban politicalecology work that requires much further scholarly attention (Ribotand Peluso, 2003, p. 159).
In particular, the practice of accessing is often achieved via one’spositions and relationships within households and communities,instead of from one’s interaction directly with a local water source.Thus, residents depend on a variety of relationships, spaces, net-works, water-related understandings, and local political arrange-ments to find and use water, demonstrating the need to dissectnot only intra-community dynamics but also intra-household dif-ferences. Everything from one’s age and gender identity to one’sposition in networks of social capital shape the means by whichwater is actually personally procured, the household distributionof such water, and the meaning of particular water-related interac-tions—which in turn are productive of subjectivities. An FPE ap-proach targets the social relations surrounding who accesses andhow access is achieved, including direct versus indirect accesswithin communities. If such micropolitics are by-passed by schol-ars and practitioners, the poor become lumped together as therecipients of uneven urban rights and governance, rather than ac-tors who may experience differing levels of empowerment or dis-empowerment as they negotiate daily spaces and networks forgaining and controlling their own personal water (Ribot andPeluso, 2003). An analytical focus on practices thus helps to illumi-nate the ways in which additional subjectivities intersect with, andcomplicate class positions in day to day life.
As FPE work has predominately focused on rural locations(Schroeder, 1996, 1997; Rocheleau et al., 1996; Carney, 2004), withmost scholarship on the urban taking place in Northern cities, com-bining the insights of FPE and UPE can provide a useful contribu-tion to much needed research on the lived experience of resourceinequality in cities across the global South. Such research canexamine micropolitics within and between communities produceparticular urban socio-environments (Swyngedouw, 2004;Swyngedouw et al., 2002; Heynen et al., 2006), and further theori-zations on the relationship between bodies and cities (for example,
see Grosz, 1998) to explore how ‘‘the city is made and made overinto the simulacrum of the body—and the body, in its turn, is trans-formed, ‘‘citified,’’ urbanized as a distinctive metropolitan body’’(Grosz, 1998, p. 42). This exciting cross-fertilization can furtherwork on how the body and the city are in part produced throughthe regulation of resources such as water and are connected to pat-terns of social inclusion and exclusion and rights to urbancitizenship.
4. Delhi’s urban poor: in the nexus of the planned andunplanned city
Before turning to an analysis of daily practice, it is important tosituate residents’ diverse water experiences within broader pro-cesses of historical change and development in the city. In partic-ular, this section details the ways that Delhi’s urbanization sinceindependence has both relied on, and consistently marginalized,economically disadvantaged residents in contradictory ways—helping to situate contemporary experiences of everyday rightsto resources in the city. From the first decade of its independence,the state declared Delhi to be threatened by ‘‘haphazard and un-planned growth’’ (quoted in Sajha Manch, 1999, p. 3), and launchedthe Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in 1957 with the mandateof overseeing city planning in an orderly fashion (Sajha Manch,1999, p. 3). Faced with managing residents’ many diverse uses ofcity space, including Shahjehanabad’s mixed land use, the DDAauthored and attempted to enact Delhi’s First Master Plan, callingfor a hygienic and properly ordered city (Baviskar, 2003, p. 91).Ironically, the planning of such a city and subsequent constructionand state rationalization of city space, relied upon large popula-tions of working class laborers, whom the city had no plans forhousing or incorporating. Thus Baviskar notes, ‘‘The building ofplanned Delhi was mirrored in the simultaneous mushroomingof the unplanned Delhi’’ (Baviskar, 2003, p. 91). The unplannedDelhi consisted of migrants and poor workers (and their spacesof home and livelihood) whom the city desperately needed for itsdevelopment initiatives, but who could only find residencesthrough building shanty towns and residing in slums within thecity as well as its periphery—the very structures and specter thecity planners wished to eradicate. Thus, the unplanned city was anecessary, if contradictory, component of Delhi’s planning anddevelopment (Baviskar, 2003, p. 91; Dupont et al., 2000; Dupont,2007). With every renewal of the state’s efforts to create infrastruc-ture, thousands of migrants entered the city to work as laborers onits many development initiatives and often struggled to carve outlivelihoods after the termination of temporary employment.
While clearly marginal within the state’s vision of its new or-derly city, residents residing in slums nonetheless began to securetheir housing and livelihoods through both bribes and the inter-vention of local politicians, who needed to secure the votes of thisburgeoning population. As this population began to grow to mil-lions, Chatterjee notes the rise of vast informal structures toaccommodate the needs of the ‘‘unplanned city’’ within urban cen-ters across India roughly beginning in the 1970s, stating:
One might say that this was perhaps the most remarkabledevelopment in the governance of Indian cities in the 1970sand 1980s—the emergence of an entire substructure of parale-gal arrangements, created or at least recognized by governmen-tal authorities, for the integration of low-wage laboring andservice populations into the public life of the city (2004, p. 137).
Entire economies and the development of growth and employ-ment for these populations grew out of informal practices and themixed land use of slums (Solomon, 2004). The degree to which theurban poor were actually extended secure rights is certainly
Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152 147
contentious, but the state nonetheless was forced during particulardevelopment projects to at least ‘‘tolerate’’ and even extend ameni-ties to the urban poor and growing slums in order to facilitate thebuilding of its planned architecture. For example, the city under-went rapid construction in the 1970s to erect building facilitiesfor the 1982 Asian Games to be held in Delhi. This urban projectrequired negotiations and accommodations (albeit temporary) forthe housing and employment of an estimated one million laborers(Baviskar 2003, p. 92).
However, with economic liberalization projects in the mid-1980s, and the more recent mobilization to turn Delhi into a globalcenter, both the state and middle-class have articulated over-lapping critiques of prior ‘‘welfarist’’ policies. While Delhi’s concur-rent Master Plans (specifically the plan for 2001, and the Draft Planfor 2021) continue to articulate the goals of creating a modern,rationalized city space, neoliberal discourse is now dominatingthe logic of how to enact further development, justifying the demo-lition of squatter settlements for the sake of cleaning the city’sspaces and creating a more aesthetic ideal (Ghertner, 2010; Dupontet al., 2000). This has resulted in efforts to de-industrialize the cityand a city-wide call for limiting (working class) employment gen-eration in order to make room for global circuits of finance and ser-vices. The criminalization of the poor, which I discuss in greaterdetail below with regard to water and gender, provides substanti-ation for changing notions of rights and citizenship in the city,mirroring what Mitchell calls, in reference to New York City, the‘‘re-establishment of exclusionary citizenship as just and good’’(Mitchell, 2003, p. 183). Here, quality of life and urban citizenshipare proclaimed as distinct rights of the middle and upper classes, atthe expense (and even erasure) of the ‘‘quality of life’’ of the urbanpoor, who are often criminalized in the process of re-making Delhi(Truelove and Mawdsley, 2011).
5. Introduction to Delhi’s unequal waterscape
The urban poor, now constituting roughly one third of Delhi’spopulation of 15 million, have particularly vulnerable water access,but residents across social groups face regular problems in procur-ing water. The water supply is marked by such dramatic unreliabil-ity that the majority of residents engage in informal, andsupplemental, water sources and practices (Zerah, 2000; Tovey,2002). Unreliability of the public water supply is categorized bythe intermittent hours that water runs, insufficient and irregularpressure of water when it is running, sudden breakdowns in infra-structure such that water may cease to flow for days or weeks at atime, and problems with contamination (Zerah, 2000, p. 53; SajhaManch, 1999). In fact, it is estimated that the inadequacies of pub-lic water provisions are so extreme that residents spend around Rs.3 billion ($60 million) each year to counter unreliability – twice themunicipality’s total expenditure on its water supply (Zerah, 1998,2000).
Millions of Delhi’s poor lack official connections, and evenrights, to public water supplies (Delhi HDR, 2006), and this popu-lation is sporadically serviced by DJB tanker water deliveries. Res-idents living in unauthorized colonies3 (where private land hasbeen exchanged without government sanction) and slum settle-ments have no legal access to the piped water supply. Those whohave been (often forcefully) re-located from slums to legal resettle-ment colonies often cannot access Delhi’s central piped water infra-structure because such colonies reside far away on Delhi’s periphery.Although such resettlement colonies now provide a legal means towater, the water provided by the state via tubewells is often
3 Unauthorized colonies house residents from diverse income groups, includingpoor households as well as members of the middle class.
insufficient, erratic, and highly contaminated—as it is untreatedground water. Occupants thus often complain that accessing ‘‘ille-gal’’ water and sanitation in slums, though far from perfect, was inreality a large step up from the legal provisions provided by the statein some of Delhi’s recent resettlement colonies.
In addition, all residents face problems associated with poorwater quality (Zerah, 2000). While more extreme examples of thiscan be seen in the 1988 cholera outbreak, affecting over 30,000 res-idents, diarrhea and other water-related illnesses remain a regularproblem, especially in those homes where water treatment is notemployed as a strategy (Voluntary Health Association Delhi,1994). There remains wide debate about the sources of water con-tamination among state officials, scientists, activists and residents,with competing claims ranging from the contamination of mostground water to the city’s failure to provide healthful piped water(Zerah, 2000; Batra, 2004; DJB, 2007).
Residents across Delhi resort to a wide variety of measures andcompensation tactics to procure daily water, from locating opentaps and water tankers to illegal connections, urban ponds andthe use of handpumps (Batra, 2004). As the price for piped waterremains highly subsidized by the state, the costs to the poor,who must frequently seek water from non-state sources, remaindisproportionately high (Batra, 2004; Delhi HDR, 2006). Since theresponsibility to gain and manage household water often fall towomen and girls, the consequences and dangers associated withaccessing both water and sanitation differ significantly across so-cial groups and contribute to processes of stratification and socialdifferentiation, as I will discuss in fuller detail below. Because res-idents employ a diverse range of practices and tactics as they inter-act with city water, or the lack thereof, the scope for inequality as itrelates to everyday practice is quite broad and requires inquiriesinto many avenues of everyday living.
6. Embodying everyday water practices across three study sites
Women within the three communities studied depict their so-cial positions and access to rights—both within households andcommunities—as being tied to the ramifications they face in com-pensating for Delhi’s ‘‘unreliable’’ water supply. As one womanfrom a slum summarized,
‘‘Only women go to fetch water. Our husbands always thinkabout their work and job, but they never think about collectingwater. They of course need water, but they do not have theheadache of collecting water. They do not want to know whichtypes of problems are being faced by ladies in fetching water.’’
While women and girls certainly face differing sets of life con-ditions, some finding wider networks (including neighbors andemployers) to depend upon for procuring and managing householdwater, women across locations consistently describe the risks, haz-ards, and shame that circumscribe daily practices. Women’s bodiesencounter differing degrees of gendered hardships, physical labor,and public shame that are shaped by their situated position withinfamilies, communities, and class groups in the city. Women’s sub-jectivities and experience of difference are like-wise impacted bytheir creative navigation of bodily practices and their life’s circum-stances (Nightingale, 2011).
Bodily experiences, including the wear and tear of water labor,water-related health problems, the physical experience of crimi-nalization for illegal practices and the disciplining required forwater-related health issues (including diarrhea and menstruationfor example), are intimately tied to the experience of urban spaceand rights. Such embodied experiences serve to re-enforce gen-dered and classed social differences, materially shaping and con-straining physical hardships and life opportunities while
148 Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152
discursively producing social differences and particular groups ofwomen as excluded from rights and spaces in the city. Thus, socialstatus and the meanings of gender, class and at times criminalitybecome mapped onto the body through the physicality of access-ing water and sanitation, as well as the social and emotional con-sequences and ramifications of the practices of access itself. Here,the material practices, conditions and encounters of the body arefirmly tied to the symbolic experience of difference (Nightingale,2011).
For example, girls and young women often experience a con-stricting and re-patterning of movement and spatial mobility inthe city due to problems accessing water that leads to a simulta-neous re-shaping of life opportunities. Due to the infrequency oftanker water deliveries, girls are often kept out of school to stayhome and help with either procuring tanker water or watchingthe youngest children while older women leave on water outings.This further jeopardizes these women’s available hours for paidemployment, as well as time for other domestic responsibilities.The curtailment of opportunities (from income to education) dueto water and sanitation activities reinforces a further level of phys-ical insecurity and emotional violence, as some women becomelocked in a feedback cycle that brings them into distinct spacesand networks in order to access water and sanitation.
One example of the gendered spatiality of water access can beseen in women’s efforts to access water within their work spaces.Similar to Mehta’s (1996) work on the ways that gendered re-source practices lead to a devaluation of women’s work spacesand access to social prestige in rural India, women often experi-ence deleterious effects as water practices spill over into workspaces. Women describe the ways that daily water problems fur-ther the physical and psychological hazards they faced as part-timedomestic workers in middle-class homes. Here, women turn totheir employers to gain extra buckets of water (due to the failureor inadequacy of tanker deliveries), sometimes two to three timesper week, stating that this type of water dependence gives employ-ers an extra advantage to withhold pay and/or make increasing de-mands on their time and labor. One woman states:
‘‘In order to take water regularly from our workplace, we haveto give them [our employers] more time than normal. Also,we have to always make them happy to get water; it alwaystakes a lot of energy.’’
The loss of a degree of control over their labor and negotiatingpower, coupled with the physical and emotional stress of some-times working extra hours for less pay, indicates how the spaceof the work place takes on new gendered meanings and con-straints. Water access practices contribute to the devaluation ofwomen’s labor and rights within spaces of work, placing increasedconstraints on women’s leverage and rights relating to theiremployment. However, women who creatively cultivate a relianceon employers for water often experience greater water and finan-cial security at times when tankers fail to come. Such women find away to continue to maintain some level of income and save timefrom scouting for alternate water sources.
The hazards, risks and shame involved in entering dangerousspaces for both sanitation and water activities also take on embod-ied consequences that serve to re-produce the experience andmeaning of over-lapping gender and class subjectivities in the city.For example, due to a lack of local toilet facilities in one of theslums, women rise at 4:45 am, and begin a half hour early morningwalk to find a relatively uninhabited forest area to urinate and def-ecate in. Joining the women on their walk one morning, I was toldthat the particular location of ‘‘jungle’’ had been chosen, despitebeing quite distant from the slum settlement, because of safetyconcerns and the fear of attack in locations that were closer to
home. Specifically, women recount stories of harassment, abduc-tion, and rape, while traveling to closer (but less protected) sanita-tion points. Having no access to toilets in their own slum cluster,they resort to traveling together each morning in large groups foran approximate one hour return journey. One woman describes,
‘‘We can never go to the latrine [jungle] alone, even in the day,or in any time, because there is always a fear of outsiders, truckdrivers and some other bad people in the area. We are alwaysworried about these bad people. That is why we never goalone.’’
Because stomach illnesses are quite common (one woman esti-mated that most adults in the slum get diarrhea once a month),these women must discipline their bodies around a lack of accessi-ble and private sanitation, or face public shame, humiliation andembarrassment. At night, women cannot risk the long journey tothe jungle, even in groups, and thus have no place in which to haveprivacy. One woman recounts:
‘‘It is extremely bad, particularly at night, when someone has astomach problem. We do not have other option except goingoutside; it is a very pathetic situation at night, particularly forladies.’’
Similarly, in the resettlement colony, sanitation practices cou-pled with the search for adequate water to wash clothes leads wo-men into increasingly dangerous spaces, inflicting gendered andclassed forms of both physical and emotional violence. The install-ment of several tubewells across the colony provides an erratic, of-ten contaminated, and unequal waterscape for tens of thousands ofresidents. While women now have access to a legal water source,local tubewell water only surfaces twice a day, requires standingin a long line and is often faecally-contaminated. Sanitation facili-ties are both costly and far away from many homes, requiring wo-men to seek out additional water and sanitation sources to meetdaily household needs. To supplement the inadequate water andsanitation facilities, women face increasing bodily threats and vio-lence, as well as public shaming. As women rely on open fieldsnearby for sanitation, and often travel to a dangerous canal areato find water for washing, their bodies are caught in the nexus oflocal cultural relations (which ascribe a sense of shame to the vis-ibility of women’s sanitation practices) as well as local politicaltensions, which are making women’s ventures into nearby fieldsand canal areas more dangerous. These women are often harassedby men living in and nearby the colony, abused, sometimes raped,and face increasingly high levels of shame and fear as they try toconduct their daily activities amidst the threat of violence. Here,the move from slum housing to a legalized resettlement colonyhas in fact leveraged an additional gendered and classed set of haz-ards to women’s bodies. While accessing water in their previousslums presented a daily challenge, women now describe the ten-sion, hazards, and time involved in water activities as exponen-tially worse even as the state has formalized their housing andwater rights. Thus, the ‘footprint’ that water/sanitation activitiestake on economically disadvantaged women’s bodies in the reset-tlement colony vastly increases even as the availability of a legallysanctioned water source appears to suggest an improvement inwater access.
In its most extreme physical form, women’s journey to the near-by canal poses such severe dangers that women come to feel theyare risking their lives, just to wash clothes and gain water access tocompensate for the inadequate tubewell supply. Here, women whohave few alternatives find themselves with little other choice thanto use the local canal for water. One local woman recounts:
[The canal] is very deep. Many people have died while theyfetch water from this canal because of the heavy weight of
Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152 149
the water bucket and steep slope of the canal. Many people fallinto the water and die, also because the flow of the water is veryhigh so it is very difficult to get out of water. There is no way tosurvive once you have fallen inside the canal, unfortunately. Inthe last month, three people have died in this canal.
The accumulation of these experiences contributes to women’ssense that their bodies and lives have been ‘de-valued’ within par-ticular spaces of the city.
7. Criminality and Informal and extra-legal water practices
Due to the irregularity and insufficiency of DJB tanker waterdeliveries in South Delhi, on which women depend as the primaryhousehold water source, women from slums depict a variety of‘‘illegal’’ and/or ‘‘informal’’ methods for accessing water. As such,they face particular embodied forms of criminality and risk thatre-produce their gender and class positions. Tankers, while sched-uled to arrive daily, often fail to come for days on end. When theydo arrive, both unpredictable timings and insufficient quantitiesleave women to resort to a variety of other water sources on anearly daily basis, often requiring women to compensate throughpractices that bend and break laws.
Women describe informal water arrangements as taking placebetween slum-dwellers themselves, as well as between slum-dwellers, the middle-class, and state officials and tanker drivers,revealing a variety of gendered and classed micropolitical net-works. For example, slum women describe their dependence on alocal henchman, who stands over a tubewell and extracts fees, tosupplement insufficient DJB tanker water deliveries. The tubewellin question had been installed several years previously by a localgovernment official, but fell out of use and repair once the officialleft the area. Now, women face increasing charges from the localstrongman who has taken over the previously public well. One wo-man recounts:
‘‘This is the main water problem of this area. This local personwho put his motor on the tubewell is a very bad person anddoes not allow us to take water. In fact, this bad man made somuch money, at least 8000 rupees. This is very bad person.And we always give him 50 rupees every few days, but againjust after another few days he collects money from us. He isalways taking money from us in the name of providing waterfrom his motor.’’
The politics of accessing this water places a severe burden on lo-cal women who cannot easily travel to another water source, butwho face bullying and escalating monetary demands every timethey attempt to procure the water. Such local social relations illu-minate another dimension of water inequality noted in studiessuch as Bapat and Agarwal’s (2003) examination of women inBombay and Pune, which found that, ‘‘anyone can take charge ofwater and collect money’’ (Bapat and Agarwal, 2003, p. 74).Women also report arranging regular informal payments to otherslum households in exchange for water tools (such as the tubehouseholds use to extract water from tankers, bicycles to transportheavy water containers, and buckets of water itself).
In addition, slum women frequently give small sums of moneyto tanker-drivers to try to ‘‘persuade’’ them to make more regulardeliveries, and often attempt to ‘‘illegally’’ tap into nearby waterpipes and tankers intended for middle-class neighborhoods, to ac-cess a bucket or two of water. Such activities bring women intomore high-risk spaces as they fear being caught in the act by localhome owners, guards, or police. Women often report being har-assed and ‘‘shooed’’ away from water sources intended for the mid-dle-class. Economically disadvantaged women thus face abuse,violence, and a re-enforcement of exclusive spatial boundaries in
the city that ultimately serve to de-value their rights as citizens.In particular, such residents who take extra-legal water face a re-articulation of the boundary between the ‘‘legal’’ rights of citizenswho have a right to the city’s piped water supply, and the ‘‘crimi-nal’’ or illegal status of slum-dwellers who are excluded from therights and spaces of Delhi’s more elite groups. For example, suchsocial and spatial division was remapped when one woman at-tempted to catch a bucket of water from a leaking tanker meantfor a middle-class colony, and was abused in public. Afterwards,the woman said that only the ‘‘royal’’ people of the colony have aright to water. Through such exchanges, women’s ‘‘rights to water’’become tied to the spatial delineation of class in the city, furtheringthe experience of social exclusion.
As slum women’s domestic water roles place them dispropor-tionately in positions in which they must break or bend laws andrules in order to secure water, their activities are also increasinglytargeted as ‘‘criminal’’ within recent state discourse on regulatingDelhi’s water. Despite most residents employing extra-legal meth-ods to boost their water access, recent state discourse is directingvisibility on the water practices of the urban poor, particularly inlight of state calls to redress Delhi’s ‘‘missing’’ or unaccounted forwater. While data differ on the quantity of this missing water, esti-mates indicate that as much as 50% of Delhi’s water is unaccountedfor in official meter readings, and thus ‘‘wasted.’’ The factors con-tributing to unaccounted for water are of course multiple and com-plex, as residents of all castes and classes practice a range ofunsanctioned water access activities, including middle-class illegalconnections and piping. In addition, meters are often inaccurate orbroken down, pipes often break and have leaks, and some poorerneighborhoods have access to non-metered running taps (Zerah,2000; Shiva, 2004; Delhi HDR, 2006). However, as the state assertsthat wasted and stolen water is robbing the city of a sustainablewater supply, new campaigns are calling attention to the ‘‘crimi-nal’’ practices of the urban poor, particularly the water accessingpractices that women most commonly carry out, as strongly con-tributing to the city’s water loss.
Specifically, the state defines water stealers as those who haveillegal connections to the water supply, primarily due to theillegality of their presence on land (see Sivam, 2003). While this in-cludes residents from unauthorized colonies (some of whom aremuch wealthier than slum dwellers), the state’s discourse targetsthe vast number of slum settlements that have no legal rights totap into Delhi’s piped infrastructure (Truelove and Mawdsley,2011). In particular, as water policy highlights the illegality ofwater activities commonly carried out by slum women, the conse-quences of discourses on water criminality hold strong gender andclass implications. For example, the former CEO of the DJB, P.K. Tri-pathy blamed ‘entire colonies’ as being the primary culprits ofwater theft. The Delhi Development Authority states:
‘‘About half of the water that is treated and distributed at publicexpense is non-revenue water. This is due to unrecorded usageor illegal taps and water connections. Reducing water losses ischeaper than augmenting water capacity for such losses’’(DDA, 2005, p. 105).
Thus, the logic goes that if illegal water taps and connectionswere curtailed, then the city’s need to augment its water supplycould also be curbed, and greater efficiency achieved. While suchlogic both highlights and criminalizes those slum communitiesthat tap into illegal connections, it remains highly contradictory gi-ven the state’s own data that the poor consume the very leastamount of water in Delhi—often below water minimums suggestedfor basic survival (Government of India, 2001; Gleick, 1996). Inaddition, because of their often marginal water status, economi-cally disadvantaged residents (particularly women) are usually
150 Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152
more concerned with recycling and conserving the limited watersupplies they manage (Batra, 2004; Voluntary Health Organization,1994; Bapat and Agarwal, 2003)—a fact that actually turns thestate’s discourse of conservation, and those bodies that threatenit, on its head.
Nevertheless, the targeted criminalization of the poor hasstrong legal and material impacts that are increasingly backed bythe threat of state violence (although in practice it is unclearhow often such penalties are incurred). While the most recentFive-year Plan states, ‘‘Severe penalties should be levied on thosefound responsible for leakage and wastage of water’’ (Governmentof India Planning Commission, 2002, p. 640), Delhi’s 2021 DraftMaster Plan employs the most vindictive language yet, stating:
Wastage and theft of water will have to be curbed mercilessly.Suitable amendments are necessary in the Delhi Water BoardAct to provide for stringent measures for enforcing curbs ontheft/wastage of water (DDA, 2005, p. 143, my italics).
The state’s plan to escalate the consequences levied on every-day activities of the poor for water ‘thefts’ is particularly alarminggiven the DJB’s already severe policies that impose heavy penaltieson those who are found to have illegal connections. Not only doesthe DJB currently have the authority to disconnect all unauthorizedconnections that it locates, but it also concurrently fines residentswho have such connections a penalty of 3 years worth of (esti-mated) retroactive water charges as well as an additional Rs.3000—a sum that may be equivalent to 1–2 months’ worth ofwages for Delhi’s poorest (Delhi Jal Board, 2007).
The state’s focus on water thefts thus brings particular visibilityto water practices of the poor as criminal (Truelove and Mawdsley,2011). Criminality serves to justify the chronically low levels ofwater working class households consume, and reinforces patternsin which tanker drivers, DJB officials, and the legal system itself by-pass the needs and services or Delhi’s poor, as they are increasinglyviewed as ‘nuisances’ who drain resources in the city (Ghertner,2010; Truelove and Mawdsley, 2011). However, as women pre-dominately carry out the particular informal practices that bendand break state laws and rules, the gendering of water practicesplaces poor women in a particularly unique and often vulnerableposition in relation to the law and the rights of legal citizens. Thegendered forms of violence and risk that accompany access andsanitation practices are accompanied by further risks of state disci-plining that escalate the danger and consequences of water-relatedactivities. As women face a series of increasing threats—from theembodied and psychological impacts of breaking laws to the phys-ical dangers associated with accessing extra-legal water sources,many experience compounded forms of classed and gender-basedexclusion from the rights of a ‘legal’ citizen. How women navigateillegal practices and networks, and whether gender norms can alsoprovide particular strategic advantages with regard to navigatinglaw-breaking, is the subject of much-needed further research.
Through utilizing the theoretical insights of a feminist politicalecology approach that is attentive to everyday politics and livedexperiences of water, I have aimed to demonstrate some of theways that conceptualizations of water inequality can be deepenedto incorporate differences that arise from daily water practices andtheir consequences in urban India. In particular, this article bringsattention to a diverse host of daily practices in spaces such ashouseholds, communities, and places of work in order to arguefor further examination of how water policies and improvementstrategies contribute to wider patterns of urban and social differ-entiation. Specifically, I examined how gender and class formations
and patterns of risk, criminality and social exclusion are tied to—and re-produced through—daily water practices. An analysis ofwide-ranging and complex water-related experiences helps todemonstrate that a sole focus on access, control, and distributionaldifferences is insufficient for capturing the scope of inequalities re-lated to water in the city. FPE approaches to urban water help toilluminate how and why social inequality continues to be tied towater even when water quantities and access points are improved.
For example, the findings of this research suggest that theembodied consequences of water and sanitation practices on eco-nomically disadvantaged women can actually increase and becomemuch worse even as water sources are legalized and ‘‘improved,’’as seen in the resettlement colony studied. FPE thus helps to con-tribute and deepen work on water inequality within UPE by reveal-ing a whole host of inequalities and social and spatial differencesthat are produced around shifting regimes of resource practiceand access. An FPE framework demonstrates that analyses ofimprovement need to be attentive to the ways that policies andinterventions are experienced materially and symbolically, as wellas contested, in everyday life. Such inquiries can be used to furtherthe work of scholars and practitioners to help produce greater so-cial and resource-related equality with regard to the urban waterresources.
A discussion of the micropolitics of everyday water practicesbears particular relevance for more nuanced analyses and under-standings of the state and larger macropolitical forces at work(Mohanty, 2003; Nagar et al., 2002). By looking at experiences ofthe everyday as a source of counter-narratives to the state’s repre-sentation of water in Delhi—which reports average per capitawater levels double those of many European cities—we can betterunderstand how stated water policies and governance shifts areactually experienced and navigated in everyday lives in sometimesunexpected, and often contradictory, ways. As articulated by Nagaret al. (2002, p. 261), analyses of daily and often informal practiceshelp to illuminate ‘‘how informal economies of production and car-ing subsidize and constitute global capitalism,’’ and the ways thatgender is often ‘‘central to the operation of this subsidy.’’ The gen-dering and classing of practices for procuring household water, andthe consequent production of gendered spaces and patterns ofmobility, reveal the many ways that particular bodies bear thebrunt of subsidizing, and compensating for, state water governancestrategies. Thus, Nagar et al. state:
As neoliberal states withdraw from the provision of social ser-vices, this work is most often assumed by women in the femi-nized spheres of household and community (Nagar et al.,2002, p. 261).
As scholars such as Zerah (2000) enumerate this subsidization,estimating that Delhi residents spend Rs. 3 million a year compen-sating for city failures in the water supply, more work is needed onunderstanding the nuanced dimensions of how particular identi-ties, bodies, and spaces are forged through everyday practices thatemerge to supplement city inadequacies. The state’s reliance ongendered and classed practices to subsidize its supply and deliveryof water and sanitation reveals the need for scholarly work to morecarefully connect gender ideologies of household resource man-agement to the ways that cities such as Delhi are regulating itswater resources, as well as its citizens.
In addition, an analytical focus on daily life extends to examina-tions of how informal and illegal practices shape, and are produc-tive of, social differentiation through the connection of suchpractices to differing experiences of the state and the law. Becauseillegal practices are so widespread (Davis, 2004), they offer a keypractice by which residents encounter and come to understandand construct particular attributes of the power and reach of the
Y. Truelove / Geoforum 42 (2011) 143–152 151
state and the law (Gupta 1995, 2005; Secor, 2007). Gupta (1995)and Li (1999) both emphasize that ‘‘there is a gap between the stateidea and the reality of more or less contradictory programs, initia-tives and statements that people encounter directly’’ (Li, 1999,p. 315). Examining how daily extra-legal practices to access watershape residents’ experiences of the state and the law in socially dif-ferentiated ways provides a critical lens through which to examinehow residents experience widely varying degrees of inclusion andexclusion to rights and resources in Delhi. For example, workingclass women’s experiences of illegality and criminality, particularlytheir engagement with extra-legal water networks and the bribingof DJB officials for water, have profound implications for how expe-riences of the state perpetuate or (re-)construct gender and classsubjectivities. Future feminist political ecology research can thusbe of utility for investigating how water-related bodily experiencesare connected to unequal material conditions and wider discoursesof social differentiation and exclusion in contemporary cities.Through further understanding the multiple embodied conse-quences of water and sanitation access, this work can also supportpolicy makers and practitioners in being more attentive to solutionsthat go beyond water itself to include how water is tied to work,space, health, identity, power and rights in the city.
I would like to thank Emma Mawdsley, Rachel Silvey, and EmilyYeh for their insightful feedback and engagement with this articleduring various stages of its conception and evolution, as well asJeetesh Rai for his research and translation assistance in Delhi. Iam also very grateful for the support and insightful commentsfrom graduate students at the Department of Geography, Univer-sity of Cambridge, as well as Nathan Truelove’s encouragementand helpful feedback throughout the writing process. I am in-debted to the University of Colorado for providing funding forthe research through the Benjamin Brown International Fellow-ship. Lastly, I extend my gratitude to the three anonymous review-ers of this paper for their helpful and incisive feedback instrengthening this work.
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- FPE Contributions to conceptualizations of urban water inequality
- Delhi’s urban poor: in the nexus of the planned and unplanned city
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