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The Sanitation Question in Urban India

The Politics of Sanitation in India: Cities, Services and the State by Susan E Chaplin (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan), 2011; pp 344, Rs 775.


The Sanitation Question in Urban India

Renu Desai

ased on almost a decade of research and writing, The Politics of Sanitation in India widens and deepens research and analysis first presented by Susan E Chaplin in her pivotal 1999 journal article in Environment and Urbanisation. The book poses a simple but significant question, namely, why has the state failed to provide adequate and equitable access to sanitation in Indian cities. The crux of its argument is that the inadequate provision of basic urban services such as sanitation, particularly to the u rban poor, is shaped by the legacy of the colonial city as well as by the nature of the postcolonial state. This is a compelling a rgument and also locates the sanitation question in urban India firmly in the p olitical domain.

This book comes at a significant moment for sanitation improvement in urban India. In November 2008, the Government of India framed the National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP), perhaps spurred by the recognition that while boasting of a high rate of economic growth, India was continuing to neglect this very basic human need in its cities. While many states and cities have since been formulating State Sanitation Strategies and City Sanitation Plans as per the NUSP’s guidelines, three years later, not much is known about their status. While Chaplin does not attempt to explore questions around the NUSP, her analysis does provoke important insights into many of the key challenges that we face in achieving adequate and equitable sanitation in Indian cities today.

To elucidate its argument, the book follows the historical method of descriptive narrative, seeking to draw out the linkages between the colonial and postcolonial state. In doing this, it takes us through more than a century of urban planning, policy and government as well as over five Indian cities: Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Chapter 1 focuses on the period of direct colonial rule and its

Economic & Political Weekly

december 10, 2011

The Politics of Sanitation in India: Cities, Services and the State by Susan E Chaplin (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan), 2011; pp 344, Rs 775.

implications for adequate sanitation provision, tracing the development of the c olonial legacy of segregated cities, marginalised local governments and failure to manage urban growth and provide sufficient housing. Chapter 2 examines priorities and allocations vis-à-vis housing and basic services in the five-year plans, the preparation of city master plans and the development of new towns. It shows the continuation of colonial approaches to u rban planning and the failure of national governments to effectively manage urban growth and build water and sanitation i nfrastructures. Chapter 3 examines the performance of the municipal corporations of Bombay/Mumbai, Calcutta/Kolkata, Madras/Chennai and Delhi in their delivery of basic urban services, highlighting the influence of the political regime governing the city as well as the continuity of colonial legacies of under-resourced and non-autonomous local government. Chapter 4 continues the discussion by focusing on programmes to improve conditions in slums and squatter settlements in these four cities. It also looks at slum-dwellers’ experiences vis-à-vis inadequate sanitation. Chapter 5 analyses how the failure to end the practice of manual scavenging is linked to the failure to provide adequate sanitation in Indian cities. Chapter 6 considers Ahmedabad as a detailed case study. Chapter 7 examines new partnership approaches to provide sanitation to the urban poor and discusses in detail three initiatives in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Bangalore.

The wide scope of the book provides rich insights into sanitation in urban India and helps to makes a persuasive case visà-vis Chaplin’s main arguments. However, its ambitious scope also becomes a cause for some weaknesses. I sometimes felt that

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Chaplin was spreading her analysis too thin in taking on so much. Often, she leaves it up to the reader to make the connections between her argument about the nature of the postcolonial state and the material she discusses. At times I wished for more material that would support the

particular way in which she frames this argument. Nonetheless, the book brings a much-needed analysis of and emphasis on the political processes that profoundly influence sanitation provision in urban India.

Colonial Legacies and Local Government

Beginning with concerns about political unrest and epidemic disease in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, Chaplin takes us through sanitary reform measures, the development of local government and the introduction of modern ideas of British town planning during colonial rule, showing how these processes led to segregated cities with uneven geographies of service provision. Local governments remained profoundly underfinanced by the colonial state, incapable of undertaking sanitary measures over their entire city area. The transplantation of British town planning ideas led to widespread slum clearances but without the parallel development of adequate alternative housing, as in British cities, thus aggravating problems for the urban poor and leading to the growth of slums and squatter settlements. The establishment of city improvement trusts u nder the direct control of colonial a uthorities created multiple state agencies intervening in the urban arena with little coordination between them and marginalising local governments. In subsequent chapters, Chaplin often refers back to these legacies of the colonial city, arguing that they continued to influence urban planning, local government and sanitation provision in the postcolonial city.

For instance, in Chapter 2, Chaplin shows how colonial practices of urban planning that ignored the spatial and housing needs of the informal sector workforce persisted in city master plans and in the development of new towns like Chandigarh and Navi Mumbai. This led to an increase in slums and squatter settlements and deepened the difficulties of the urban poor vis-á-vis access to basic urban


services. In Chapters 3 and 4, the influence of particular inter- and intra-governmental relationships on the performance of the four municipal corporations is e xamined. Chaplin shows how their ability to deliver basic urban services has often been hampered by their dependency on higher levels of governments, their low c apacity due to inadequate funding and lack of autonomy. Local bodies have been marginalised from the urban planning and development process as other state agencies (such as urban development authorities) have been given powers to plan the city’s development. All of these are issues that plagued local governments under c olonial rule as well.

While Chaplin persuasively draws out continuities between the colonial and postcolonial city and their implications for sanitation provision, she repeatedly emphasises the weak or low financial, technical and human capacities of local governments for delivering adequate sanitation. However, from the historical material and smaller discussions within chapters, it is clear that it has often also been the elite nature of local governments themselves (both during the colonial era and thereafter) that has led to their failure to provide adequate sanitation to all.

Chaplin shows, for instance, that the elite nature of local government under c olonial rule was responsible for uneven service provision. Even after the transfer of local government to Indian control a fter the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, western-educated Indian leaders largely emulated colonial authorities. Chaplin argues that the reason why local governments remained underresourced – during the colonial era and later – was o ften also because they were reluctant to increase taxes and charge the actual price for water and sewerage services as these would have largely affected the middle and upper classes. In Ahmedabad, a proposal for higher taxation in the late 1880s to raise finances was opposed by Indian elites.

In most metropolitan cities, sewerage access is largely confined to the middle and upper classes, but since users are only levied a nominal charge, these services have been effectively subsidised for these classes. Residents in Kolkata pay only connection fees for water and sewerage. It would have been useful if Chaplin had e xamined such subsidies in more detail in order to clarify the ways in which the elite nature of local government and the influence of the middle class on local policymaking – rather than “lack of financial, human and technical resources” (p 123) – that led to the failure to provide adequate and equitable sanitation. This would also have drawn out Chaplin’s argument on the nature of the postcolonial state.

The Postcolonial State and Indian Cities in Comparison

One of Chaplin’s main arguments in the book is that the failure in adequately providing sanitation has occurred because of the nature of the postcolonial state. “[I] nstead of being an instrument of socioeconomic change”, the postcolonial state has been “dominated by coalitions of interests which have been accommodated by the use of public funds to provide private goods” (p 2). This, she goes on to a rgue (p 2),

has resulted in many of the decisions relating to how the state has allocated financial resources and implemented new projects and schemes being heavily influenced by political considerations rather than being based on developmental needs and technical aspects.

Chaplin further argues that one group that has benefited from this state of affairs has been the middle class, which has m onopolised what sanitation services the state has provided because they live in formal neighbourhoods. (It must be said here that often middle-class housing flouts laws as well; however, rarely, if ever, are they considered “illegal” and denied services.) When combined with the benefits of modern medicine, accessible healthcare and the use of insecticides to stop disease vectors spreading from slums, the middle classes have become largely insulated from the ill-health caused by insanitary conditions. The result has been that the middle class is disinterested in placing pressure on governments to effectively implement sanitation schemes.

Meanwhile, the urban poor, due to the precarious nature of work and conditions within the informal sector and the “illegal” nature of their housing, are forced to depend on vote bank politics to access resources. But vote bank politics, Chaplin argues, leads to the distribution of public resources to specific individuals, communities and localities rather than to citywide transformations. Broadly speaking, Chaplin’s argument is convincing enough. However I wish that she had connected her discussion in the book – which often draws on processes occurring in specific cities – more clearly to this argument.

Chaplin examines the differing nature of political regimes in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Ahmedabad, seeking to draw out their influence on attitudes t owards the urban poor. Her discussion e xplains some of the variations we find between these cities in the nature and level of sanitation provision to the urban poor. For each city, Chaplin also identifies an inter- or intra-governmental relationship that is most significant and analyses how it has had a detrimental impact on the local government’s performance in delivering basic urban services. By doing so, she also shows how in different ways, l ocal governments remained under-resourced and non-autonomous, just as they had been under colonial rule.

For example, in Kolkata, Chaplin focuses on the fractious relationship between the municipal corporation and state agencies, while in Delhi, she focuses on political conflicts, overlapping jurisdictions and lack of coordination between the municipal corporation and other urban agencies. In Mumbai, Chaplin identifies confrontations between the municipal commissioner and the standing committee (which comprises a number of elected councillors and acts as a steering committee, exercising certain executive, supervisory, financial and personnel powers). However, few confrontations are actually described and

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Economic & Political Weekly


the links to sanitation remain unclear. While the continuity of certain colonial legacies comes through persuasively, the nature of the postcolonial state as it plays out in these cities is not really explored – whether in how public funds have been used for private goods, how financial r esources have been allocated and new projects implemented due to “political considerations rather than being based on developmental needs and technical a spects” (p 2), how the urban poor have been provided/denied services because of vote bank politics, and the implications of all this on adequate and equitable sanitation provision. This is true also of the d etailed case study of Ahmedabad.

Chaplin convincingly argues that des pite nationalist leaders like Sardar Vallabh bhai Patel being at the forefront of Ahmedabad’s development in the early decades of the 20th century, effectively managing communal violence and industrial disputes, they “failed to imagine an alternative urban development strategy” (p 267). As a result, the needs of the poor and the informal sector were ignored, the development of suburbs for the middle classes was privileged, and a deeply segmented and inequitable city emerged. Chaplin’s discussion of the period from the 1960s left me less satisfied.

Part of the problem is that Chaplin often fails to correlate the discussion across the different sections of the chapter. Thus, in an earlier section on post-independence politics, we learn that when the Popular Front, a group of left-wing parties, won the 1965 municipal elections, a radical change took place and the priorities of the city’s expenditures shifted to the impoverished east side. However, in the later section on efforts to improve conditions for the poor, there is no discussion of this. In an earlier section, similarly, we learn that the Congress Party returned to power in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) in 1969. Brutal communal riots took place in that year and the Congress was plagued by bitter divisions due to the national-level split in the party. These turbulent processes are, however, difficult to link to a later reference to a 1971 municipal scheme to extend sewerage to 600 working-class chawls. (Unfortunately Chaplin tells us nothing more about what was obviously a radical move towards equitable sewerage.)

Ultimately, while Chaplin’s discussion of the turbulent social and political processes in the city is extensive, it is difficult to get a proper idea of how these actually affected the provision of services for the urban poor. These impacts are explained only in very broad terms; for instance, that political corruption led to tax evasion and decreasing revenues for the AMC, or that frequent episodes of communal violence disadvantaged the poor and ghettoised Muslims in peri-urban areas. Given that Ahmedabad is meant to be a detailed case study (and I admit, a city of special interest to me), I had hoped for an indepth examination of sanitation questions and also the nature of the postcolonial state in the city. Chaplin also does not analyse the inter- and intra-governmental relationships that affected the AMC’s performance in providing basic urban services during this period, making it difficult to compare it with the other cities.

New Partnership Approaches in Sanitation

Chaplin discusses new partnership approaches in urban basic services and examines in detail three examples of publicprivate-community partnerships. First is the development of community toilets by the Alliance – which comprises the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) SPARC, the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation and Mahila Milan, a network of poor women’s collectives that manage credit and savings activities in their communities –in Mumbai. The second is slum networking, that is, the upgrading and linking of slums into the city’s water supply, sewerage and other networks, through a partnership between the AMC, the private sector, an NGO and the community. The third example discussed by Chaplin is the provision of piped water to slums through a partnership between the Bangalore W ater Supply and Sewerage Board, an NGO and the community.

Several challenges in trying to scale up these successful programmes to citywide schemes such as the Slum Networking Project in Ahmedabad and the Slum Sanitation Project in Mumbai are discussed. These include the continued perception amongst governments that the urban poor are targets to whom “development” must be delivered rather than “active agents with knowledge, resources and rights to influence what is done” (p 248). There are also contradictory approaches taken by governments as they engage in evictions and demolitions; lack of coordination between partners; resistance from political actors who may have previously benefited from providing sanitation to the poor; lack of accountability of NGOs, etc.

One of the more obvious omissions here is that Chaplin remains uncritical of the role that community-based organisations (CBOs) play in such partnerships. CBOs are often not representative of the community. There is a need to pay attention to the power relations within communities (Mc Farlane 2008; Zerah 2009). This can also have serious implications for creating e quitable sanitation that is truly affordable for the poorest, particularly in an ideological policy climate that pushes for cost recovery (McFarlane 2008). It would also have been useful if the discussion on new approaches was more clearly linked to the book’s main argument about colonial legacies and the nature of the postcolonial state.

Renu Desai ( is at the Centre for Urban Equity, CEPT University, Ahmedabad.


Chaplin, E Susan (1999): “Cities, Sewers and Poverty: India’s Politics of Sanitation”, Environment and Urbanisation, 11(1): 145-58.

McFarlane, Colin (2008): “Sanitation in Mumbai’s Informal Settlements: State, ‘Slum’ and Infrastructure”, Environment and Planning A, 40(1): 88-107.

Zérah, Marie-Hélène (2009): “Participatory Governance in Urban Management and the Shifting G eometry of Power in Mumbai”, Development and Change, 40(5): 853-77.

EPW Index An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2010. The PDFs of the Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW web site. Visitors can download the Index for all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded when ready.) EPW would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the RD Tata Trust.

Economic Political Weekly

december 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 50

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