World of Cities Workshop: One or many Mumbai’s? Sanitation in comparative perspective

by Colin McFarlane, Durham University

Cities have always been understood comparatively. When we read about, visit or talk about a particular city, we often do so by comparing it with other cities. Comparison may ostensibly appear as a prosaic set of methodological questions around case studies, but in practice it is a critical part of how understanding, theory and research about cities are produced and contested. In urban geography, recent years have witnessed not just a resurgence of comparative thinking and research, but a new experimentalism with comparative thinking and methodologies. This is in part a response to the globalisation of urban policy, planning, economies, cultures and ecologies, but it is also an attempt to internationalise urban geography by thinking across intellectual and imaginative divides that that separate out the cities of the global North from those of the global South, or the ‘developed Western’ city from the sprawling megacity. The revival of debate on comparison has, then, tended to think about comparison between cities. There has been little effort to think about the potential value of comparisons within cities. If a key objective of the new comparativism is to develop a pluralised conception of the urban politics, economies, cultures and ecologies, I argue that intra-urban comparisons have an important place in this effort.

For the last two years, I have been involved in a project to understand everyday experiences and perceptions of sanitation in Mumbai’s informal settlements (with Renu Desai and Steve Graham). Sanitation provision, access, use, and conditions vary greatly across the city and we believed it was important to foreground the difference that this geographical diversity makes to the lived experience and politics of sanitation. The research examined two informal settlements: Khotwadi, an authorised, established neighbourhood in the west, and Rafinagar, an unauthorised, poorer neighbourhood in the east. Rafinagar comprises two parts: Part 1, which has been provided with some basic urban services, and Part 2, with almost no basic urban services.

Khotwadi (Figure 1), with a population of approximately 2000 households, has 24 toilet blocks and a total of 180 seats, whereas Rafinagar (Figure 2), with approximately 4000 households, has 6 toilet blocks with a total of 76 seats. Rafinagar, then, has twice the population and half the number of toilet seats, and Rafinagar Part 2 has only one formal toilet block and is also serviced by a range of temporary hanging latrines. The condition of solid waste management in the two settlements is also uneven. Rafinagar in particular, partly due to its illegality and partly due to its marginal status as a predominantly Muslim settlement, suffers from infrequent instances of municipal cleaning of drains and collection and disposal of garbage.

Figure 1: Khotwadi. Brick-and-concrete (pukka) housing surrounding a well

Figure 2: Rafinagar Part 2. Sackcloth (kutcha) housing and absence of basic services

We found significant differences between the two neighbourhoods. As a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, Khotwadi is administered by the dominant political party in the city, the right-wing ethno-religious and anti-Muslim Shiv Sena. The Sena operates a ‘complaint space’ at its local office, and residents usually go to this office if there is work needing done in the area, from blocked drains and broken toilets to uncollected garbage. The party is able to take up and expedite requests far more quickly than if the residents had directly contacted the relevant municipal department. This constitutes a form of patronage in the area that helps promote the Shiv Sena electorally through the soft politicisation of basic infrastructure.

In Rafinagar, however, given that it is predominantly Muslim, residential links are less to the Shiv Sena and more to marginal political parties like Samajwadi (socialist), and given than it is illegal, it is far more difficult to have any complaints dealt with. There are few assurances that requests will ever by met, and people often feel left without any viable political outlet to meet basic sanitation needs. For example, on one occasion when a privately run toilet block in Rafinagar Part 1 increased pay-per-use charges from Rs. 1 o Rs. 2, local women protested by using their bodies. They defecated in the area around the toilet block until the caretaker gave in and reduced the costs. These kind of temporary, below-the-radar forms of protest are distinct from protest in Khotwadi and indicate that politics in Mumbai is less a universal sphere of action and instead a set of possibilities highly influenced by, if not determined by, local context, resources and connections.

There are other important differences. For example, while in Khotwadi most residents regularly use toilet blocks, in Rafinagar – especially in Part 2 – open defecation is regular. During the monsoon, residents often construct makeshift hanging latrines from rudimentary materials in order to provide a nearby toilet when the rains make it difficult to wade to the spaces used for open defecation. The latrines are vulnerable to erosion from rising tides and from demolition by the municipality. Residents have their own comparative framings for valuing these infrastructures. For example, one woman said of one hanging latrine: “There is a world of difference between this and a pukka [brick-built] toilet. This one remains a bit open, there is a fear of children falling, there is fear that it will get washed away in the high tide, there is a fear that it will break.”

Taken together, the uncertain rhythm and largely distinct politics of sanitation in these two neighbourhoods is predicated on a series of changing conditions and catalysts, from demolition, land erosion and changing land use, to reciprocal relations amongst residents and civil society groups, changing tariffs of toilets, and the identity politics connected to political parties. The contrasting sanitation conditions in Rafinagar and Khotwadi reflect not just different urban histories, social composition, and state-based or legal (dis)connections, but two quite different Mumbais, with distinct modes of infrastructure production and politics. Here, intra-urban comparison widens our conception of infrastructure politics and the conditions through which urban life is collectively made and remade. If comparison is in part a strategy for pluralising the urban imagination, then intra-urban comparisons can be a fruitful reminder of the value of sticking with one city before rushing off to compare with the next one.

Colin is speaking at the cities@manchester ‘World of Cities: comparison across the disciplines’ workshop, 17-18 May 2012. The workshop is fully booked but will be audio recorded. This and a collection of the workshop papers will also be added to the workshop page after the event. 

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