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Voices and Directions from the Peripheries: A Dialogue on Periurban Water Issues in Telangana

The general development paradigm visible in the country has largely been driven by an urban-centric growth model and has been highly resource intensive given the expansion of high-end infrastructural projects, high-rise buildings, special economic zones, large service sector enterprises like the amusement industry etc. These urbanisation processes play out most distinctively at the margins of large urban centres. On these margins, the emerging urban landscapes stand in stark contrast with the rural landscapes that they are expanding into, bringing into clear view the conflicting realities at work in such a development paradigm. The resource-hungry urbanisation in India has resulted in the increasing dependence of urban centres on these periurban spaces for their resources. This inturn has affected the latter’s food production, water security, and livelihoods. Also, this space offers a platform to observe and study the exact nature of the urbanisation processes.

The vulnerability of this transforming space heightens in the face of climatic variability and extreme events like droughts, or floods. Such climatic extremities impacts the way resources are allocated, rights are recognized, compromised, and negotiated. The twin processes of urbanization and climate change makes this space more vulnerable than its rural or urban counterparts.

The periurban space is most often characterised by a governance vacuum with an ambiguity of responsibilities for provision of basic amenities like water supply. This “governance gap” typically leads to increasing water insecurity in periurban spaces that takes multiple and complex pathways. In the face of risks arising from climate change and incidence of extreme events like severe droughts, the deterioration of water resources and the lack of governance mechanisms to arrest water insecurity, can cause very acute vulnerability. Given a lack of focus, both in terms of recognition and investments from governance, policy, and research, concerns of this conflicted space find little or no legitimate voice or scope for conflict resolution.

It is with the intent to offer a platform to these voices and concerns, SaciWATERs conducted a dialogue on water issues in Telangana, bringing together voices and experiences from community members, insights and learnings from the civil society, responses from policy and ways forward from research and academia and the media. For the concerns of the periurban space a dialogue offers an “informed, sustained, persuasive, inclusive and democratic” process that is more successful in “deep-rooted, value based conflicts where negotiation is impossible”. In a governance-vacuum and the lacking legitimate mechanisms for conflict resolution, a dialogue is a highly relevant platform in the face of several conflicts and the everyday struggles around water brought out by the community members in periurban areas.

The dialogue covered central issues of inequality and conflicts regarding access to water and issues of policy on the ground. Community members related their experiences and struggles – acute water insecurity, conflicts with industrial and urban processes blatantly creating such water insecurity, the power inequalities entrenched in these conflicts, and the lack of platforms and governance mechanisms to have these conflicts noticed and their struggles heard. Severe water pollution has been caused by industrial effluents, sewerage water from enterprises like the Ramoji Film City (RFC), and from city waste-dumps and landfills located in the peripheries of the city. Secure water resources of the periurban regions have been diverted to urban and industrial uses. For instance, check dams have been built on feeder channels and streams to divert water for industries, intercepting the source of water for the village tanks causing the tanks to go empty even in normal rainfall years. The RFC diverted water from tanks and streams in the surrounding periurban villages through heavily pumping wells for recreational purposes and blocking access to streams. Filtration plants for urban water supply are located in the periurban area but do not provide water supply to this region. In the face of conditions of severe water contamination, unsustainable water extraction, and absence of secure water supply from the government, private water markets (tankers) and RO plants have emerged in periurban areas. These tankers extract groundwater from periurban areas and sell this water at very high prices. Villagers are forced to buy RO water from private plants at very high rates.

Such level of water insecurity has led to significant issues in other aspects. Livelihoods based on agriculture have acutely suffered as water pollution, depletion, and land degradation caused by industrial and urban processes in the periurban areas has degraded productive agriculture. These processes have also brought out the gaps between policy and ground realities. Scarcity of water was voiced as the primary reason for the unwillingness of the village community to construct toilets through the Swachh Bharat Mission scheme. Similar cases from urban slums were also brought up to support this concern. The issues voiced regarding the diversion of water from feeder channels of tanks for industrial and urban uses, causing tanks to run dry, brought out the disconnect between policy designs and ground realities for Mission Kakatiya, a scheme focused on desilting tanks and strengthening bunds. The inherent flaws of straight-jacketed top-down policy approach divorced from the perceptions and ground realities of people were evident in this dialogue. This finds particular relevance in the current political environment where infrastructure-based, technocratic and performance-oriented mission-mode policies, that give lower emphasis to processes, have become the norm.

Other central issues that emerged from this four-way dialogue were- declining spaces for voicing people’s concerns and intolerance towards social movements, lack of awareness regarding official and legal mechanisms of complaint-redressals and voicing discontent, poor integration between departments for closely associated issues such as irrigation and drinking water, and most importantly, a lack of trust and communication between the government and the community.The dialogue being a four way engagement had certain advantages and outcomes that in any other format of interaction would have been difficult. It allowed a platform to gain support and responses to these concerns, as well as potential future directions from multiple stakeholders. The role of the academia and research community was highlighted with regard to bringing more focus and visibility to these issues and supporting social movements of the vulnerable communities. The role of the research and civil society in bringing these issues to the national and regional media, as well as to new online media forums and platforms was identified as crucial. The dialogue offered a platform for knowledge sharing not only between the government and the periurban community, but also between different civil society organizations. Knowledge gaps between various stakeholders emerged – between policy and the community, between research and media, policy and media, community and academic research etc. The potential of CSOs in playing a role in plugging these gaps emerged as a thrust of the ways forward. The use of creative spaces and methods by the civil society for mobilization of the community as well as for enabling knowledge exchanges and creating awareness were focused on. The dialogue offered a space for periurban issues to find a deserved focus

Despite being a unique space where the urban and development processes play out creating the most acute forms of resource and livelihood vulnerabilities, enhanced by a governance-vacuum and the incidence of droughts and high climatic uncertainties, the periurban space has received little emphasis from policy or research investments. The Constitution formulated a provision for Nagar Panchayats, in the 74th amendment act in India in 1992, meant precisely for transitional spaces like the periurban areas; however this has mostly not been implemented on ground. Since, under the current development paradigm, such conflicting landscapes are bound to expand, there is a need to bring focus to concerns of people living on the margins, socially and spatially, and offer platforms for conflict resolution. Such multistakeholder dialogues are essential to bring their concerns to the forefront and increase knowledge sharing between relevant actors. However, as the periurban region is in a constant state of flux, there is a need to institutionalise such platforms so as to bring stability to the concerns of a shifting region. To that end there is a need to scale up from such multistakeholder engagements to a concrete forum for supporting the operationalisation of the Constitutional provision for Nagar Panchayats and contributing with recommendations towards the nuances for the same.

By Shreya Chakraborty and Poulomi Banerjee


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