Sugar for Ants

Slum Delhi

The urban governance projects initiated in the infrastructure sectors in Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai, over the past ten years are all based on the assumption that slum dwellers have basic unalienable human rights to clean drinking water, sanitation and environmental hygiene, especially in the slum community of the city. These rights are so basic and fundamental that, the elected representative and the government as right protector, is obligated to provide them.

While the investment for capital assets like toilet blocks or stand posts and drainage lines are paid for by donor funding in Delhi NCR region over the decade. There is pressure on the city governments to meet the Operation and Maintenance (O and M) costs, of electricity used for pumping if any and minor repairs of taps and drains, through their own revenues. Alternately, another model proposed for O and M coverage, is through user charges, paid by the slum community that is serviced, over the life of the asset.

One way to over come the resistance by the slum community to paying daily or monthly user charges is develop a sense of ownership by involving them right from the planning stage, though the construction to final usage and making all transactions including the financial ones open and transparent to the community through a participatory demand driven approach, by implementing bodies in this case the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) or relevant Urban Local Bodies (ULB).

This situation reminds me of an old Om Puri’s movie in which he plays the role of a rich but generous donor. His generosity is shown by him standing and feeding sugar to ants. He continues to feed them till they maintain a distance, but later when they start climbing up his feet he squashes them.

But in the urban context, there is a contradiction; all vacant lands in the city belong to the government. Hence by definition slums communities are the illegal occupants of the lands and therefore cannot be recognized as legitimate occupants of the lands worthy of toilets or water supply. So giving them controls over the taps and toilets is like already feeding them sugar. But allowing them to collect revenue generated through user fees that the participatory demand driven approach requires, is like allowing them to come too close and cannot be done.

Ultimately it is all about power and control that the ULB has over land. So they would rather appoint an NGO as intermediary to collect the revenue and share the goodies, than bring the community on board. If it is a conscientious NGO it re invest the surplus to run community centers around the toilet blocks, as in Mumbai but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Image By Jenny Beechey Courtesy Bent Hurley


Environmental anthropologist by training, been in the field for over 20 years, Gialome (pseudonym) is mainly concerned with the impacts of infrastructure and technology projects on local communities.

3 thoughts on “Sugar for Ants

  1. Pingback: Sugar for Ants II | :: Delhi Greens ::
  2. How about giving a thought to the following ideas too:

    1) Cross-subsidization – Considering the ability and capability of the rich and middle class sections of Delhi’s population, would it not be fair to collect matching taxes from these. Invariably, all slums do not have indoor in-house piped water supplies but all affluent and middle income section households do. It says a lot about the difference in terms of time & opportunity costs. Moreover, we always must remember that the better off sections not only consume more but they also pay less and pollute the main sources most.

    2) Limits on supplies beyond a certain amount – If, suppose, on an average every human being needs around 100 liters per day of supplies to maintain a decent life, then why not work towards providing this much to all first through feasible mechanisms and who so ever needs beyond these should be made to buy/arrange it at full cost of the water, considering it takes a lot to procure, treat and distribute to people. In my opinion, the better off sections either should be made to pay for the weaker and poorer people or should not be provided at all beyond certain maximum limit so that they are forced to maintain a frugal lifestyle with respect to such a necessary and difficult thing to provide like water.

    3) If slums are anyways and always deemed to be ‘illegal’ then also what stops providing basic facilities to people there in? Are not these basic facilities so very vital for sustenance of every human being? It is anyways a wrong argument to say that only ‘legal’ residents should be comprehensively provided with basic amenities. One needs to ponder for a while over the fact that none of the affluent people perpetually suffer due to lack of electricity or water if these are not temporally municipally provided for (Generators, Invertors, Storage tanks, Large quantity water jars,…I wonder if these are ever seen in the settlements of poor people)

    4) Who is not ‘Illegal’? Let us ask amongst ourselves (all those who are educated, reading this on internet, coincidentally also are in or related to Delhi) – How many of us or families of ours did not come to this city or remained in this city after being brought up, for the sake of education, vocation, and other such important foundational needs? Those who wanted more have or are moving to even better settlements within India or abroad. Similarly, the poor masses have also joined the city based lives for their foundational needs; livelihoods, sustenance, and may be for even betterment. Let us not forget, all of the top brass, including political, industrial, business, military, or for that matter of any vocation have come to this city for their sustenance and betterment., may be of first generation or belonging to following generations. Similar is the case of poor, especially rural poor. Devastating rural economies and other crises are forcing people to migrate to cities, many a times to lead even worse lives.

    5) Finally, if ever any of us is faced with societal and collective dilemmas, let me suggest to try and answer & understand some basics regarding such conundrums – Who gets or does NOT get – What, How, Why & When?

    The above said exercise rarely failed me…hope it works for all who try for it.

  3. Hm…but all said and done, do you really think the city can survive..or even work…without the services provided by these people…who are then given no space to live…and are left to fend for themselves?

    They certainly cannot afford to rent out or even buy land owing to the inflated rates. They certainly could not have afforded to live in cities, if people did not pay them. And despite understanding where they live, people would not have paid them if they didn’t need them.

    So doesn’t the bottomline then become the fact that we need these people….yet we are not able to make arrangements for them and provide them anything including basic services?

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