Politics, informal infra and urban governance

EPWDelighted to see this in EPW’s Review of Urban Affairs!

Politics, information technology and informal infrastructures in urban governance (pdf)

Matt Birkinshaw, Geography & Environment
London School of Economics and Political Science


Information technology is taking on an increasingly important role in Indian urban governance, both in high-level policy announcements and localised innovations.  However, the material and political landscape generated by widespread informal arrangements in urban governance is a challenging environment for these kind of reforms. Without adequately conceptualising and accounting for this, ‘smart’ technological improvements will be limited at best.  My argument is illustrated through a discussion of urban water supply and draws on the academic and policy literature, a comprehensive review of media coverage, 30 semi-structured key informant interviews in two Urban Local Bodies (Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, Maharashtra), and 18 months more recent research in Delhi.

Keywords: urban, infrastructure, water, governance, information, technology, JNNURM


In Delhi, on 25 June 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu formally announced three ambitious new urban programmes; Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT and Housing for All[i].  The imaginary of the ‘smart city’ draws on the concept of an ‘information society’ (Castells 2011; Webster 2005) with broad appeal for policy-makers as an image of technologically-efficient development (Datta 2015; Batty 2013; Townsend 2013; Madon 2005)[ii].  Historically, information technology has historically been embraced at a high-level in India and the country is a leading innovator in using it for public service (Haque 2002; Madon, Sahay & Sahay 2004; Madon 2006).  However, while technology promises dramatic improvements it also brings specific challenges into focus (Heeks 2002, 2003).

One of the most positive developments in the new AMRUT and Smart Cities Missions is the emphasis on water supply and sanitation as prerequisites for ‘smart cities’.  The question remains as to what forms this provision will ultimately take, but initial statements show enthusiasm for Public-Private-Partnerships[iii].  Despite support at higher levels of government, private-sector-participation (PSP) in Indian water supply has so for presented considerable challenges. Since the late 90’s water PSP projects have been attempted, and cancelled, in Hyderabad, Goa, Pune, Bangalore (twice), Delhi, Maharashtra, and Mumbai (EPW 2015). Advocates of commercialisation offer a story of institutional learning and improvements in viability, but political opposition continue to be a significant obstacle for PSP projects (World Bank 2012; Bretton Woods Project 2015).  Some research suggests that informal governance arrangements for water supply are likely to be a key element of this (cf Zerah 2000).

ICT in Urban Governance

The longest-running use of ICT in India has been in public sector reform, and has been closely associated with New Public Management from the beginning (Heeks 1998).  Starting with the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1984, ICT began to be used primarily internally to improve the planning and administration of large economic development programmes.  In the 1990s a move towards ‘e-services’ began, with the idea that ICT could be used to improve the interface between government and citizens (Madon 2006: 878).

In 2005, the JNNURM was launched, consolidating previous measures in urban policy (see Batra, 2006), with enthusiasm for ICT drawn from e-governance initiatives in Bangalore.  The JNNURM mandated a central role for ICT in urban management and service delivery as a condition of access to funding for city governments (Sivaramakrishnan 2011), and it’s successors, the AMRUT and Smart Cities Missions continue the trend towards technology and technocratic management.  Following scholars who argue that the technology and expertise required by these programmes has the potential to strongly bias the direction of urban development (Kuriyan & Ray 2009; Raman & Bawa 2011), I suggest that the steep learning-curve and limited implementation of the JNNURM points to important tensions in urban politics that technology alone is unable to resolve (Benjamin & Raman 2011; Jha, Rao & Woolcock 2007).

JNNURM proposed two directions of change for local state functioning. Firstly, as a shift towards a networked, partnership style of decision-making and action involving combination and coordination of multiple actors with a reduction in centralised hierarchy (Jessop 2002; Rhodes 1996; Stoker 1998).  Secondly, as ‘good governance’ a normative donor-led agenda focussing on accountability, stability, effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption (Doornbos 2001; Weiss 2000).  Both were intended to be enabled by ICT.  However, this ‘e-governance agenda’ is argued for on two questionable assumptions: that good governance leads to development; and that ICTs lead to good governance (Masiero, 2013; cf Abrahamsen, 2000; Kuriyan & Ray, 2009).

Unfortunately, the benefits of ICT are not always spread equally.  In a study of the digitisation of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Chattisgarh, Tillin found that the process reduced low-level corruption which was positive for PDS beneficiaries and enabled the ruling party to generate more support (Tillin 2013).  Other work on digitisation of the PDS in Karnataka, notes that although corruption at the level of PDS shops was reduced, leakages between godowns and the shops were not addressed and narratives of corruption still ‘resonate frequently’ with citizens at village level (Masiero 2013: 118-120).  Other work on e-services in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh found that average users were of higher income levels and that a class bias in the service was acknowledged by government officials (Kuriyan & Ray 2009).  In Bangalore, the improved accountability of electronic complaints to BBMC was seen as a boost for middle-class agendas.  Since poor people most commonly complained in person, their issues were not included in the statistics generated and used to make policy and infrastructure spending decisions (Ranganathan 2011).  Greater use of ICT does not necessarily then result in inclusive or comprehensive outcomes.  In what circumstances should we consider urban management through ICT a ‘gentrification of governance’ (Ghertner, 2011)?

One attraction of the first kind of change to urban governance mentioned above, the greater fragmentation observable in the use of parastatals, special project vehicles (SPV) and public-private partnerships (PPP), is the ability to insulate potentially unpopular decision making on issues like these from political pressures[iv].  This was necessary because to encourage urban bodies to increase ‘good governance’ access to JNNURM funding was conditional on ‘mandatory’ municipal reforms including measures for greater accountability (e.g. double-entry digitised accounts, digitised cadastral maps) and efficiency (including full cost-recovery for operations and maintenance in urban services) as well as stating a ‘preference’ for Public Private Partnerships in service delivery (Mahadevia 2006, 2011; Mukhopadhyay 2006).  Some consequences of reform implementation, such as installation of water meters, water tariff increases, slum relocations, property tax rises, and municipal staff retrenchment were challenging to implement as they threatened vested interests in a range of areas, particularly political patronage supporting occupation of land and access to water[v].  Political and technical complexity is particularly high in these sectors as informal economies are prevalent and are likely to be constrained by the introduction of reforms (Bardhan & Mookherjee, 2006)[vi].

Urban Water

Turning to water, in many urban areas, particularly smaller towns, but also large cities such as Kanpur and Delhi, considerable percentages of the population supplement unreliable municipal supply with alternative sources.  Surveys such as Zérah’s work on Delhi give an indication of the popularity of alternative water supply methods as a response to inadequate municipal service quality (especially in terms of reliability, timings, pressure and quality) (Zerah 1999).  Consequently, arrangements for urban water supply can be highly varied, even household specific, and socially, politically and legally sensitive.  Difficulties in doing water and energy audits in Indian cities over the last decade point to the issues with information that this presents[vii].

Exceptions to the formal water network quickly become fixed into the fabric of the city.  Pipes may be laid multiple times with different connections given each time.  Residents and businesses may modify the network, for example installing an extra pipe for a new household, or bypassing a series of connections in order to improve their pressure.  The physical complexity in one small lane or neighbourhood is daunting, buried underground, and the information is dispersed among residents, businesses owners, whoever has done the work, municipal and private sector staff.  Information is not only fragmented, but guarded as people have endeavoured to provide themselves the best available service and do not trust external actors to disturb their setup.  These ‘bypasses’, ‘workarounds’ and ‘fixes’ in the water distribution network quickly become stabilised and accepted as part of the structure, which is in any case of such complexity that the ‘official’ network may only be known in certain areas to local engineers, and in its totality may not be known at all (Coelho 2006).

Politically, as well as physically, ethnographic work suggests that gaining access to municipal water, particularly for lower income groups, requires a diverse array of strategies to place pressure on municipal officials and elected representatives, from protests and petitions to mobilising influence to plead the case through intermediaries.  The use of negotiations and arrangements to augment or circumvent official procedures is well documented in studies on Indian cities, including in relation to water supply (Anand 2011; Björkman 2014; Coelho 2006; Contractor 2012; Cooper 2011; Ranganathan 2014).  A number of authors suggest that as officials and representatives accrue both political and financial benefits through the process of informal service provision they have little interest in a more equitable or efficient system (Anand 2012: 551).  Low service levels provide a need for political intervention and a means of rewarding sympathetic populations.

A personalised infrastructure of mediation facilitates these informal economies of public services; essential low level informal intermediaries who intercede between citizens, elected representatives and state officials (see esp. Björkman, 2013, p. 22; Berenschot, 2011; Contractor, 2012; Ghertner, 2011; Gupte, 2008; Manor, 2000).  For example, in Delhi water connections are said to have a fixed side payment price, or a long wait.  Getting a new private bore drilled, which has been illegal since 2000, is more expensive[viii].  Getting an MLA to accept a petition for a tanker delivery or new bore well requires a positive relationship, for a requested government water tanker to actually arrive it is said to help to have a contact in the DJB or city administration[ix].  Municipal Councillors have appointed ‘convenors of RWAs’ to coordinate with Resident’s Welfare Associations although there is no written reference to this role[x].  In Pune mobilising the right contacts could cause water bills to disappear[xi].  Different actors operate in this space of facilitating residents interaction with state agencies; NGO workers, party workers, pradhans (local leaders), elected representatives, RWA members, or simply more confident friends and neighbours.  This widespread presence and power of informal interventions, both physical and administrative, is argued by some to have led to an ‘informalisation of the state’, or ‘jugaad state’ – Kaviraj’s ‘feet of clay’ (Chattaraj 2012; Jeffrey 2010: 163; Kaviraj 2010; Roy 2009).

These accounts of intercessions and obstacles in access to water suggest an important dimension to the functioning of water networks in Indian cities.  Functioning through exploiting flows of information and resources across organisational and administrative boundaries, they can be seen as potential obstacles to cleaner flows of information (and water) in their neighbourhoods, both technically and politically.   This has particular relevance in relation to the capacity of external agencies to monitor and govern these spaces and practices.

Smart Water?

Water reforms are as much about assembling and maintaining flows of information as they are flows of water (Furlong 2011; Monstadt 2009).  How much water is delivered to the Demand Management Area from which water treatment plants?  How many connections exist?  How much water is billed?  How many of these bills are collected?  Creating systems to answer these questions is essential for water managers seeking to establish financial viability.  Technologies are fundamental to this process: the water companies’ remote sensing equipment, planners’ maps and models, the Central Ground Water Board’s observation stations, bulk meters, household meters, billing and collection software, water distribution monitoring systems such as SCADA, GIS readings from water tankers, etc (cf Latour & Hermant 2004).

For example, Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation runs a comprehensive suite of 40 linked e-governance software programmes, covering citizen services, accounting, tendering, water supply and works management. Tenders and invoices are automatically generated, saving costs and time. Information can be submitted and received via SMS allowing mobile workers to remain plugged in[xii]. The e-governance suite is networked, connecting contractors, consultants and municipal workers in real-time and stretching the functional space of the municipality into a much wider network. This results in a much greater visibility of data throughout the corporation on project cost, timing and progress, minimising space for manual intervention through a more transparent, accountable and efficient system. While moves towards e-governance have led to many corporation processes becoming digital, legal requirements as well as work culture still require paper copies of files. Thus while in this case ICT provides a greater level of oversight, transactions have not necessarily been sped up.

In Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, water systems in both cities faced challenges in meter breakages and thefts, inaccurate meter readings, insufficient staffing, and cumbersome administrative procedures[xiii].  This had led to a situation where the system was highly inefficient, extremely opaque – even to staff, billing and collection was complex and arbitrary, and arrears were increasing at an unsustainable rate[xiv].  Those close to the work, when asked about the types of practices involved in informal modifications to one aspect of the water supply service explained: “there are so many ways…  Probably we can say there are 18 major ways and then each of these has variations.  This has taken a long time to discover!”.  In the case of water meter reading, part of the issue was the impossibly heavy workloads given to meter readers.  This provided an opportunity to produce change the system in a way that would benefit both workers and consumers.  The new innovative billing system now being used utilises a smartphone app to simplify the water meter reading, billing and recovery process, again eliminating space for manual intervention and error.

For cities wanting to develop ‘smart water’ management, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) technology is a key tool[xv]. SCADA systems introduced for water and construction works (roads, bridges) aim to facilitate spatial, quantitative and qualitative resource monitoring by municipal officials. This is intended to reduce losses due to leakages and theft[xvi].  PCMC’s SCADA is a sophisticated system.   This impression is heightened by the array of large flat screen displays in the Water Department’s Control Room.  The city has been divided into water ‘Demand Management Zones’.  These are worked out on the basis of the existing supply network and projected future population growth within the zone, and intend to deliver an equal quantum of water to the population within the zone[xvii].  SCADA for water allows real time visibility for water flows, quality and quantity monitoring, and tracking from Water Treatment Plants (WTPs) through the city transmission network to Elevated Service Reservoirs (ESRs). This allows the location of water losses in transmission and is intended to aid equitable distribution. Non-revenue water, which is supplied by the utility but does not earn them any income is a critical area for improvement of profitability. Both rich and poor households consume non-revenue water but their capacity to pay and ability to access alternative sources obviously differ.  Illegal connections for properties in areas which are not served by the utility are a key area of concern here – whether slum settlements, middle-class flats or luxury villas.  Unpaid-for municipal water is also said to be used for private tanker businesses as an alternative to factory or groundwater[xviii].  In theory SCADA will allow utility staff to identify where the in the system leaks and theft are taking place to be able to take action to prevent them.

At the time of research, the PCMC’s SCADA system was being piloted in one area of the city, and was planned to be extended later[xix].  According to a municipal Detailed Project Report, ‘pipelines laid in the initial phases of the water supply system are non-traceable’, a common problem, so water flows between the ESR and end user connections require manual tracking.  To extend SCADA to this scale was not felt to be cost effective and each zone will be assigned a junior engineer, who will be responsible for connections and recovery within that area[xx].  Technology promises elimination of ‘manual intervention’[xxi], yet personal responsibility was also seen as increasing accountability[xxii], and the new system will rely on individual intervention.  In Delhi, SCADA is employed for water management in some zones, however in others limited adequate knowledge of the physical network has so far prevented implementation of technologies like this.  While technology provides the appearance of an effective modern city government, material infrastructures, as well as the practices of municipal workers and other interested parties are much difficult to change[xxiii].

Individual intervention is an important feature of water supply in other ways too.  In one municipal corporations, on querying the 25% of municipal water which was listed as unbilled on the balance I was told that it was free supply to slums.  The official’s tone suggested he was aware that this was not in line with expectations of efficient governance and was keen to point out that it would soon be stopped.  As municipal ‘demolition drives’ of slum clusters had again been taking place that week, this seemed plausible.  I asked about the challenges in implementing JNNURM reforms.  He had received a death threat two days previously connected to an anti-encroachment drive and been placed under police protection:

‘Since this is a local body, there are elected representatives in the body and these people are accountable to the voters.  Every time there is demand from the voters, these people come to us and say that these people have this demand, these people have this demand.  Many of times the demands are not perfectly fitting in the framework of law.  Like, suppose that a family is not paying water tax for the last six months and we go and cut the connection.  That fellow goes to the elected representative and says that “I am a poor man, please help me my water connection is cut” and then our people say that “well but he has to pay first, otherwise I can’t restore his connection” and there starts the debate and argument.’

In Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Delhi, ownership of private water supply companies by politicians is common knowledge and was mentioned in several interviews[xxiv].  One researcher who had been working on municipal governance reforms pointed out that opening up urban services to private sector companies also allowed politicians to start-up companies which would be well placed to bid for the work in solid waste management, transport or construction[xxv].  Another mentioned conflicts of interest between tanker companies owned by politicians and water shortage in areas of the city[xxvi].

A crucial issue in the introduction of ICT into urban governance is whether there is any connection between the employees or agencies monitoring the data and those with the authority and inclination to act on it.  Equipping water tankers with GIS would be a case in point. This may pose greater challenges administratively than technically.  In Delhi, government moves against the ‘water mafia’ saw plans to fit GPS sensors into some of the water tanker fleet in 2012.  The previous arrangement fitted more with an observed tendency for government to isolate ICT projects from other aspects of governance.  Even when the software functions well and is monitored, the para-statal providing the data tracking functions is also not part of the water utilities functional hierarchy and has no responsibility to manage discrepancies.  Then when tankers are hired in from a small number of large companies even the water utility staff have a limited ability to ensure compliance.  If this chain of dependencies is in place we may then have a conflict with the political economy of tanker supply, both at the level of drivers and the fleet as a whole.  The Aam Aadmi Party’s move to make the GIS data from water tankers publicly available is an important step towards bringing greater public accountability into the system.  However, the recent headlines around claims of irregularity in water tanker hiring in Delhi, suggest that we may need to be see these technical fixes as meshed within a larger political ecosystem (Vatsa 2015).


Research on the informal economies of urban services and land use suggests that informality generates opposition by networks of local residents, businesses and politicians to national reform programmes designed to formalise these arrangements in the interests of higher level coalitions (Benjamin & Raman 2011).  Drawing on my research, in addition to the political complexity comprising vested interests and consumer anxiety, we can add to this picture by noting the sheer physical and technical complexity of informalised urban water supply systems and the challenges this raises for information-based infrastructure governance models.  Perhaps we can use these dynamics to understand the results of a survey of government officials, who stated that most Indian e-governance initiatives had been unsuccessful; 35% were judged ‘total failures’, 50% ‘partial failures’, and 15% ‘successes’ (Heeks 2003).

The article opened by suggesting that the desire for greater information and control over the city is in tension with widespread ‘informal’ arrangements.  I would further suggest that these ways of working are not necessarily fragile, and indeed may able to not only withstand, but subvert attempts to manage and eliminate them.  Without wanting to argue for the continuation of suboptimal and often exploitative coping strategies, an approach to urban informality which fails to recognise its persistence as a consequence of broader socio-economic conditions will be neither developmental nor feasible as government policy.


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[i] See http://amrut.gov.in/ and http://www.smartcitieschallenge.in/

[ii] A similarly perspective on technology in smart cities is offered by Amitabh Kant in the context of new cities on the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor.  http://asmarterplanet.com/blog/ 2013/09/in-india-leaders-are-building-smarter-cities- from-the-ground-up.html.  Accessed November 6 2015.

[iii] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-06-25/news/63831483_1_smart-city-venkaiah-naidu-urban-local-bodies

[iv] Interview 23, researcher, Mumbai, August 2013.

[v] Interviews 2, researcher, and 13, academic, both Pune, July 2013.

[vi] on sabotage of governance reforms by representatives protecting their vested interests in Delhi see Dhanju & O’Reilly, 2015

[vii] Interview 2, researcher, Pune July 2013.  See also Björkman 2011

[viii] Interviews with residents, south Delhi, January 2015.

[ix] Interview with local social worker, south Delhi, June 2015

[x] Interview with private sector worker, south Delhi,

[xi] Interviews with citizen’s groups, Pune, July 2012

[xii] Interview 19, consultant, August 2012, Pimpri-Chinchwad.

[xiii] Interview 14, civic activist, Pune, July 2012; interview 27, anonymous, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xiv] Interview 16, municipal employee, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012; interview 27, anonymous, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xv] see e.g. http://www.ficcismartcitiessummit.com/presentations/SMART%20Water%20Segment_Amritanshu%20Kumar_Schneider%20Electric.pdf

[xvi] Interview 16, municipal employee, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012; interview 19, consultant, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xvii] Interview 16, municipal employee, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xviii] Personal communication, researcher, Mumbai, July 2015.  Also see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2160731/Watergate-Undercover-Mail-Today-investigation-tails-water-mafia-bosses-exposes-official-tanker-nexus.html

[xix] Interview 5, consultant, Pimpri-Chinchwad, July 2013, interview 16, municipal workers, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xx] Interview 5, consultant, Pimpri-Chinchwad, July 2012

[xxi] Interview 27, anonymous, Pimpri-Chinchwad, August 2012

[xxii] Interview 14, civic activist, Pune, July 2012

[xxiii] This dovetails with Heeks’ categorisation of ICT implementation in India, notably the tendency to ‘isolate’ information technology as separate from other aspects of municipal work (Heeks 1998).

[xxiv] Interview 2, researcher, Pune, July 2012; interview 3, social worker, Pimpri-Chinchwad, July 2012; interview 13, planner-researcher, Pune, July 2012; interview 14, civic activist, Pune, July 2012; interview 21, municipal official, PCMC, August 2012.

[xxv] Interview 2, researcher, Pune, July 2012.

[xxvi] Interview 13, researcher, Pune, July 2012.