Accessing Water In the South Asian City

Workshop programme

Concept note

Water is a revealing element of Indian urbanity. Looking at the South Asian city in a broad geographical and historical scale, the workshop aims to determine the role played by urban socio-religious constructs in the shaping of a rich, complex, sometimes problematic, waterscape.

Urbanity can be defined, in particular, by its diversity (“Religion and Urbanity”, KFG founding text), thus requiring urban actors to agree upon the categorisation and organisation of its constituent parts. Purity and pollution represented, and still represents, an essential societal categorisation parameter (Forth. Purity, Pollution, and Systems of Classification. 2018). In the South Asian context, Dumont’s hierarchy theory has been largely discussed, yet it remains evident that religious, brahmanic material-stemming, views on purity and pollution are a fundamental social marker. Thus, water is not just linked with the materiality of the city via the creation of unrivalled waterscapes, it is also connected with ambivalent parameters that determine the spatial and social organisation of the urban space. Indian urbanity is shaped on multiple levels by the religious precepts and practices related to water.

“The case from India suggests that legal, institutional and political
barriers can be greater obstacles to expanding water access than monetary
or technical challenges, especially for poor urban communities”.
Leaving No One Behind.
UN World Water Report 2019, p.82*

UN recognizes water as a human right since 2010. Yet, in today’s critical demographical and infrastructural global context, many cities struggle to supply safely managed drinking water. In South Asia, a region subject to aridity and irregular rainfalls, urban populations prove vulnerable with regard to water, both in terms of access and quality. Recent crisis of summer 2019 in India confirm the emergency of the situation and the extreme fragility of certain social groups.

Against this dramatic situation, our workshop proposes to look at water(s) and water availability in the broader context of Indian urbanity. As mentioned by the UN report, it is urgent to look beyond material obstacles and to acknowledge the human and social forces at work. The workshop aims to look at the religious and social dynamics that shaped the urban waterscape and thus participated to the formation of the materiality of the city. How did religious precepts and practices determine a graded relationship and access to water? Acknowledging the responsibility of past socio-religious patterns and their resurgences shall help rethinking today’s management of basic amenities in Indian urban centres.

In an urban setting, water is sought, used and disposed of by multiple users. Water and hydraulic facilities are thus plural, and also constantly re-negotiated according to water availability, water usage and socio-political contexts. As a universal cleaning medium -an exacerbated characteristic in the context of Hinduism that insists on the benefits of physical and spiritual cleansing, water is understood as a boundary marker between cleanliness/pollution that tends to overlap the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane. In contrast, boundaries appear flexible and in constant revision, while water also allows boundary crossing as a purificatory agent. The water geography of a city directly reflects on dynamic religious, social and political concerns. The conference looks, in a trans-epochal perspective, at the cities of the Indian subcontinent with the purpose of identifying the efficiency/shortfalls of water access in the pre-modern Indian city. Particularly interested in the entanglement of water, urban development and religious practices, the three panels will address questions such as: How far did water availability and hydraulic structures shape the city topography; what is the share of religion in the making of the urban waterscape, and what were the factors of inclusion/exclusion challenging a sufficient and fair access to water? Reciprocally, were water related religious practices shaped or transformed by the city and the urban environment?

Panel 1. Inconsistent resources. Water as a determining factor of urbanity

Geographical location, topography and climatic conditions pre-define the water resources and the potential hydro-availability of a place. Though water was a determining factor for the development of a settlement, all urban sites do not show equal opportunities to access water. This panel will look at the reciprocal influence of water presence and urban settlement. It will also consider transition periods such as silting or drying-up of a river, climatic changes etc. To what extent water availability was determinant for the foundation of urban sites in India? What were the preferred sites in regards to water access? Could a city foundation initiative successfully solve the aridity issue of a region? Did the development of urban settlements impact the availability of water resources?

Panel 2. Providing access. Infrastructural and normative solutions for water

High water usage, co-spatial uses on confined areas, limited hydro-availability are the conflicting elements that an urban space needs to negotiate. In order to provide water to multiple users and a wide range of uses, urban actors developed various strategies including the construction of hydro-structures through donations, the establishment of maintenance and supervision tools and the development of distribution solutions. What is the nature of the structures built for urban water supply (structural / infrastructural)? How far were religious waterscape, perhaps practices, conditioned by Indian urbanity? What does a donation (dâna) entail? What are the necessary extensions of hydro-structures (maintenance and supervision, distribution)?

Panel 3. Restricting access. Exclusion by water

In the Indian city, urban actors implemented technical and human solutions in order to insure water availability in urban spaces. Yet these solutions often prove ambiguous since they tend to allow competition and exclusion. This panel will look at the political, infrastructural, legal and religious limiting factors that made water an element of power control, discrimination and consumerism. What are the social and religious foundations of water discrimination in the Indian subcontinent? How did the urban society deal with water differentiation (pure/impure uses, social discrimination)? When does water become a matter of oppressive governance? What solutions are implemented to overcome discriminatory water usages?

Call of papers

To submit a paper proposal, please send your abstract (approx. 200 words) with title, 5 keywords and proposed panel to:

The call of papers is now closed.

Summer Workshop

Accessing Water in the South Asian City
Summer Workshop. Erfurt, 08-09 July 2021
Organsised and Funded by the DFG, German Research Foundation – FOR 2779. KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. Conference coordinator: Dr. Sara Keller.

* The United Nations World Water Development Report 2019. Paris 2019.