Is a pool in a slum a luxury? The presence of water is widely considered an essential condition for life and this condition obviously makes no exception for life in slums. Nowadays we are used to simply taking water from a tap but there are places where water is handled in a very different way. This post is about everyday water management and how it has changed with the coming of modern technology. Slums are the ideal place when you want to see how this kind of changes unfold.
Let’s start with a short clip from Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the scene with the religious riots that dramatically change the lives of Jamal, Salim and Latika. The location of the scene is a place in Dharavi Mumbai. Pay attention to what people are normally doing here, before the scene goes to the riots.
Laundry, it’s the place where people do their laundry. It is a beautiful example of traditional water supply in a community. Places like this can be found all over India. The simplest version is a natural pond or a river. As you know, India’s climate is rather binary with incessant rain during monsoon (June-September) and none of it in the rest of the year. This means that groundwater is the most important water reservoir and ponds are the natural access to this groundwater. A place like this is called a kund.
|People doing laundry in a pond. Bihar July 2014.|
For centuries, people have dug deep wells to reach groundwater and as it required so much effort, the wells are typically made by communities. A marvelous invention is the step well, a pool lined with steps. These too are called kunds. They are often amazing pieces of architecture.
|Deep step well in Abnerhi UP. 2012.|
|Step well near Varanasi. Januari 2018.|
|Men shaving each other at the kund. Near Varanasi, January 2018.|
|Boys collecting plastic bottles at Mahamaham kund in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu 2018.|
As said, kunds can be found in many cities but since the introduction of piped water they are gradually disappearing. Less and less people use the kunds and thus there are less people to maintain them. Less people help to keep them clean and one after the other kunds become waste dumps. Once filled, the place falls into the hands of real estate development. Thousands of kunds have disappeared already. 
|Dharavi Dhobi Ghat in January 2010.|
Back to Dharavi. The kund you saw in the movie is a so called Dhobi Ghat, a launderer’s place. And it has gone through the same stages of modernization. In 2008 it was still working well. Water poured in from a nearby river and provided a generous washing place. A few years later the water was diverted and Dharavi’s dhobi ghat fell near to dry. Like in many of the other places, the pool became a waste dump. In 2018 we can still see the dhobis do laundry at that very same spot but the natural water has gone. The only water available is piped water. Washing and rinsing is no longer done in a convenient pool, it is confined to plastic barrels.
|Modernity dictates the use of scarce drinking water for laundering.|
The paradoxical thing here is that modernity has replaced ‘unsafe’ open water with piped drinking water whereas the city is constantly suffering from water shortage. Traditional use of open water for washing would save so much costly drinking water. When looking for sustainable water supplies, the choice for open water is a no-brainer.
Life requires more than only the drinkable version of water. Open water like in the traditional kund is just as essential. A pool in the slums therefore is certainly not to be considered a luxury. Its value in terms of generous water supply, social cohesion, empowerment and open space for leisure cannot be delivered through pipes and taps.
 Matthew Neville, ‘Banganga Enduring Tank, Regenerative Tissue’, in Reclaiming (the Urbanism of) Mumbai, ed. by Kelly Shannon and Janina Gosseye, Explorations in/of Urbanism, 3 (Amsterdam: Sun Academia, 2009), pp. 111–19.