This paper seeks to contribute to the limited literature on water governance in small towns in India. For assessing water governance, we propose a broad framework encompassing adequacy and affordability, equity, sustainability and responsiveness. Analytically, the concept of ‘service modality’ is expanded to include not only institutional arrangements but also water resource deployment, and placed within a framework that includes multiple contextual variables as well. We use this framework to carry out an inductive analysis by comparing water service delivery and governance in four small towns across two states (Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) in southern India. Apart from differences in size, the towns differ in the institutional arrangements – from fully municipal management to a combination to complete para-statal management – and in the deployment of water resources – only ground water to a mixed supply of ground and surface water (dual sourcing). Data were gathered using a combination of household surveys, metering, records, and interviews. Dual sourcing resulted in adequate supply and optimization vis-à-vis end uses. Inter-household inequity is driven by socio-economic differences amongst households, but can be mitigated to an extent by increasing public tap density. But water resource use is not physically or financially sustainable. The responsiveness to citizen needs was significantly higher when the distribution was done by the local governments. Separation of roles, with para-statals providing bulk supply of surface water, and local governments managing the distribution of this and groundwater, may be an optimal service modality.

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