Manasi Phadke and photographer Deepak Joshi make a trip to Diva.
Kavita Kumawat has a train to catch to Mumbra. So she firmly tucks in the loose end of the pallu of her floral polyester sari and hurries to the Diva Junction railway station that’s metres away from her ground-floor house in the Kalubai chawl. Just before she leaves, she picks up what’s now her constant companion on these daily train journeys — an empty steel pot that sits snugly on the left hollow of her waist.
At the station, Kavita joins about eight other women, all carrying pots and cans. A little past 6 pm, the CST local on the Central Line pulls in and the women jostle to enter the first-class compartment, their utensils clanking as they are dragged in.
In Diva, a township of about 4.5 lakh people where Kavita lives, the four-km train ride to Mumbra to fetch drinking water is a daily feature. Every day, Diva residents — mostly women — carry water cans and squeeze themselves into the already-congested compartments of the suburban railway trains. The errand is so routine that many of them don’t even bother to change out of their night clothes or worn-out saris before taking the train.
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Some are working couples, with the husband and wife taking turns to run the water errand. So if one of them wakes up at 4 am to be able to get water from Mumbra before heading to work, the other makes a trip after work in the evening. Some have purchased season tickets to Mumbra just to be able to get water, while many others don’t bother with the tickets. They usually get into first-class compartments because getting into the packed second-class ones with all those water cans is nearly impossible. The railway ticket-checkers, they say, are sympathetic to their predicament and let them travel ticketless. Some residents get their children along to help.
Today is a Sunday and Kavita, a homemaker, is relieved at the thought of winding up her day earlier than usual. On weekdays, the local trains are choc-a-bloc and Kavita can’t think of setting foot into a compartment with a water pot in hand during peak hours — she does the trip twice, in the afternoon and after 9 pm.
By the time she is back from Mumbra at night, with barely enough water to last her household till the next afternoon, it is usually past midnight. And then, she has to catch the train by noon the following day.
Located just 22 km northeast from the farthest point of Mumbai, Diva (the name means ‘light’ in Marathi) is perhaps one of its darkest spots, the township’s daily struggle for water cocking a snook at fanciful growth projections of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region of which it is a part.
Diva is within 10 km of upcoming super luxury projects such as Lodha’s Palava City at Kalyan-Shil Phata and those of the Wadhwa, Rustomjee and Hiranandani groups, all promising lush green lawns, gyms and swimming pools. Besides, it is right in the middle of Kalyan and Kalwa, two satellite towns of Mumbai that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has projected as future smart cities. The township, spread over about 18 kilometres, is cramped with clusters of buildings separated by narrow alleys. Despite its water woes, Diva commands a property rate of about Rs 3,000 to 4,000 per square foot.
Most households here get water for about 10 minutes every two or three days, that too unannounced, at any time of the day or night. Residents say these are the luckier households — for, there are some taps in Diva that have stayed dry for years.
Despite this, the Shiv Sena-BJP controlled Thane Municipal Corporation, under whose administrative jurisdiction Diva falls, continues to send regular water bills to its residents. Some brazenly refuse to pay for a service they have never got, while others pay, hoping the situation might improve some day. According to a corporation official who didn’t want to be named, in the last financial year, they collected about Rs 1.45 crore in the form of water tax from Diva and another Rs 7.5 crore as property tax.
“Why should we pay when we don’t get even a drop of water?” snaps 54-year-old Lata Shelke, a homemaker who lives with her 16-year-old daughter in one of the farthest corners of Diva East. “I can’t remember the last time water flowed from our tap. Must have been at least three or four years ago. Still, the corporation regularly sent us water bills. A few months ago, they cut our water connection saying we hadn’t paid our bills.” Shelke herself doesn’t do the train trips but buys a pot of water for Rs 50 from women who have made a business of getting water from Mumbra.
Shreya Jadhav, 27, says she is regular with her water bills. She begins her day at 6 am, makes two trips to Mumbra for water, each time climbing three floors up to her house with a 20-litre water can, and sleeps much past midnight. In between, she packs in an 8-hour call centre job in Thane and does her household chores. “Even after all that water I get from Mumbra, I end up buying mineral water for my year-old daughter. Half my monthly salary of Rs 6,000 is spent in getting water. But we still pay our water bills because I don’t want to lose the five-minute supply I get.”
Diva has sufficient ground water that borewells pull up. However, with the area surrounded by the marshlands of the Thane creek, the groundwater is highly saline and unfit for drinking or cooking.
Fifty-year-old Chandrakala Baraskar from Nagwadi, one of the areas in Diva worst affected by the water crisis, says, “We use the bore water for our toilets, bathing, brushing, washing clothes. The water is so saline that if I put it in a kadhai on fire, I can actually make salt.”
Back in the train compartment, the women squat right at the entrance — their pots and cans spread out before them. The conversation inside the train is mostly idle chatter, though water is a recurring theme. A woman tells Kavita about the wedding of her neighbour’s daughter. “The wedding will be held in their village. Imagine arranging for water for all those guests in Diva,” she exclaims. There are guffaws and a few sighs and the women get talking again.
At Mumbra, Kavita and the others make their way out of the railway station, crossing the road to a Hanuman temple that has a public tap. For “smaller needs”, she says, people in the township go to the lone tap at the Diva railway station where authorities allow residents to fill one water can each.
At the tap in the temple, there is already a queue. A group of women gets into a squabble as one of them attempts to fill a third can after filling her quota of two.
On their way back to the Mumbra station platform, Kavita and her neighbours cross the railway tracks because it is too much of an effort to walk to the other end of the station and take the foot over-bridge with all those water cans.
After a 10-minute wait, a train pulls in. But the women’s compartment is packed so Kavita decides to give this train a miss. She lets one more train pass before boarding the next. “It’s better today as it’s a Sunday,” says Kavita.
All along Diva, water pipelines by the dozens jut out from the main waterlines of the town, snaking their way from the arterial roads to the tapered lanes, desperately trying to pull water into buildings. Inside a nearly-dry shallow well near Mumbradevi Colony in Diva, at least 20 jet pumps are at work in a desperate effort to draw water.
“Just 10 years ago, Diva was not how you see it today,” says Shailesh Patil, the local corporator of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. “Water was never a problem then. Diva was mostly open farmlands with a few old buildings. In just a decade, the population surged from thousands to lakhs. People looking for space closer to Mumbai came to Diva. The civic infrastructure simply could not keep up with the spurt in population,” says Patil, adding that some areas closer to the corporation’s main water lines get “adequate” supply for about 2-3 hours a day and the supply tapers as one moves further away.
A corporation official said the population of Diva shot up between 2011 and 2015, growing more than six times to 4.5 lakh now from about 70,000 then. As the demand for housing skyrocketed, illegal buildings mushroomed.
Two years ago, the corporation increased the daily water supply to Diva from 15 million litres to 18.5 million litres. However, a constrained distribution network meant that nothing really changed for those who needed it the most.
Vijay Bhoir, a local NCP leader, says, “More than 95 per cent of the construction in Diva is unauthorised and the existing water supply network can’t meet their needs. Unfortunately, the administration’s effort until now has been on getting more water sanctioned for Diva, but the problem really is in the distribution network. Until that is strengthened, the water problem will continue.”
For now, the corporation has its “plans” — lay additional water pipelines in some of the worst-affected areas, provide concrete casing for the water lines to check pilferage, and form a vigil squad by June to keep an eye on illegal water connections.
Kavita isn’t banking on any of these “plans”. As she hauls her steel pot over the threshold of her house, she has plans of her own. It’s already 9.30 pm, late for dinner. But before that, she pours some of the water she has just got from Mumbra into a utensil and puts it on boil. That done, Kavita sits down for the biggest indulgence — she pours herself a glass full of water and guzzles it down.