On March 20 this year, when the peak of summer was yet to arrive, 60-year-old Lal Bahadur died a peculiar death. As his family and neighbours in Wazirpur pushed and shoved to collect water from a tanker, a fight broke out. Bahadur tried to intervene, only to be beaten till he collapsed and died.
The incident might sound like an anomaly, but fights over water are nothing new.
A drying river, a legal dispute between two states, and the vagaries of nature have meant that the capital has witnessed a string of water-stressed years of late.
In its summer action plan released in April, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) decided to increase its water treatment capacity to 916 million gallons daily (MGD). While the capacity exists, there isn’t enough raw water to supply the same. So far, the board has managed to provide 860 MGD to its almost
2 crore residents on an average this summer — against the demand of 1,200 MGD.
Such is the pressure that the Delhi government went to court against the Haryana government, with which it has a water-sharing pact. The AAP government claimed Haryana has denied Delhi its share of water leading up to the summer. But in a recent meeting with the Upper Yamuna River Board, the government was urged to withdraw all cases against the Haryana government, after an assurance by the state that it will release 1,080 cusecs of water to the capital.
“Haryana has assured the Board and us that it will release this water if the cases are withdrawn. The problem is that it leaves us with very little wiggle room. If Haryana does not release the water, we will have to initiate another court case. The situation has been quite tense over the past few months,” DJB vice-chairperson Dinesh Mohaniya admitted.
A stark indicator of the water crisis was on display when a massive fire broke out in Malviya Nagar last week. With fire tenders using 8 lakh litres of water and an Indian Air Force helicopter using 7,500 litres more to put out the blaze, the DJB sent out desperate messages informing residents that supply would be affected the next day.
When an electric panel at the Haiderpur water treatment plant — Delhi’s largest, with a capacity of 226 MGD — caught fire on Thursday, it sent panic waves through the DJB. The plant, which treats water meant for southwest and New Delhi areas, had to shut down, crippling water supply.
“In non-summer months, no one would even come to know that something like this happened. But this is like an emergency, where each hour of delay is crucial,” said Mohaniya. The Indian Express visited three of the worst-hit areas in the city — and discovered that each has a peculiar set of troubles, and no imminent solutions.
Around noon on Thursday, a 2,000-litre water tanker began reversing into one of the many narrow lanes of Deoli village in Sangam Vihar — Asia’s largest unauthorised colony and one of Delhi’s driest.
On its way, a hump on the road forced it to jump, spilling drinking water on the road. When the front wheels went over the same hump, a crack in the tanker’s underbelly spilled some more. A soft, defeated groan escaped the 40-odd families that stood waiting with around 30 ten-litre blue tanks. They held a pipe in their hands, the other end connected to a small motor to lead the water into the tanks above their homes.
The area is used to water scarcity, with the pipeline being laid just a year ago. Elections here are fought on promises of water, but this year is different. The colony had been surviving on illegal water tankers and borewells for decades. While the first has been curtailed significantly, borewells were sealed two weeks ago, after orders from the National Green Tribunal.
This hasn’t gone down too well with local builder Vicky Singhal, who said it’s been over a month since he supplied water to his building, which has around 10 families. “Usually it would have cost only Rs 400 for a tanker. But the government went on a drive to seal some borewells in the area, which caused a supply crunch. Now we have to shell out at least Rs 1,500,” he said.
Saket SDM Ramchandra Shingare confirmed the crackdown. “Last Friday, we sealed around four borewells and underground tanks, and seized six tankers that were involved in diverting Jal Board water. These were illegal borewells and we had given them enough time to show licences before taking action,” he said. The groundwater exploitation in the area has reached alarming levels, with the minimum depth going around 300 feet. The ideal level in this area should be 75-100 feet.
Outside each house in the area is a pipe jutting out of the ground. “That’s the connection from the water treatment plant in Sonia Vihar. It rarely works and when it does, water comes for an hour very early in the morning,” said Neha (22).
While the Jal Board tanker is supposed to offer free water, residents claim they have to shell out Rs 10 per tank to get them to come into the lane. “They say the filling point is only at the end of the lane, and they have no reason to reverse. We have to give them an incentive,” claimed 45-year-old Kailash, Neha’s father, as he began filling his third tank.
One solution, they said, is to either privatise the sector or give them metered connections. “The piping networks have all been laid out here. None of us want the water for free,” said Deendayal, Kailash’s neighbour. “When electricity was regularised, we got our connections too. No one bothered to steal electricity meant for someone else.”
When it came to power in 2015, the AAP government had announced a scheme to provide 20,000 litres of free water to every household in the capital. The scheme recently came under the scanner of the Delhi High Court, which said the benefit should not be extended to the rich who can afford to pay for it.
At this village in southwest Delhi, water scarcity is acute but has also become a force of habit. At the relatively affluent Kuan Colony, each house receives water once every three days. In the peripheral areas such as Bengali Colony, the intervals can stretch to well above 10 days. Residents, however, said this is no different from what they have to deal with every year. The area, mostly ignored unless elections are close, has devised its own systems to survive.
Low-income residents living in rented accommodations in Bengali Colony claimed that the only ‘regular’ source of water are tankers from the Jal Board, which come once every 10 days. “Landowners have to go to the Jal Board office and ask that a tanker be sent, and that process itself takes three-four days. When the tanker comes, we fill up as many canisters as we can,” said a tenant.
To meet basic needs on other days, residents claimed they purchase water from borewells for Rs 3-5 per canister. Some residents have set up pipes connected to borewells. One of them, Sharbati Devi, said, “I pay Rs 400 a month for the connection, but I get water once every 15 days from it.”
Tughlakabad MLA Sahi Ram said Bengali Colony and Surya Colony are the two of the worst-hit areas of the village. “To solve this, we are working on laying a new water line for these two areas, the budget for which is
Rs 7 crore. However, this will take between one-two months,” he said.
Asked why residents were paying private parties to receive water from borewells provided by the government, the MLA said, “The Jal Board has not appointed people to operate the borewells. People who retired 10-15 years ago have not been replaced, so locals make their own arrangements.”
Amit, who ‘runs’ a borewell in Bengali Colony, said that he takes Rs 100 per month from each house connected to it. He added that ‘his’ borewell caters to four lanes. “We supply each lane in turns. Since completing the supply to each house can take two days, each house gets water about once a week.” He estimates that there are nine such borewells in Bengali Colony, and about 70 in Tughlakabad village.
Nikhat Parveen, a resident of Surya Colony, claimed, “My house hasn’t received water for the last 16 days, but it’s the same story year after year. We have to run around asking for water, buying it, saving it. My daughter was once sent back by her teacher for not bathing. As if it’s her fault.”
The ambush was set at 3 pm. A boy was the scout — men, women and children armed with cans and hoses waited behind him. “Tanker! Tanker!” the scout screamed as the Jal Board vehicle made its way through the lane between the Qatar and South Korean embassies in Chanakyapuri.
As soon as it stopped at the entrance of Sanjay Camp, a jhuggi cluster hidden behind the palatial buildings with manicured lawns, residents climbed on top of the tanker and started pumping the water out.
Within 10 minutes, it was all over. The tanker left faster than it arrived. Women and children were left looking at their cans that weren’t nearly as full as they had hoped, while the stronger adults had managed to wrest precious water. The next round would be tomorrow morning.
The tankers provide water to a small portion of the population here. One tanker comes twice a day at each of the three entrances into the camp. Three lines from the main borewell supply water to the interiors.
“That comes for two-three hours every day, three times. You can imagine how an area with 50 families manages with just a single pipe. It’s very difficult,” said Mohammad Mukhim, a shopkeeper.
Kiran, who manages a borewell supply pipe, said tensions sometime rise as the wait for water keeps getting longer. “We have to live with our neighbours and often rely on them too,” she said. “The supply we get from the borewell is good but often not enough. The biggest problem is the NDMC toilet, which has been without water.”
At the colony entrance close to the Nigerian embassy, the public toilet meant for jhuggi residents is in bad shape. When
The Indian Express visited, the taps were dry and the toilets dirty. “It’s been like this for two months. They used to charge us to use it. But look at the state now. There was supposed to be a separate borewell supply for it, but that too has failed,” said a resident.
There is only one hand pump for the whole camp, at the entrance near the Nigerian Embassy. In a park outside the South Korean Embassy, another borewell is being dug for Sanjay Camp. “We had to dig 350 feet to find water,” said a worker, toiling away under the harsh summer sun.