Every day, Dinesh Kumar Sharma, 47, drives his water tanker to a pumping station at Yamuna Vihar, from where around 50 tankers like his fan out across east Delhi, supplying a priceless essential commodity: drinking water.
Sharma has been a water tanker driver for the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) for the last 20 years, but these days, as he sits at the wheel of his truck — its 5,000-litre tanker filled to capacity, the dripping water from the tap at the rear leaving a wet patch of black on the tarmac as usual — he knows something has changed. For one, the roads, deserted as a result of the 21-day lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus, seem wider and there are fewer interruptions, except for the police barricades.
The nine water and nine main sewage treatment plants of the DJB, the agency that’s responsible for supplying potable water to the capital, have been working 24×7 to ensure that it supplies over 900 million gallons per day (MGD) of water and recycles around 500 MGD of waste water daily. Workers involved in the operation of plants and at the DJB’s quality control laboratories have all been reporting to work every day, as are the water tanker drivers who supply to around 550 unauthorised colonies and JJ cluster areas that have no supply lines. While projects such as construction work and laying of water and sewage pipelines have been temporarily discontinued, those from the ministerial divisions and administrative divisions have been largely asked to work from home.
Sharma says he worked even during the recent riots in Delhi — Yamuna Vihar was among the localities that were hit during the communal clashes over the Citizenship Amendment Act in February.
“Everyone knows us in the areas we work. I have even given my phone number to people, telling them they can call me directly if they have problems and can’t get through to the helpline or the officials,” says Sharma.
Every day, Sharma, who lives in Ghaziabad with his two sons, would take a bus to Yamuna Vihar and reach the pumping station, where his tanker would be parked. Once his turn comes, he positions his truck below one of the large faucets at the station while a person inside the control room switches on the motor to fill water in the tanker.
Sharma usually makes at least three to four rounds a day between the pumping station at Yamuna Vihar and the colonies he supplies to, mostly night shelters and slum clusters in areas such as Shiv Vihar, Gokalpuri and Maujpur.
But these are unusual times.
“With all this coronavirus, my family and neighbours keep telling me to stay at home… but how can I do that? If we stop going to work out of fear, how will people get water?,” he says.
So these days, he drives with a mask on and wears gloves too. “The department gave us these masks and gloves. They also gave us a demo on how to wear these and how we must wash hands frequently, maintain a distance from each other, not touch our faces, etc. I wear the mask all the time, but these rubber gloves make my hands sweat a lot, so I wear them only while driving. Anyway, I use a sanitiser when I get home because my house is on the third floor and I take the support of the railings as I climb up,” he says.
While Sharma says he understands the importance of these measures, he adds: “Initially, when we went to the colonies to distribute water, we had a hard time getting people to maintain some distance between themselves and not crowd around like they usually do. Now they all know that they should stand apart, we don’t need to tell them anymore.”
Sanjay Sharma, a chief water analyst at the DJB, says the department is trying to make arrangements for employees to stay in some of the empty DJB staff quarters.
“That will save them the hassle of finding transport to work and back. Even if we use the buses allotted for essential services, we tend to touch handles and seats and we don’t know who and what’s infected,” says Sharma.
Hemlata Rao, 48, who works as an assistant chemist at the DJB’s Okhla sewage treatment plant laboratory, commutes to Delhi from Gurgaon’s Sector 37C every day.
She has been carpooling to the office from Sikandarpur in Gurgaon, where her husband drops her off and picks her up. “Since I have a DJB identity card, police do not ask a lot of questions, but my husband has to answer them when he’s driving back… But the work we do here, of quality control, is crucial. We do sample collection, testing and have to ensure the quality standards are followed stringently. The plant won’t function without that. Which means, no water,” says Rao.
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