Sanjay Colony in south Delhi is a slum cluster spread over roughly 25 acres of land. In the shadow of the Capital’s tourist landmark Lotus Temple, approximately 50,000 people live in semi-pucca houses stacked haphazardly. This Thursday, around 8 in the morning, loud music is blaring from a Maa Bhagwati jagran, where prayers have gone on for most of the preceding night.
Barely 30 metres away, a queue of people wait along a road for a water tanker. Some stand atop their 20 to 30-litre water cans, hoping to be the first to spot it. The 9,000-litre Delhi Jal Board tankers, which come four times a day and thrice in the mornings (6, 7.30 and 9.30 am), are the slum’s only source of water. Suddenly, there is a buzz that the tanker may not come. Tempers rise swiftly, before it turns out that this was just a rumour. This is routine, reassures Kamrul Hasan. “Yeh roz ka hai, humari aadat ho gayi hai is ladai ki. Par haan, agar koi baahar ka aadmi aata hai, to usko yeh dekh kar jhatka toh lagega (This is an everyday affair for us, but yes, if outsiders see it, they would be shocked),” says Hasan.
The 50-year-old, who says he has lived in this slum all his life, is among those standing atop an upturned can. He has three 20-litre cans with him, for his joint family of 12. The fight for water is not restricted to this road, he points out. “Who will bathe, whose clothes will get washed… there are disputes over these things in our homes almost every day. Then there are disputes over who will use how much water. The children sometimes use up all the water and we can’t even say anything,” Hasan says, his eyes returning to the direction from which the tanker will come.
Hasan hasn’t heard about the tweet posted on October 1 by Union Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan, in time for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan anniversary. “Even if someone’s poor & wears torn clothes — as long as they’re clean, they may gain our sympathy but never our repulsion #SwachhataHiSeva,” Vardhan tweeted.
Most people waiting for the tanker agree, including those jostling to ensure they are the first to get to the water. “He is absolutely right, cleanliness is important,” says Aftab Alam, 50, clad in a white kurta-pyjama. “But I want to ask the politician one thing. How do we maintain cleanliness when the area we live in has open drains which flood every time it rains? Our houses are not far from a dumping ground. How do we stay clean if we don’t get enough water?” says Alam, who works as a tailor. Alam is still talking when he is cut short. “Tanker aa gaya, tayyar ho jao (The tanker is here, get ready),” a young boy is yelling.
As the jostling intensifies, the tanker, with ‘Ni-shulk peyjal (Free drinking water)’ written on it in black paint over a yellow panel, trundles towards the waiting group in a crawl. Alam joins those trying to get in the front, his outrage forgotten.
There is a method to filling the cans, explains one. “Every household sends two people to fill water, one of them climbs atop the tanker and puts a pipe that he or she has brought along in it, the other takes the other end of the pipe and sucks on it to get the water flowing into the cans,” says Vikas Kumar, 31, a DTC bus conductor. His brother is atop the tanker today and as he throws down the pipe for Vikas, the 31-year-old looks satisfied as his cans fill up.
Vikas is putting the pipe in a third can when someone objects, saying they should not use up all the water. Vikas ignores him. “Main toh apne teen tanker bharoonga (I will fill my three cans),” he argues.
The tanker is there for less than 10 minutes, when driver Dileep starts the engine to leave. People object, saying there is still some water left in the tanker. Dileep decides to wait, till all the water is drained.
Pointing out that he has been operating tankers like these in Delhi for 16-17 years, Dileep says, “Five tankers come here in the summer. These days, only four come. Nothing has changed in this area in the last 16 years since I’ve been coming.” As he drives off minutes later, there are still around 30-40 people left with empty cans. They will have to return for the 9.30 tanker.
Two teenage boys, Sahil Ansari and Siddhartha Kumar, with two filled cans each, shake hands enthusiastically. Neighbours at the slum and best friends, they go to the nearby Government Senior Secondary school. Siddhartha is in Class 11 and Sahil in Class 10. “Day before yesterday, we went to school wearing our home clothes because our uniform was not washed. We were made to stand outside our classroom for one period,” says Siddhartha. After ensuring that the small lids atop their cylindrical black water cans are shut tight, the two head home rolling the cans with their feet. The 40-litre cans are too heavy, and while they are mindful that the slush might get into the water, they say, “We don’t have an option.”
Soon, it’s evident why. Their shanties are located up a narrow lane, where all the dwellings are built above ground level. The residents sit outside, with spaces inside almost entirely taken up by their belongings. One single-room house, right at the start of the lane, is crammed with eight water cans.
As soon as they get to their homes, Vikas and Sahil start preparing to wash their clothes. They bring out a brush, a bucket and a bar of Ghadi brand detergent soap from inside. Placing these next to the water cans, Siddhartha plonks down on the side of the lane, making a clearing in an area layered with moss, and asks Sahil to help him check the pockets of their trousers and shirts to ensure these don’t have any money.
“Abhi dho-dha ke khatam karte hain (Let’s get it over with rightaway),” says Sahil, noting that they are lucky to have got water on a day that is a school holiday due to Valmiki Jayanti. Sahil fills a small bucket with some water and dips in their uniforms, including shirts, trousers and socks. “We’ll leave the clothes soaked and rinse them later when the dirt is washed away,” says Sahil, expertly managing in the small space. The clothes will be put out to dry on the roofs of their houses.
Ten houses away, Aftab Alam is sitting despondent. He was among those who returned home with empty water cans. His wife Rukhsana Ansari is scolding him. Alam and Rukhsana share the two-room house with four daughters and one son. The energy he showed just a little while ago long drained out of him, Alam murmurs that he has grown old doing this. “There are fights almost every day over water. At least one case reaches the police station every week. It is a real struggle for someone like me.”
He doesn’t blame his wife for being angry, Alam adds, while wishing he could take his annoyance out on someone too. “She’s right, if I can’t get water, then we’ll have to buy it, Rs 25 for every 20 litres.” Thirty minutes after he has reached home, the 50-year-old sets out again. Two empty cans in hand.