Carrying around 3.7 lakh litres of potable water over 200 km, India’s first water train chugged into Rajkot on May 2, 1986, afternoon, cheered by thousands.
Saurashtra had been seeing consecutive drought years in the 1980s. In 1986, it rained a bit, but far from enough. By February 1986, all the sources of water in Rajkot, the biggest city of Saurashtra with a population of around five lakh then, had almost dried up.
“We had no option but to look outside for water,” says Janak Kotak, a BJP leader who was then a corporator and later became the mayor of Rajkot. “Tubewells were drilled, around a thousand water tankers were engaged. But the situation turned worse with summer… Then mayor of Rajkot Vajubhai Vala requested the state government to do something, else the entire city faced the prospect of migration.”
Chief Minister Amarsinh Chaudhary decided on water trains. Recalls Pravin Laheri, who was then joint secretary in the Water Supply Department and retired as the chief secretary of Gujarat, “Water had been shipped to Jamnagar during World War II. But that was not feasible as Rajkot is away from the coast. So we consulted some national experts. There was no pipeline network in Saurashtra at that time and experts said transporting bulk water on road was not viable due to the capacity limitation of tankers. Trains did have a water wagon when they were powered by steam engines. Since Rajkot had a rail line, we decided on the train option.”
Water was transported to Rajkot both from a cluster of tubewells in Gandhinagar, around 220 km away, and from Dhatarwadi dam in Amreli, 200 km away. It took two months for the preparations to be finished, including cleaning the wagons using soda ash.
Six trains eventually brought in 30 lakh litres of water daily to Rajkot. “It was a war-like situation,” says Ravindrasinh Chudasama, then a junior clerk with the municipal corporation. “Then municipal commissioner of Rajkot, S Jagdeeshan, formed four-member teams to oversee operations of tankers (supplying water to areas). My job was to jump up the tanker and check if it was full.”
There was strict rationing, says Kotak. “Our tankers would stand at chowks and residents would queue up to get their daily quota of six buckets each.”
Current Rajkot Mayor Jaiman Upadhyay is among those who remembers those long queues. “Every other aspect of life took a backseat then… I recall I would tie a goli (metal pot) to my bicycle and my sisters and I would go to the Aji river to fetch water for washing etc,” he says.
The water trains ran for around six weeks. “In mid-June, the region received good pre-monsoon showers, and the crisis ended,” says Laheri.
He adds that while Gujarat never tried water trains again, many state governments, including Maharashtra, later sent teams to Rajkot to study the operation.
Today, Rajkot gets water from the Narmada river via a network of canals and pipelines. No new local source has been added since.