Ten musty green wagons brimming with water stood still on the railway tracks at the Jhansi railway station on May 9 for the sixth consecutive day without a destination. As goods trains, wagons topped with coal and petroleum, chugged in and out of the desolate yard, the water train sent by the Centre to supply water to Bundelkhand awaited “further orders”.
The train had reached Jhansi from Ratlam on May 4, but as the Uttar Pradesh government locked horns with the Centre and communicated that it had no use for a train and instead demanded water tankers, it was parked at the yard. Two days later, as both exchanged charges of “politicising” the issue, the wagons were brought out onto one of the main tracks and filled with 70,000 litres of processed water per wagon from taps that supply to passenger trains at the junction.
Three days later, in this parched land, there were still no takers for the train, now parked back at the yard, or its 7 lakh litres of water.
But for the curious onlookers, that is. Porters and passengers, station staff, workers at the wagon maintenance and repair workshop, local leaders and the media all stopped for a glimpse, some peering through other coaches blocking their view, others navigating their way across the tracks for a closer look.
“I have never seen a water train at this station nor heard of any such requirement in this region before. I am not sure whose idea this was but nobody seems to want it,” an elderly worker at the wagon maintenance workshop leading into the yard said, while remarking on the fact that the water wagons looked the same as fuel ones. “There is hardly anything special about them except of course the whole politics surrounding them.”
A porter at the station regretted the waste of it all. “The 7 lakh litres of water will be of no use if it keeps stagnating for days here. At a time when there is such a water crisis in the region, isn’t this a sheer waste? This could have been supplied elsewhere instead,” he said.
Unimpressed, the Uttar Pradesh administration stuck to its stand. Both Jhansi District Magistrate Ajay Kumar Shukla and his counterpart in neighbouring Mahoba said they had given in writing that there was no use for a water train in the region.
“In the first place, we did not even make any request for such a train. Yes there is a water crisis, but we need to reach water to people’s doorstep. That can be done with water tankers. That is what we need. Not a train to stand at a station,” said an exasperated Shukla. “So we have ourselves made arrangements for at least 100 water tankers that are making multiple rounds to deliver water to rural as well as urban areas. We have asked all agencies that have water tankers, such as the PWD, Jal Sansthan, Irrigation Department among others, to lend their tankers too so that we are able to press as many as possible into service.”
Around 300 rounds were being made by the tankers daily, the DM added. “While 34 water tankers are catering to 26 villages, the remaining are delivering to urban areas. That apart, we have sanctioned new handpumps for 80 villages, the Irrigation Department is digging new wells and we have decided to keep canals in the district fully recharged with water from May 15 to 25. These measures will take water to people’s homes. A water train can do none of this.”
Bundelkhand has been facing one of the worst droughts in years. Its seven districts falling in Uttar Pradesh, namely Jhansi, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Banda, Chitrakoot, Hamirpur and Mahoba, have had scant rainfall. According to officials, 85 per cent of the land is unsown in worst-affected Mahoba.
While scarcity of foodgrains and fodder for animals has been reported from most regions, some areas are also facing drinking water shortage.
On May 9, after five days of back and forth, the train pulled out of the Jhansi station at around 7 pm and returned to Ratlam, 570 km away. Over two days, on May 13 and 14, it was emptied of its water, which was used up at the Ratlam station itself.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear who will pay for the train that no one wanted. Though the local administration is usually expected to foot the bill for a water train, in this case the Railways is yet to take a call.
Chief Public Relations Officer, North Central Railways, Bijay Kumar said, “Since the local administration did not ask for the train nor did it use it, we are not sure who will foot the bill. It is for the Centre to decide. We are not aware of this.”
Photojournalist Ravi Kanojia was electrocuted while taking a photograph of the water train in Jhansi