Four policemen guarding him, two labourers at his command, and Junior Engineer (JE) Rakesh Thakur to monitor his work — in his 22 years of service, Hari Ram (51) says he has never felt this important.
Ram is a keyman, one of 62 on the rolls of the Shimla Municipal Corporation. The city’s keymen, a concept as old as the water network designed by the British in the 1870s, have for decades been turning on the valves that control Shimla’s water distribution network. Now, with the city reeling under an unprecedented water crisis, these are men who, as the High Court said on June 1, “hold the key”.
During the court hearing, when some lawyers accused keymen of favouring hoteliers and VIPs, saying they ensured more water to these areas while depriving water to ordinary citizens, the court said, “It is an open secret that the keyman is the key as far as the distribution of water to the… consumer is concerned. He is the first and the last person between the water available for distribution and the consumer. If he performs his duty honestly, prudently and skillfully, he can ensure equal distribution of water to all, but if a keyman happens to abuse his position, then the results can be disastrous.
“The court is 101 per cent right. Keyman sabse pehle aate hain (The keyman comes first). Unlike towns in plains, which can be supplied from a single feeder, in hilly areas such as Shimla, every locality requires a system where supplies can be manually opened and shut depending on gravity,” says Ram, as he walks up the steel stairs of the water tank at Kelston, a posh residential locality in Shimla.
It’s 5 am and most residents are still asleep, which is just as well.
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“These days, people are very, very angry. Who wouldn’t be without water. But like the court said, we have to act in all fairness,” says Ram, who earns about Rs 33,000 a month. EDITORIAL | The parched hills
In Chotta Shimla, Sanjauli and other areas of the city, residents, frustrated with low supplies, recently attacked keymen and engineers. “People turned violent, started hurling abuses and tried to hold the JE and keyman hostage in these areas,” says one of the constables escorting Ram.
The High Court, which has been holding daily hearings on the water crisis, responded by ordering security to all keymen.
“It is full,” says Ram, peering into the tank, which can hold 12-lakh litres and which supplies to about two dozen localities in the city.
As part of an emergency water rationing measure, the city’s corporation limits have been divided into three zones, with water released to each of these zones in turns. Thus, most localities in the city have been getting water once in three days.
On Tuesday, it’s the turn of the city’s Zone 2 to be supplied with water and Ram had worked overtime till 11 pm the previous night to ensure the tank was filled to its optimal level. This tank had run dry in May, when Kelston, like several other areas in Shimla, had no water supply for almost seven to eight days, with tankers to meet their needs.
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Around 5.30 am, Ram and his team walk up to the valve which supplies to Tarabari locality. In his hand are his keys — two metal rods weighing about 7 kg each. His black backpack holds an emergency hand-held water-quality testing kit and some basic tools.
The valve that supplies to Tarabari is by the road between Kelston and Bharari and Ram turns the key to open it. Just then, his phone rings. “Madam, abhi Tarabari line chal rahi hai. Iske bad aapka (We are supplying to Tarabari… after this, it’s your turn),” he assures the caller. He fields two more such calls. “They all have my number… akbaar mein jo aya tha (the newspapers had it),” he says, adding that the corporation had put out advertisements in newpapers with phone numbers of all keymen.
A few minutes later, Ram shuts down the first supply-line and opens two new lines at Bharari, along with three other branch-pipes feeding Lower-, Middle- and Upper Koftadhar, a downhill locality. All along, he keeps fielding calls – around 15 of them – from people complaining of low-pressure. “Airlock ho raha hain (There is airlock in the pipes),” he tells some of them, promising to attend to their problems.
Ram decides he will have to go down to Koftadhar to check the supply at the tail end and attend to some of these problems. At Koftadhar, a congested locality where people are preparing to start their day, Ram spends more than an hour going from one house to another, checking pipes and unlocking air bubbles. “I will cut down your supply. People are not getting water and here you are wasting,” he warns a family.
Over the next several hours, Ram opens around 25 valves that supply to about two dozen localities. Around 4.50, Ram reaches Dilshant Estate, the last area under his watch. “It was a gruelling day. I am happy nearly 90-95 per cent of the consumers have got water. The situation is much better than earlier. Hopefully, it will improve in the next few days,” he says.