By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Sangam Vihar, like no other place in the national capital, exemplifies the curious situation that prevails with respect to availability of water for India’s citizens living on the margins of its urban centres.
Also known as Asia’s largest illegal colony, Sangam Vihar, was made into an assembly constituency in 2008.
With a population of a few lakhs – exact numbers are disputed as an Express article shows – the colony’s water woes reflect the deeply flawed way in which distribution of the precious resource is carried out at an official level in Delhi.
According to a New York Times article, “Delhi has a population of 17 million and requires 1.025 billion gallons of water a day, as per Delhi government statistics. Six water treatment plants run by the government produce 818 million gallons of water a day. These official estimates suggest that Delhi faces a shortage of 207 million gallons of water a day.”
For example, no house in Sangam Vihar, a concrete maze of newly constructed shops and houses, has a water meter. And that’s because no one in the entire colony has an official connection for water.
The residents of the colony are dependent on illegal tankers and pipelines for fulfilling their water needs. In fact, even tube-wells installed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) have been ‘occupied’ by local heavyweights in some cases.
DJB whose Vice-Chairman Dinesh Mohaniya of the Aam Aadmi Party is also the local MLA of Sangam Vihar, released a notice in 2014, claiming that it had regained control of the private tube-wells from the local heavyweights. The notice also claimed that the Resident Welfare Associations were now in charge of distribution of water from these tube-wells, as per an arrangement with the DJB.
Reports in the media added that the DJB had okayed the plan to install a pipeline in the area last December at the proposed cost of several crores.
Posters visible on the colony’s walls (pictured above) celebrate this ‘achievement’ ascribing it to the work done by the AAP leaders of the area.
However, three months down the line, work is yet to be completed.
Initially, as I walked in and spoke to residents, I was surprised to hear them say that water was abundantly available and the problems had eased. “We have been getting enough water for the last three-four months,” is what a few residents told me. However, they were not willing to go into the details.
It was Anuj Gupta, a local activist, who explained how the miracle had been achieved: with pilferage.
Gupta was earlier with the Aam Aadmi Party but disillusioned with its performance in power, he has chosen to side with the Swaraj Abhiyan, a dissident group led by Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, former comrades of the CM Arvind Kejriwal.
Gupta, who has a well-appointed office for someone holding no official position, told me that the colony’s residents were still largely dependent on illegal, ‘private’ tankers that ply in the area to fulfill their water needs. This was corroborated by residents I spoke to later.
Nizamuddin, a tailor and a resident of the colony, said that on an average, a family required at least 60 litres of water for its daily needs. “A can of water with 20 litres comes for Rs. 20-25. Everyone ends up spending Rs. 2000-3000 for water per month.” For the residents of this lower-middle class colony, that amounts to a serious dent in their earnings.
However, the situation has improved dramatically lately only because water from Sonia Vihar water treatment plant that passes through the colony is being siphoned off by the residents, according to both Gupta and Nizamuddin, and several others who preferred anonymity.
Other than Nizamuddin, the rest of the locals I spoke to preferred to have their names concealed as pilfering water and buying it from tankers that operate illegally makes them guilty as well.
Gupta added that Delhi Jal Board’s tankers were also available for supplying water to the residents. However, he alleged that they were operated strictly as per the wishes of local AAP and some BJP leaders who made sure that the water reached only their loyalists. He also alleged that local leaders from both parties continued to control tube-wells installed by the DJB.
Gupta told me that a local AAP leader Jitender Singh alias Jeetu ji, who also served as the in-charge of the assembly constituency for the party, was in possession of several tube-wells and ran the operations illegally.
While waiting for Jeetu ji to arrive at his office, I spoke to the AAP activists about the situation. They were a young lot, with one of them sitting behind a computer and making Aadhaar cards for the locals.
Initially, they maintained that nothing illegal was going on, while speaking on-the-record. Abhijeet Kumar, secretary of ward number 188 told me that there was “hardly any water problem” in the area. “It has been resolved to a great degree. Only the hilly areas are still suffering from a lack of water as the lines don’t reach there. The lines that carry the water from the Sonia Vihar plant have helped. Only government tankers ply here and none of the allegations about illegal operations are true,” he claimed. However, when I pressed further, he directed me to speak to Jeetu ji.
Kumar’s admission about water from Sonia Vihar plant easing the situation showed the extent of normalisation of the illegal status of water availability in the colony. For it is a matter of record that the lines carrying water from the Sonia Vihar plant are not connected to the houses and other buildings in Sangam Vihar in any official way.
In fact, another AAP activist confirmed to me that the water from the Sonia Vihar plant wasn’t reaching the hilly areas as the pressure in the pipeline was reduced due to pilferage on the way.
Jeetu ji, a stocky young man who appeared to be in his 30s, did not beat around the bush when I asked him about the situation. He agreed that around 60% of the population in Sangam Vihar was already using the water coming from the Sonia Vihar plant. He admitted that this was being done through private connections but said that they would be regularised soon. “In six months to a year, we hope to have meters installed in every house here,” he claimed, while fidgeting with an over-sized smartphone.
I asked him if the AAP workers including him were controlling the tube-wells illegally but he denied the charges and blamed the BJP leaders for the same. “Resident Welfare Associations are running the tube-wells for the most part,” he told me, while agreeing that it was not a strictly legal solution and the DJB should have been doing the same.
He also claimed that DJB’s tankers were being made available to residents when they needed more than the usual share of water. In fact, as soon as Jeetu ji arrived, the AAP office was opened and residents swarmed in with applications for tankers.
While Jeetu ji claimed that illegal tankers were no more plying in the area, I spotted at least a couple of them, supplying water for the construction of a house – a purpose for which DJB tankers are unavailable, according to Jeetu Ji.
“There is no real difference in the situation, as far as availability of water through official means is concerned. The common person is trapped, either having to steal water or depend on illegal tankers while politicians trade charges,” Nizammuddin told me.
Within the same South Delhi that encompasses Sangam Vihar, lies Mehrauli, possibly the oldest continuously inhabited part of the city.
The problems that beset Sangam Vihar and the rest of Delhi when it comes to the availability of water could most likely be solved to a considerable extent if the baolis (step-wells) in Mehrauli and elsewhere were to be resuscitated.
Mehrauli has, at least, three baolis that exist currently: Qutub ki baoli, Rajon ki baoli and Gandhak ki baoli. At one point in time, they helped the area cope with the scarcity of water. Presently, they are all in disuse despite two of three having been ‘restored‘ earlier.
Gandhak ki baoli lies right outside the tomb of Bakhtiyar Kaki, a medieval Sufi saint in Mehrauli. I spotted a few men gambling over a game of ludo in its premises when I visited. Entry was barred and one had to jump over the iron grill to enter. The water was green with algae and remnants of many nights of revelries strewn across its steps – plastic cups and beer bottles in the main – could be seen. Birds fluttered out occasionally from inside the stone arches and pillars of the baoli.
The nearby Rajon ki baoli was in no better condition. As far as the Qutub ki baoli is concerned, the Delhi government has been planning its renovation, and some work has been carried out, Fauzan Ahmed, the manager of the dargah at the premises told me. I was unable to see the baoli which lies underneath the dargah as the Friday prayers were going on when I reached.
“It was always my first priority to get the baoli restored. Initially, it used to be a garbage dump when I joined,” Ahmed, a short man with a full white beard and kind eyes told me. According to him, since the baoli came under the Delhi Waqf Board, there was some red tape that hampered the beginning of the process of restoration. However, by 2013, the ‘first phase’ of the process had started under the watch of the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation. “They managed to bring the water up to the extent of 40-45 feet,” Ahmed told me. However, no work could be done post the completion of the first phase. “Elections were held in 2015 and since then the contract for the next round of work has not been renewed,” he said. He added that the water was dirty at present and could not be put to any use. “I have approached both the DJB and the office of the lieutenant-governor but to no avail,” Ahmed rues.
With summers already here, the Delhi government would do well to devise a strategy that will take into account the various aspects of the water crisis in Delhi and look for ways to alleviate the troubles common people face . As it is, the Delhi and Haryana governments have been sniping at each other, with the latter always vested with the potential to choke Delhi’s water supply. From laying down infrastructure for distribution of water in areas like Sangam Vihar and curbing the clout of the heavyweights who control the private and illegal trade in water, to restoration of baolis to add to the city’s water supply, there are many fronts on which the AAP government needs to deliver if it does not want water wars to break out sooner than later in the capital.
Featured image for representation only.