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For Delhi’s Slum Population, No Money Or Privilege Means Fighting For Water Each Day

Posted on July 28, 2016 in Environment

By Anuj Dewan:

A World Bank report says that by 2020, wars will be fought over water, a trailer of which can be seen in the slums of Delhi where people struggle and literally fight to fill a few buckets of water. Sometimes, the altercations go out of hand and eventually lead to brawls and even police cases. This violence is an indication of the near future, as it could spill over to other residential areas as well. The recent Jat agitation for reservations in Haryana, not only destroyed property worth thousands of crores, but it also took a toll on the lives of people living in the neighbouring states such as Delhi by snatching them of their daily water needs. But, 15% of Delhi’s population which resides in slums were probably unaffected by this Haryana incident as water crisis is a way of life for them. Even the higher income group colonies have been facing water shortage for years. This is so, because rapid urbanisation, increasing population and growing demand for energy, industry and agriculture is putting unending pressure on the natural resources such as water.

On the one hand, the per capita demand for water is gradually increasing and on the other, the mismanagement of water is reducing the per capita supply. This increasing gap between demand and supply could lead to an environmental and human disaster. The nation is already witnessing droughts in several states that have led to mass migration from rural areas to cities. “The problem of water has not been given the attention that it demands and deserves and it is going to be very severe in the near future,” says Arun Kansal, Head of Department (Water Studies) at TERI University. He says that since Delhi is a state as well as urban agglomeration, it has to depend on interstate agreements and its implementation to manage its water needs. The interstate politics between Delhi, Haryana and Punjab over water has been in the news off late but concrete solutions and agreements are still a far-fetched dream.

Life in a Slum

Searing Heat In Delhi Fuel Fears Of Water Crisis
Source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Life in a slum is tough in every sense of the word; lack of proper shelter, no drainage facilities, sanitation, unemployment, police harassment, caste conflicts and shortage of clean water are some of the prominent ones. On top of that, the slum residents have to jostle through huge crowds everyday for a few gallons of water, which is supplied to them by the Delhi Jal Board trucks. These trucks are supposed to come everyday but they choose their own sweet time to come, which is usually unknown to the people living in the slums of Delhi. “The trucks come either on alternate days or after two days and we are able to fill only one or two buckets at one time,” says a middle-aged woman. Some of them allege that the DJB has an unholy nexus with the private water suppliers, who charge high prices for water and do not even supply clean water. They say that private water suppliers make use of the artificial shortage created by the Delhi Jal Board and then share the illegitimate profits with them. “Children climb up the trucks to put the pipes into the tanker and sometimes fall down leading to serious injuries and adults also tend to hurt each other physically when struggling for water,” says Ved Prakash, a residence, who runs a general store in the near by market.

This slum known as the Dalit Ekta camp is located next to the colony of Vasant Kunj, a higher middle class colony, which also faces water problems but is able to manage by installing extra tanks and water pumps. The poor slum dwellers obviously cannot have their own water pumps but they have built a community tank, which they use for their water needs whenever they face a crisis. However, the maintenance and cleaning of the tank is questionable and also is the safety level of the water it contains. Their daily needs are only met by drawing water from the DJB water tankers. An enthusiastic boy, barely in his teens, boasts about being able to successfully extract water from the tankers by sucking the pipe from one end while the other end is in water.

Another slum facing the posh colony of Vasant Vihar located in South Delhi faces a similar struggle. This slum does not even get support from the DJB as they have an installed water pipeline. But that does not really solve their water woes because the quality of the pipeline water does not match the safety standards prescribed by the Delhi Jal Board and thus the authorities advice them to boil the water before drinking. Boiling the water everyday is another added work, plus it consumes wood or gas. So, a lot of them avoid the very critical step of cleansing the water and put themselves and their families at serious health risks. The water born diseases such as cholera, diarrhea and typhoid add an extra financial burden and personal trauma to their rough lives. The water shortage also adds to the problem of sanitation especially for women who, like men, have to go to the near by jungle or even an open area to defecate. The non-availability of functional toilets in the slum area puts the slum women at risk.

Unauthorised Colonies

Searing Heat In Delhi Fuel Fears Of Water Crisis
Source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The struggle for basics is not restricted to the slums of Delhi; even the unauthorised colonies such a Sangam Vihar do not have a piped infrastructure because the colony residents do not have legitimate papers of the property they reside in. The state government, which was in a rush to fulfill its electoral promises, installed a makeshift water pipeline (on the ground and not underground) that started leaking and flooding the colony every morning because of breakage. The narrow and the extremely congested road that passes through the colony becomes an infrastructure nightmare when the water rushes through its pipes and that too at a time when people are going for work in the morning. People have to go to their offices in slippers, while saving their clothes from the dirty water. Many even fall and hurt themselves badly. The absence of garbage bins allows people to throw the garbage on the road, which creates a further mess when it gets mixed in the drain water. In such a scenario, even a two-wheeler breakdown can be a cause for long traffic jams inside the colony, which gets worse in the monsoon season. The people of the colony blame the local politicians for being concerned only about themselves and their own needs. Also, the top officials of the Delhi Jal Board have refused interviews saying that they believe that there is no water crisis in the capital of the country.

The commercial area of North Delhi that includes the Chandni Chowk market, which is also called Old Delhi, is in no better position because the businessmen of these markets also do not have access to the basic toilet and drinking water facilities. Ironically, the Chandni Chowk market, where a small shop is worth a few crores, is recognised as ‘slum’ and thus does not have basic and daily facilities for its rich and middle class businessmen. “We have to buy water here, which costs around Rs 2000 to 4000 per month as there is no available pipeline for the urinals or toilets,” says S.P.Chawla, a businessman in Chandni Chowk.

The Politics of Subsidies 

The state government’s free water scheme reaches only those people who have metered connections in their houses and can also afford to pay for the water they consume. It neither reaches the poor slum residents nor the lower income groups colonies. The subsidy scheme of providing 700 litres a day or 20,000 litres of free water every month has been rightly criticised as populist, as it encourages people to waste the already scarce water because there is a general tendency to waste, when things comes free or cheap. The same goes for the water subsidies provided to all farmers, even the wealthier ones, who have imported cars parked outside their bungalows in Punjab.

Once a Lifeline of Delhi

Man looks on as he collects items thrown by devotees as religious offerings next to idols of Hindu god Ganesh in waters of Yamuna river in New Delhi
Source: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

The holy river Yamuna, which has a dubious distinction of being the most polluted river in the country, is a significant source of water to the national capital. Delhi, includes only 2% of the catchment area of Yamuna but is responsible for 80% of its pollution. Around nineteen drains flow into this Ganga tributary, mixing tons of sewage and fecal matter into the water, which makes it unusable, unless sewage treatment plants work at its full capacity and round the clock, which in reality does not happen. This fact says a lot about the water situation, not only in Delhi, but the whole country because if the capital is in such a state, one can only begin to imagine the condition of the smaller towns and cities. Rising ammonia levels in the river and canals is also a grave concern that can lead to a health crisis for the Delhi public, if not controlled. Dead fish are often found in the river because of sudden increase in pesticides and other chemicals after the river enters Delhi. Sewage, industrial effluents, medical waste, pesticides and garbage are some of the things that go in the river which eliminate all life forms from the river except the weed called water hyacinth which is immune to the toxic waste and can manage to survive in it.

The traditional methods of rainwater harvesting have sustained over centuries in the form of ‘baolis. Such a thought coupled with modern technologies and innovation can do wonders for the nations future. Every factory needs to build a rainwater-harvesting pit on its terrace, which is a welcome step in the area of sustainability. More such laws should be passed and take residential buildings in its ambit and ensure regular checks from authorities once they are implemented. It is about time that we get over, electoral politics and the blame games and follow the model of countries such as Israel that recycles 70% of its wastewater, a shining example of environmental sustainability. All water leakages need to be checked with immediate effect whether it’s a leakage from a moving truck or from a pipeline. The subsidies, whether they are being provided to the residents of Delhi or to the rich farmers of Punjab, should be completely done away with for good. The rivers and even the lakes are the lifelines of the city; efforts should be made to clean and revive these water bodies. For that to happen, stringent anti-dumping laws should be passed and alternative dumping or recycling facilities should be built. Lastly, environmental policies need to be framed and implemented on priority to avoid any extreme situations in the future.

The plummeting supplies and ever mounting per capita demand is building up pressure on the resources and the people; such issues can only be sorted by innovations, research and concrete action from the authorities and the society alike. Many scientists and researchers believe that if things are not significantly improved, a water crisis will hit us sooner than imagined, and water could vanish before oil. The social unrest because of water is the last thing that the world would want to witness.