Fifty-one-year-old Shankuntala Sharma suffered from acidity, vomited often, and could hardly eat until six months ago. Her agony ended when her family started getting her packaged water for drinking. “Otherwise, I used to live on medicines,” she says. Not everyone in her family of 10 is as lucky though. “Ours is a large family. We cannot buy packaged water for everybody. So, for Rs. 20, they get water only for me,” she adds.
For the people who live in the colonies around the Bhalswa, Delhi’s largest landfill site – buying packaged drinking water, or worse, making do with filthy, non-potable water to meet their everyday needs – is a harsh reality. The area has three sources of water- hand pumps, water supplied by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) through public taps and water tankers. But the water is so bad that those who can afford it choose to buy packaged water. “What can one do? If you want to keep your children alive, you have to do it,” says Ranju Devi, who runs a fast-food shop in the area.
Devi says that sometimes they have no option but to buy packaged water even for cooking. The water tanker arrives only once a week and not everybody is able to store a week’s supply each time. The groundwater, which people get either through hand pumps or public taps, is usually saline and is mostly used it for washing purposes.
A survey conducted in 2012 by Bhalswa Lok Shakti Manch (BLSM), an organisation of women from the Bhalswa Resettlement Colony, and Hazards Centre had shown that handpump water had a total dissolved solids count ranging between 2,300 and 5,800 parts per million (ppm), much higher than the desirable 500 ppm. While solids dissolved in water may not necessarily create a health hazard, excess solids prevent people from using the water. The landfill nearby seems to be responsible for the contamination of the groundwater. A 2009 study, in fact, simulated the flow of ‘chloride’ from the landfill and found that the observed concentration in the Bhalswa’s groundwater is the same as that found by the simulation.
In this particular colony at least, there is no outlet for sewage either – keeping it stagnated underground and thus contaminating groundwater. But so dire is the situation that when people run out of water, they are forced to use this standing, contaminated sewage water.
For the ragpickers living near the landfill, the situation is even worse. They leave at around 8 am for work, usually missing the water tanker that arrives much later in the day. When they do manage to be there, those who live in colonies don’t let them take water.
“Someone says we have paid for the tanker, someone else will say, ‘How can you get water when we haven’t?’,” says Raabya Biwi, a ragpicker living near the landfill.
Sharma says the situation was even worse when she arrived at Bhalswa some 17 years ago. “There were altercations between women – this person’s hair in that person’s hand, people hitting each other with buckets,” she recalls.
And even though the situation has improved a bit, the change took a whole decade to come. According to the BLSM head Pushpa, it could take another decade to fix the problem permanently.
The only move made by the government for arriving at a permanent solution so far is the transfer of 787.80 sq. m. of land from the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) to the DJB for the construction of an underground reservoir. Here too, the DJB in October told the Public Grievances Commission, which addresses grievances related to government departments, “Since DJB is facing shortage of water, as such water cannot be supplied to the colony in the present scenario. Therefore, presently only boundary wall is being constructed and UGR (Underground Reservoir) will be constructed only after availability of sufficient water.”
“This is a fight that is still going on,” Pushpa says. However, the problem is not likely to get solved unless each household gets its own water connection, she adds.
Already spending money on buying packaged drinking water and medicines, residents here are more than ready to pay money for a connection, despite the added struggle this will bring. “We are even ready to pay for installation of metres in our houses. At least our illnesses will end then,” Sharma says. At the pace at which the government is working, this seems like a far-fetched dream.