The paradox of unbridled ‘growth’ in Gurgaon is that while it is a measure of unprecedented economic progress, it is also the measure of the progress of stealthy cardiac problems. The side effects of pollution, scarcity of water, electricity and therefore clean air, and horrific traffic jams raises the imponderable question about the limits of urban growth. Should Gurgaon be allowed to grow boundlessly and should its residents hope that a miracle will save them from the menacing effects of overbuilding? Are the politicians and the real estate companies mindful of what they have wrought? One might anxiously wonder: is Gurgaon going to die of sclerotic arteries or dehydration? Will it wither away? Will its residents be forced to abandon it? Will its factories and offices shut down and move away? The single short answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no’. The long answer, however, is complicated and needs explication.
The fundamental flaw that emerged in Gurgaon’s rapidly expanding circumference was the lack of perennial sources of water that would keep its deep aquifers recharged, such as lakes, ponds or even seasonal torrents, which dried up over time. The dearth felt today is to some degree natural, but it is largely man-made. Certainly, Gurgaon is not alone: this condition is visible in large parts of India and in many cities, most notably its neighbour, Delhi, where the population has burgeoned beyond the wildest estimates, and the Yamuna contracts to a greasy trickle for eight months of the year. These problems have occurred gradually, first, as we saw in Chapter Two, under the colonial regime and then over three decades when an unsustainable population explosion forced rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation.
Even as a small township, Gurgaon had a barely adequate power supply; and until 2011 the huge new demand brought about the plague of partial and total blackouts. The electricity supply remained somewhat erratic, although it is steadier since 2016 in areas where the generation of electricity is not entirely privatised. The logical push for alternative sources of energy seems to get stalled in the stacks of paper in the state-owned Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam (DHBVN) offices. Good, autonomous civic governance has not stepped into the breach, so the problems are needlessly perpetuated. And when you add up these three deficits—of water, power and good governance—the total becomes a frightening number that discourages a unified and sensible way out of it. Analytically, we can tackle them serially.
The scarcity of water is the gravest matter. Today, ecologists point to the large-scale deforestation and the laying of railway tracks from east to west that bridged or blocked the north–south–flowing torrents in the colonial period that created the arid landscape to replace the jhils that made up the avian-rich wetlands. Then came the modern collective push to tap the next available resource: groundwater. This has been done with a vengeance. With the improvement in techniques and equipment, mechanical drills now bore through schist and quartite, often exceeding 350 metres. The depths of precious aquifers are being sucked dry for the use of thousands of condo dwellers and office workers. The turn of the present millennium brought fresh warnings against the falling levels of groundwater, and boring of new tube wells has been banned. But the city has made exceptions for the biggest private builders, and it has no way to stop the urban villagers from extracting groundwater in the lal dora areas.
The village well owners supply their tenement tenants and pump water into small tankers that travel to homes in Old Gurgaon and the newly developed residential colonies, dispensing water for a price to house owners who do not have tube wells. The retail price charged in DLF Phase III by suppliers in Nathupur in 2018 was Rs 900 per tanker of 4,000 litres that would barely serve a family of four for a couple of days. What is truly regrettable is that very little provision exists to conserve or utilize existing resources efficiently. Inadequate recycling and treatment of water and sewage (under the public-private regime of the last thirty years) warrants that a huge proportion of available water is simply wasted.
The falling groundwater levels are clearly etched in my memory. In 1996, when our house was being built in S Block of Qutab Enclave in DLF Phase III, we struck water at 25 metres at the site. It gushed wildly with perfectly potable water, and we did not need anything more than a small jet pump to get it piped to the roof of our three-storeyed home to fill our storage tanks and to water the grove we had planted around it. Then this happy state ended, and we had to dig a new well, now 130 metres deep and with a submersible pump; it gurgled and gagged, and its distress told us that it was going to run dry in a few years. A third one, at 250 metres, lasted only a year before developing a dry cough and then becoming defunct. Of our neighbours, the doctors Mukta and Ram Dhariwal on Nathupur Road had a well of similar depth and water to maintain a luxuriant garden of ornamental trees. Other houses around us, unfortunately, have lawns (a deathless colonial idea) that need to be watered daily and fertilised to keep the grass green.
Every summer, the situation becomes more fraught as the water table plummets under duress from the huge pumps that belch water for construction and industrial needs. The public and private sectors have excelled each other in bringing about this sorry pass. Had HUDA done its due diligence on sustainability and acted responsibly to conserve the finite resources of water and electricity, we might have had a more sensible and sustainable city. Sadly they foolishly handed out permits to dig wells like lollipops at a child’s birthday party. So, the poor citizens seethe and scramble to fill a bucket or two while the rich have water pumps and immense storage tanks underground and overhead for their daily needs.
Had the real estate companies and their irresponsible greed been restrained with strict building limits, or had they been charged for boring their own wells and extracting unlimited ‘free’ water on per gallon basis, they might have been more mindful of the immense strain these soaring extravaganzas and lush green golf courses would put on the fragile ecosystem. Although DLF now has its own water treatment plant and uses only recycled water for its luxuriant golf courses, it is hard to dispute the fact that the recycled water originally comes from the strained underground water supply. The extraction rate—for their super luxurious condominium towers for which zoning regulations were shamelessly flouted—has not diminished. It was only in 2015, when the crisis loomed ominously and irreversibly, that the construction industry was ordered to use only treated water, but they continue to draw groundwater for the consumption of the occupants of residential and business towers.
Meanwhile, in the villages that Gurgaon absorbed, the landowners dug tube wells to profit from the needs of thousands of migrants who now live there as tenants. They do not have adequate bathrooms or toilets (if they have any at all), and very economically use the water that comes from a single pipe for a few hours a day for a cluster of shanties. Their use of electricity is similarly minimal; they live dimly in the glow of a single light bulb, for which they pay heavily. Some jhuggis and tenement apartments have formal connections with which some can run their fans and television sets, but this too points to a lack of calculation about residents’ needs. Neither the builders nor the government made any arrangements to house the migrants that were coming into the new city from all corners of the country.
I visited the latter’s offices looking for anything that would suggest that a ‘sustainability’ study had been undertaken but was met with hostile glares—because the needs of neither town nor country had been planned. The thick pall of sooty grey winter skies are also partly the unhappy products of uncontrolled growth in this city. Additional stress to the water situation in Gurgaon is added by the pervasive ‘construction mafia’, as the Hindustan Times of 31 May 2016 called it, who steal the drinking water supply to build their humongous construction projects when they should really be tapping the treated water supply from the Dhanwapur sewage treatment plant. DLF appears to be the only private company that has responded to citizen outrage and built its own water treatment plant near its Arnold Palmer golf course that services the greens and the residents of its luxury residential towers, although it continues to syphon off groundwater from its deep bore wells for its older residential towers in Phase IV.
This is an excerpt from Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s latest book ‘Gurgaon’ published with permission from the author and publishers HarperCollins.