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Starved of water in the nation’s capital

Bharat Dogra/Reena Mehta |

It is widely agreed that in conditions of high inequality governments can contribute to reducing the burden by ensuring better access to basic facilities to the poor. This is particularly true in the case of a life-sustaining need like water. Unfortunately, In India’s capital city it is the poorest people who pay the highest costs for the water crisis because of the overall shortage as well as the supply of poor quality and polluted water. This was the grim reality which we saw when we visited four resettlement colonies and slums in outer Delhi.

Bawana resettlement colony (F, G, H Blocks) is inhabited largely by unorganized sector workers. The drinking water situation here is worrying. Several persons complained that they suffered joint and bone pains because they consumed contaminated water. In this context, attention may be drawn to recent news reports that discharge of untreated industrial effluents in nullahs and water bodies of Bawana is leading to contamination of groundwater. Most people here depend on groundwater. Due to the failure of the government to provide water to this colony, most people living here have to pay money to others to obtain water for drinking as well as other needs.

Anand Kumar, a well-informed resident of the colony told us that the quality of water has been declining after the water table declined beyond a point. Unless large schemes to provide clean drinking water are taken up, water related problems are likely to increase.

Bawana JJ Colony (in front of L Block) is inhabited by people who were evicted from Paschim Vihar, 25 km away, about 15 years back. Due to a failure of government planning, none of these evictees could legally get the plot of land promised at the time of their resettlement. After being transported here these households were left to fend for themselves. Since then they have worked hard to build temporary houses and arrange basic means of sustenance.

They do not have any water supply of their own. So they have to pay for all their water needs. Despite this, they face many uncertainties and difficulties in meeting their water needs.  They can hardly afford to choose and hence have to accept low quality water.

Devraj, a socially conscious youth, said that at a time when income levels are very low, people have to pay Rs 200 per month to people in another colony just to get water for their daily needs. Then they have to spend a lot of time and effort to fetch this water. Women and children have to bear the main burden for this. As this water is of poor quality, they have to spend more on water for drinking and cooking.

Shahbad Dairy resettlement colony is inhabited by people who were evicted from the Shalimar Bagh area. The quality of drinking water from the taps is often poor and is frequently found to be foul smelling. One tanker provides an alternative supply of water but this is hardly adequate and there are frequent fights to access the limited water. Many people walk long distances in search of clean drinking water but face many obstructions.

While we were talking to them, Janaki, a resident, said, “You must smell the water we get in our taps.” She went inside her home, brought a glass of water and insisted that we smell it. It was indeed very foul smelling. Nagina, another resident, said: “It appears that the groundwater here has got contaminated with the polluted water of some nullah and that is why we are getting this terrible water.”

When we asked some school children about the quality of water in their school, they said it was not drinkable and they carry their water bottle from home.

C-2 Sector-27 Resettlement Colony, Rohini is inhabited by people evicted from the Kirti Nagar-Mayapuri area. People here say that only about 25 per cent of the evicted persons were allotted plots while others were left to their own fate. As the water quality in the colony is poor many people have to buy water.

Such a worrisome situation of water shortage and poor quality at a time when summer has just started draws attention to the wider failure of the government in meeting the most basic need of people. If this is the situation in the national capital, one can imagine what the situation is likely to be in many remote parts of the country.

The difficulties which the poor have to face in meeting this most basic need can be seen at four levels. Firstly, there is the overall attitude of neglect towards habitations of the poorest people, particularly those who were evicted.

Secondly, this can also be seen from the overall low allocations for urban poor people and the poor utilisation of these meager allocations. During 2015-16, for example, the Union budget allocated Rs. 5,635 crore to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation but only Rs. 1,761 crore was actually spent. The increase in the budget of the Ministry of Urban Development has been dominated by metro rail projects while more basic priorities for weaker sections have stagnated. At one stage the share of metro projects in the Ministry’s budget was reported to be around 50 per cent.

Thirdly, the high levels of water pollution affect the poor people in peri-urban areas more as here environmental regulation is at much lower levels and some of the most polluting industries are located here. In the absence of piped water schemes and the supporting infrastructure, the poor depend more on groundwater and this is contaminated by seepage and mixing with harmful industrial effluents.

While the above three factors exist all over the country, the fourth factor has a special relevance in the context of Delhi as here a multiplicity of authorities and confused , overlapping, unclear responsibilities of various agencies make it more easy to evade responsibility and pass the buck, particularly when the silent victims are poor and helpless people.


The writers are freelance journalists specialising in development issues.