A somewhat adverse feature of post-Reforms India has been lack of an institutional mechanism for sharing development experience among states — a role played earlier by the Planning Commission. This has bred an inward-looking administrative culture in states.

Nothing else explains the lack of any interest from the North-east hill areas in the severe water crisis this summer that Shimla faced when the famed summer capital of the Raj literally went dry and the state had to declare the city a “no go area” for tourists for the first time.

This indifference is not just about distant areas but even positive developments in the neighbourhood. Thus, there is little interest in the internationally recognised success of West Bengal’s Kannyashri project to empower young women;Tripura’s success in literacy, and the great strides Mizoram and Manipur have made in team games, athletics, gymnastics and especially women’s success in all these fields. This is a systemic deficiency that deserves attention of the Niti Ayog as it hinders strategic planning and goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism.

In this background, what went wrong in Shimla this year should be worth a study in the North-east as the situation in Shillong and Aizawl is quite similar. Shimla, with a population of 200,000 and an annual tourist flow of 300,000, draws its water from five springs located in the nearby forests and hills of which the largest source is Ashwini Khad that got contaminated with water from the sewage treatment plant. A blanket ban on drawing of water from springs as well as reservoirs led to the crisis as authorities had to supply water by tankers obtained from distant sources. Against the daily demand of 45 million litres, presently, only about 18 million litres is being supplied. There is no solution in sight as the alternative to the springs — a decentralised reservoir-based system — entails a costly project of lifting water from a dam at Kol on the Sutlej River.

In the same context, Shillong, with a population of about 320,000, now seems better placed as its seven urban centres have been covered under the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme based on drawing of water from the Umiew River. The water is pumped to storage tanks after treatment at the Mawaphlang water treatment plant and distributed through a network of pipes and pumping stations divided into nine zones. Since Shillong doesn’t attract as many tourists as Shimla, the town’s present water demand is estimated at 11.30 million litres a day. The GSWSS was initiated in 1978 and currently phase three is under implementation at a cost of Rs 193 crore with a target of raising the water supply to 31.44 million litres. While it looks comfortable, the ground reality is different because of the lack of an integrated approach covering water supply, sanitation and drainage and appreciation of water needs from an ecosystem perspective. First, there is the problem of “high unaccounted for water” population who continue to depend on springs.

Second, Shillong doesn’t have any sewerage system or its treatment, which exposes surface water distribution pipes to contamination as leakages have been a recurring problem. Over half the latrines in Shillong are dry and the flow of sewage water to the Umkhrah River and other rivulets turned those water bodies into filthy “nullas” and exposed residents to grave health risks.

Third, unabated felling of trees and illegal mining of coal, sand and boulders, from the riverbeds for construction activities have reduced both the rainfall and water holding capacity, which is certain to adversely affect flow of water to the river.

Also, the progress on schemes to stop leakages by a network of ductile iron pipes and installation of a new distributional network has been slow. Since the GSWSS draws from Umiew, any significant fall in its flow will upset the water yield.

This aspect is being ignored as much as the need to have an integrated sewerage and drainage system in order to save the Umkhrah and other streams, crucial for survival of the hill ecosystem.

Finally, the unchecked construction of high-rise buildings in Shillong that has turned much of it into a concrete jungle poses a grave risk to the city as it is located in an area of high seismicity. Shillong was nearly des-troyed in the 1897 earthquake. There is thus a looming environmental crisis, which warrants an integrated scientific approach over an ad-hoc sectoral one.

When one looks at Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, with a population of 300,000, the situation is equally critical. An integrated approach was lacking when Aizawl too implemented a Greater Aizawl Water Supply Scheme in two phases from 1988 by drawing water from the river Tlawng to storage tanks in the city for distribution through a network of surface pipes. And Aizawl doesn’t have an integrated water and sewerage treatment plan even as construction of high-rise buildings goes on with impunity.

On completion of phase 2 of the GAWSS at a cost of RS 113 crore, shared on a 75:25 basis by the ministry for development of the North-east region and the state government, water supply is estimated to go up to 78 litre per capita per day from the present supply of 45 litre per capita per day. No doubt it is an ambitious project but without a sewerage and drainage plant it is unlikely to improve the overall public health and sanitation situation.

The same can be seen in Kohima, the hill-top capital of Nagaland and in all cities of the North-east. This is an area in which the North Eastern Council, as the designated central agency for the preparation of a “Regional Development Plan” under the North Eastern Council Act, has an important role in putting forth an integrated urban development strategy for states to implement in both the hills and plains areas.

It is time now to plan for a sustainable urban solution for the North-east without which the region will be ill-equipped to participate in the “Act East” initiative of the Prime Minister.

 

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India