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Beg, buy or steal: Scrounging for water in Delhi

By Sunetra Lala

In Harijan Basti near Vasant Kunj, Delhi, Simla Devi pays Rs 20 per day for water siphoned off from Delhi Jal Board tankers. Roop Devi from Navjeevan Camp in Govindpur says those who can't afford to buy water secretly fill it up from Bhoomi Camp late at night

Who needs water and who gets the water? A survey conducted by Sajha Manch, in 1998, in 15 sub-standard settlements across Delhi revealed that residents were receiving only 90 litres of water per person per day. Another study by the Hazards Centre in Delhi, of 3,000 DDA flats residents, showed that they got 110 litres per person per day. But in areas like Defence Colony, Greater Kailash, Delhi Cantonment and Golf Links, the daily supply is around 450 litres per person per day. The Trans-Yamuna region, with 25% of Delhi’s population, gets only 2% of the total water supply in Delhi. Out of 593 unauthorised colonies, only 316 are covered with supply lines. Public taps provide about 15-18 litres of water per person in the jhuggi-jhopdi (JJ) colonies. Two-thirds of the city’s population, according to the Hazards Centre, receives less than 37 litres of water every day.

Let’s look at some standard scenarios in Delhi: the area around a newish middle class residential area, Vasant Kunj, and the slums that exist on its fringes.

Harijan Basti, Kusumpur Gaon, near Vasant Kunj

There are around 200 families living in this colony: 85% of them are dalits. Two taps have been installed in the colony, but the supply from them is very erratic. Residents complain that at times they can’t even collect one bucket of water in 10 days, despite queuing up for hours. The taps were installed about 15 years ago.

Resident Simla Devi, with a family of 10, says they have to buy seven to eight drums (one drum = 40 litres) each day from the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) tankers stationed at Vasant Kunj. She walks two kilometres, three times a day, to and from the tankers, carrying 20 litres of water each time. She pays Rs 20 to the tanker drivers for eight drums of water each day. Her husband is unemployed and her sons work as daily labourers.

Pradip Barma, who lives here with his wife and two sons, also buys water from the tankers every day. He claims he and other residents have written several letters to the DJB to fix the existing taps, and have repeatedly asked for two new taps to be installed; they have never heard from the DJB.

A woman from the colony (who refused to give her name for fear of antagonising the DJB authorities) has had several arguments with the officials concerned, but they refuse to send tankers to Harijan Basti. Though residents buy water from the tanker drivers, if the officials are around they are refused on grounds that the water is meant for the flats in Vasant Kunj.

Since April 2004, they have been paying the official charge of Rs 287 per household every two months. Still they get no water from the taps. When they complained they were told they had to pay their bills whether they got water or not. They say they don’t mind paying the water bill as long as they get water. There are no water meters in the colony and the amount of Rs 287 has been arbitrarily fixed by the DJB. About a year-and-a-half ago, officials would at least come to check the water lines (not that the lines got fixed after that); now, they don’t bother.

There is a garage in the colony. Every eight to 10 days, they get water from private tankers, paying Rs 100 for each tanker. A mechanic, Munsi Lal, says that even though they are expected to get water from the taps from 6-9 am and 3.30-7 pm, the water supply is erratic and often no water comes through. When it does it is not enough to meet the residents’ household needs. Lal says that even if the Sonia Vihar plant does become operational, it won’t improve the situation because water from the plant would only be directed to flats in better-off colonies.

J J Bandhu Camp, B-5/6 Vasant Kunj

A slum with around 550 houses, roughly 500 metres from Harijan Basti, seems to have no problems with its water supply at present. Residents M Ramaswamy and Umesh Pradhan say they used to get their water supply from the DDA flats just across the road. The MLA from the area had also put up a 10,000-litre tank in their colony about four years ago. A supply line would draw water from the DDA flats and store it to meet the needs of the colony. But three years ago, residents of the DDA colony complained to the DJB, and the line was cut. Thereafter, 30 houses each got together, pooled in money and installed taps inside the colony at their own expense. They sought government permission for this. The new lines have existed for three years, and the residents have enough water to meet all their needs, even in summer.

Sector C, Vasant Kunj

Residents here don’t get any or very little water through the supply lines. Tankers, which charge Rs 100 per 1,000 litres of water, regularly supply water here. This is an almost everyday phenomenon. Residents have installed online motors on the supply pipes, but still the water supply here is erratic.

Navjeevan Camp, B Block, Govindpur

There are many taps in this colony of around 600 houses, but water never comes through them. A tanker supplies water between 6-9 am every day. The residents use their own pipes to collect water from the tanker. This water is used to meet all their needs, except for drinking. The latter is carried from Govindpur, Kalkaji and Giri Nagar. Most residents go to Giri Nagar in the late hours of the night to collect water. They have complained to the MLA on several occasions but they’ve been told that residents of Navjeevan Camp Block A have installed online motors on their supply lines, and they can’t do anything about it.

Mahendra Singh, who makes and sells mats, says he pays Rs 100 per month for 70 litres of water per day to a resident of Giri Nagar. He has two 35-litre drums, which he fills from Giri Nagar every day.

Roop Devi has been living in the colony for 20 years with her husband and two sons. She says those who can’t afford to buy water wait until late at night to secretly fill water from Bhoomi Camp.

Mootni Devi says they have often complained to the MLA, but once elected, MLAs never visit the colonies again.

Sudhaar Camp, Kalkaji

Triveni Devi, who lives in this colony of 500 families, says the government had installed 10 taps here; two years ago they needed fixing but they got no help from the government. For a year, the residents got water from Kalkaji E Block, paying as much as Rs 2 for 15 litres of water. They then sought government permission, fixed the existing taps, and set up new ones. There are no fixed hours for water supply, and during peak summer they often have to stay awake until late at night for water. There are no water meters in the colony and they’ve never had to pay a water bill. But Triveni says they would be willing to pay Rs 50 per month for a more regular supply.

(Sunetra Lala has studied environmental management and environmental law. She works in the fields of waste management, biodiversity conservation, water management and environment education, and is associated with the Hazards Centre, New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005