Featured image: Sangeeta washing utensils outside her home. Photo: Kabir Agarwal
Indore: In urban India, the most privileged access water through pipes in their homes. The slightly less fortunate have pipes in their lanes or a bore well near their dwelling. They are followed by those who are provided water by the local adminstration via tankers.
But, Sangeeta has access to none of these. She has more than 15 water cans and drums outside her one-room shanty in ‘smart’ city Indore and it’s a daily struggle to find new ways to fill them.
“I try to get water from the companies in the area. Sometimes they give, sometimes they don’t,” said Sangeeta while washing utensils using water from one of the drums outside her home in the balmy late winter sun.
Her home is a makeshift structure of bamboo sticks, tin and fibre sheets. It, along with about 500 other households, is located on a vacant piece of government land in the Sanwer industrial area of Indore.
These households do not have piped water supply in their homes. Their access to the alternate source of government supply in urban India – municipal water tankers – is also sporadic and unreliable because they remain on the fringes, as a non-notified slum which faces frequent threats of eviction.
“We are not authorised to send water tankers to those who do not have documents to prove that the land is theirs. So, these squatters are outside our supply area. But we do try and help them when we can,” said a junior officer responsible for supplying water in the Sanwer area.
Even on the rare occasion that the municipal tanker, with its capacity of 6,000 litres, is sent to this area, it is only the more privileged and powerful within one of the most disadvantaged communities in Indore that are able to store water.
“It goes and stops outside the homes of those who are well connected. Nothing is left for us,” Sangeeta said. Even in perhaps the most underprivileged part of the city, some are more equal than others when it comes to access to water. Several academic papers establish that access to water in a city is often linked to the status of land tenure. Those with formal and secure tenure – the more privileged households in formal residential colonies – have better access. While those with unsecured tenure – living in slums on private or government land – are at a disadvantage.
The inequity doesn’t end there. Even among the ones living in slums, those who live in notified slums – those recognised by the state, implying that they can’t be evicted – are better off than those in the non-notified slums, whose existence is yet to be recognised by the government.
The urban poor living in non-notified slums face a lingering threat of eviction. Sangeeta and her family’s previous home in a slum nearby was demolished five years ago by the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC). The family moved and rebuilt on government land in the Sanwer industrial area. “But, the threat is always there. They [the municipality] keep telling us that they will evict us,” she says. All of the nearly 500 households in the area face the same threat.
So, Sangeeta and her family have to rely on largesse, primarily, of small industries in the area who provide water from their bore wells – sometimes free of charge, and at times at a charge of between Rs 100 and Rs 200. Often, particularly in the summer when the borewells tend to dry up, they refuse to provide water.
She is the designated caretaker – as women are in most Indian communities – for a family of five and is deemed responsible for collecting water for the household – again, as women generally are. Her husband drives a tempo and earns daily wages ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 300.
“In summers, there is often no source left and we have to buy water from people with borewells at Rs 10 per drum,” Sangeeta said.
They load their cans and drums in the tempo and scout for people with borewells on their premises. Some of those borewells also run dry in the summer, as groundwater levels dip.
This problem rears its head in all parts of the city in the summer – which now begins earlier, lasts longer and is warmer due to climate change, according to Vimal Mishra, associate professor in the Water and Climate Lab at IIT Gandhinagar.
In 2016, Mishra co-authored a study titled ‘Climate Change in Madhya Pradesh: Indicators, Impacts and Adaptation’. It projected, among other things, that Indore’s mean annual temperature could go up by as much as 2°C by mid-century in the high emission pathways.
“Water availability is a problem not just for Indore or Madhya Pradesh, but for most parts of the country,” Mishra told The Wire. He explained that climate change impacts the availability of water in two ways.
“On the one hand, a longer summer means that the demand for water goes up which means that the burden on groundwater increases. On the other, groundwater recharge is sub-optimal because of the changing pattern of rainfall, where we now have heavy rainfall in a short period of time, increasing runoff,” he said.
This is becoming more evident in Indore, as borewells are starting to run dry at the beginning of February or even in January.
“Around 40% of our borewells went dry prior to the monsoon last year,” said an officer in the IMC, preferring anonymity. The IMC has around 5,000 borewells within its limits. There are also between 1 and 1.5 lakh borewells operated by private individuals, the IMC estimates.
Borewells supply only about 15% of the total water supplied in the city. A bulk (about 80%) of the city’s supply comes from the Narmada. Water is pumped from 70 kilometres away, and to an altitude of 500 metres, as Indore is located on the Malwa plateau, making it the costliest water supply to a city in India.
A large proportion of the Narmada supply is used to supply water through pipelines to formal residential colonies where people from the higher income groups live.
The total daily demand for water according to the IMC, after accounting for transit losses, is 700 million litres. Currently, the IMC claims, it is able to supply 500 million litres per day, resulting in a shortfall of around 30%.
The coverage of the Indore water supply network is even worse. According to a 2017 report of the IMC, which The Wire has seen, Indore’s water supply network is able to serve 46% of its population.
In 2020, the IMC estimates that the population within its jurisdiction is 3 million. Based on the municipal body’s projections contained in the same report, it is able to serve only about 1.5 million people through the piped water supply. This, coupled with the gap between demand and supply, means that a large section of the population is left vulnerable when it comes to access to water.
It is not a surprise then, that the IMC is among the 496 urban local bodies that are considered water-stressed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The UK based risk advisory firm Verisk Maplecroft went a step further, and in its 2019 water stress index, listed Indore among the Indian cities facing ‘extreme’ water risk contributed to by the ‘dual pressures of water stress and growing population demand.’
Most of those who lack access to water reside in slums. “Piped water supply in slums of Indore continues to be rare. They have to rely on borewells and tankers or other sources, whose supply is unreliable,” said Sudhindra Mohan Sharma, the former national nodal officer at the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, who is now a trustee at the Indore-based Water and Lakes Conservation Committee. “So, they are able to consume far less water than the rich who live in formal residential colonies.”
According to the IMC, 38% of Indore’s population – or 11 lakh of Indore’s 30 lakh residents – lives in slums and squatter settlements.
Borewells are much sought after in the slums of Indore. Several people The Wire spoke to would inquire if this reporter was there for the digging of a borewell or if he could help in securing permission for one. A no objection certificate (NOC) from the IMC is needed to dig a private borewell.
“If we get a borewell here, things would be so much simpler,” said Sahudrabai Ahirwal, who lives in the Jai Bhawani Nagar slum, about 5 kilometres from the Sanwer industrial area squatter. The lane is relatively better off with brick houses and electricity connections, but there isn’t any piped water supply or a borewell in the vicinity.
Residents have to haul water from an overhead water tank about 2 kilometres away, or rely on municipal water tankers. In the summer, when the demand for water shoots up, they have to spend as much as 8 hours in queues to get their daily supply of water.
Women who work for daily wages in factories until evening have to arrange for water once they return. “It is better to go late at night, at around 10.30 or 11 pm. The queue is a little shorter. But it still takes around 3 or 4 hours,” said Anita Ahirwal, who works in a plastics factory earning Rs 300 a day.
She gets to bed at around 3 am after filling water and has to be up again at 5 in the morning. “Then the daily chore of cooking, cleaning, etc begins. So, I am hardly able to sleep,” she said.
Her 13-year-old son Krishna, and 15-year-old daughter Monica help her in carrying the cans. “Sometimes we do it on our own when mother is too tired,” said Krishna.
Every household in the lane has to make arrangements such as these to manage their daily supply of water.
This being a notified slum, it also gets the IMC’s supply through water tankers. “People rush as soon as the tanker arrives,” said Pushpa Ahirwal who lives with her husband and two sons in Jai Bhawani Nagar.
Each tanker carries around 6,000 litres of water and one would not be enough to service the area. For instance, in just four lanes of Jai Bhawani Nagar, there are around 50 households. On average, the size of an urban Indian household is 5, implying that there would be nearly 250 people living in the area.
So, if one water tanker was to arrive in a day for the four lanes mentioned here, each individual would have access to 24 litres of water a day, which is only 17% of the ministry of housing and urban affairs’ benchmark of 135 litres per capita per day water usage.
More often than not, only one tanker arrives in a day. “Sometimes, one tanker will come in two or three days. The situation gets very ugly during such times,” said Pushpa. Almost all residents The Wire spoke to in the Jai Bhawani Nagar, and indeed other slum areas of Indore, reported having witnessed several scuffles and brawls while standing in queues to fill water.
Tej Karan Puri, who is 61 years old, was attacked by a youngster when he was standing in a queue to fill water last summer. “He wanted to get ahead in the queue. I said no. He took a stone and hit my head with it,” Puri said.
The injury led to 4 stitches. But Puri did not file a police complaint. “It would have ruined the boy’s life. He was only sixteen. So I let it go,” Puri said.
According to a young assistant engineer at the IMC who is responsible for water supply in the region, this is a common occurrence. The official preferred to remain anonymous.
“Fights over water happen every day, particularly in the summer. We are able to manage and resolve most at the local level,” the assistant engineer said when The Wire met him at his office, located at the foot of a water tank.
He spoke to The Wire intermittently while dealing with several people around him who were airing their water-related grievances. “This is nothing. In the summer, my phone is constantly ringing. I get between 100 and 150 calls every day. Some people complain that the water tanker hasn’t reached. Some demand new borings. Others alert us about fights,” he said rubbing his eyes with his palms.
“You might think my job is easy. But, it is not,” he said breaking into a smile.
He is responsible for the provision of water to a population of around 1,00,000 – most of whom live in slums and are not serviced by water pipelines.
“The problem is extremely severe in the slums, where there are no pipelines. They are entirely dependent on bore wells and when those dry up in the summer – or sometimes in March, the problem turns into a crisis,” he said.
To deal with the situation, the assistant engineer has 30 water tankers of 6,000 litres capacity at his disposal. “Each tanker makes at least 5 trips in a day to provide water. But it’s not enough,” he said.
The IMC then has to hire private water tankers to help out. “In the summer, we primarily use private tankers to supply water. There are long queues of tankers outside water tanks,” the assistant engineer said.
A typical water tanker operator works eight-hour shifts “during off-season”, said one operator outside a water tank on the outskirts of Indore. During the “peak season”, which starts in late February or early March and lasts until August or September, the water tanker operators have to work between 12 and 16 hours a day.
He requested not to be named. “Pani ka maamla Hindu-Muslim ki tarah hai aaj kal. (These days the issue of water is as sensitive as issues of communal disharmony),” he said, explaining his apprehension.
“There are two reasons why we have to work longer hours in the summer months. We have to wait more hours to get the tanker filled at the water tank. The queues are longer than a kilometre sometimes. We also have to make more trips to deliver water,” the operator said.
He makes at least five-six trips every day in the area where most of the population lives in slums. “Even when I make the last trip at night, when I am exhausted, I have some water left in the tanker. I see that there are some families in the basti that have not still got water,” he says looking into the distance.
“But then, I also have to go back home and arrange water for my own family. I have to save some in the tanker.”
Kabir Agarwal is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India’s ‘WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme.’