Tag Archives: water

Free (for all) water

Freebies harm especially when they concern basic services. In the case of Delhi, the newly-exited Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) pledge to give up to 20,000 litres of water free each day to each household is just such a freebee. Not only will it harm the provider and the environment but also not reach the intended poor. The notification dated January 1, 2014 says it is only for households with working meters and excess consumption will mean paying for the full amount. This works out rather poorly for Delhi’s households with eight lakh out of 27 lakh piped water connections in households unmetered or having dysfunctional meters. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) admitted their metering records is poor so even these figures are guestimates.  Another 4.61 lakh households get water from tubewells which DJB is taking over; the initial experience from two large colonies, Sangam Vihar and Mahipalpur in South Delhi suggests the situation has worsened since.

DJB earlier supplied 6,000 litres a month free (till this notification) to poor households, though again poor distribution meant the really needy never got any of this. People in Rangpuri for example pay a monthly charge of Rs 60 for supply from a local tubewell owned and operated by a local goon and a connection charge of Rs 2,000. Water comes for an hour a day usually at low pressure so each house barely gets enough. This works out to about 100 litres per person per day, well above the 40 litres of free water DJB was giving till last year. The water is not drinkable and forces people to spend extra on buying drinking water or treatment systems. Similarly, 37 per cent people living slums are out of the purview of AAP’s freebee either because there are no pipes to supply water or they do not have meters.

Where did this 20,000 litre figure come from? Taking an average of five people per household, it works out to about 135 litres per person per capita (lpcd) that is the minimum recommended supply for an urbanite by the Ministry of Urban Development. But it does not reflect the quantity of water a person really needs and is instead the volume of water needed to keep modern sewage systems functional. Studies have found the actual per capita water use is just 78 lpcd, half the amount promised. It is lower than the 172 lpcd suggested in a draft water master plan for Delhi.

There is not enough water to supply the freebee. DJB provides about 3900 million litres of water every day (MLD). This is 215 lpcd. By its admission, leakages are 45 per cent to 50 per cent. The end-of-pipe supply is therefore 110 lpcd, much lower than AAP has promised. For AAP to fulfil its promise, it will have to supply 270 lpcd that works out to 4860 MLD assuming leakages remain the same. The total water available to Delhi under various agreements is 4186 MLD, including from the Yamuna, Ganga, Bhakra and DJB-owned Ranney wells. This is a shortfall of 674 MLD at the moment, not factoring in the growth in population.

Delhiites make up the shortfall by pumping groundwater that is about 2,100 MLD of which DJB supplies around 100 MLD; the other 2,000 MLD is from privately owned tubewells. Of the nine groundwater blocks in the city, seven are over-exploited and one is on the borderline. Therefore, this source is unavailable for practical purposes to augment supply to meet the current promised supply. Other attempts to increase local water availability such as rainwater harvesting have barely gained traction in the city.

The freebee will push DJB into the red again. Its budget is Rs 3952 crores with an Rs 234 crore surplus. A rough calculation puts its cost of producing a kilo litre of water at Rs 10 including sewage treatment. If it is to supply 20,000 litres free a month to each household, it will have to spend an additional Rs 115 crore. The additional free amount DJB will provide is actually 14,000 litres a month that will mean foregoing a revenue of Rs 33 per house per month at the lowest consumption slab billed at Rs 2.42 per kilo litre. This totals about Rs 10 crore a month or Rs 120 crore a year. In effect, the freebee will wipe out DJB’s modest surplus in a year and put it back on Delhi government support. In turn, this will affect its plans for upgrading and modernizing its supply network that is absolutely necessary to bring down water losses.

This calculation does not take into account the increased sewage generation. Delhi’s existing sewage treatment plants have an installed capacity of about 2,400 MLD and work at about 66 per cent capacity. This means they treat about 1,600 MLD sewage, the rest entering drains and Yamuna River untreated. If everybody gets the promised water sewage generation will jump to about 3,900 MLD. That means we will compound the problem of water pollution by discharging about 2,300 MLD of raw sewage into the city’s drains and river. This is not at all desirable.

What is possible is a step-by-step approach starting with fixing a very leaky system. Modern technology makes it possible to find and plug leaks to bring DJB’s losses down to an acceptable 15 per cent. Once this is done, the city will have adequate water to provide an acceptable amount to all. The second is to reduce the quantity of water but provide it in assured quantities and of certified quality. Again, studies indicate supply in the region of 100 lpcd is good enough for domestic purposes without cramping ‘modern’ lifestyles; this means a household supply of 500 litres, or 15,000 litres per month. The third is to expand the water and sewage network from the 75 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively, so everybody is covered in order to supply the water and collect the sewage. The fourth is to fix meters to ensure people are billed for water consumed, especially those who can afford to pay. If a Delhiite pays Rs 4.96 for a unit of electricity he/she can afford to pay for water. A cross-subsidy can help keep DJB in the black. AAP’s objectives maybe laudable but counter-intuitive since in countless surveys (and not all by the World Bank) people have said they are willing for an assured supply of good quality water.


Backward waters

I was in Attara, a one-horse town in eastern Bundelkhand. The badlands of Uttar Pradesh, where murder and kidnapping is as common as the cycles on its dirty roads. Its a train ride from the Delhi, and emerging from the cocoon of the second class air-conditioned coach made me feel strangely vulnerable and elated. Attara’s railway station is a single platform affair, just a foot higher than the tracks so I had to clamber down the coach’s stairs bag in hand.

There were few people around waiting desultorily for their train. The exit was through a small multi-purpose building that served as the station master’s office, ticket office and coolie room. Outside the parking area was dust with an assortment of ramshackle vehicles – a fatfatia, a few autos with Kirloskar diesel engines, rickshaws and a tonga. Thankfully Suresh was there on his bike. We hugged and I clambered on a rickshaw, to follow him.

Lakshmi Guest House is one of two hotels in Attara. The less said the better. I went through the grill door, up a narrow flight of steps to their main room – large with a cooler and its own bathroom. The other rooms don’t have attached bathrooms and were inhabited by an assortment of men in their kachas. A boy brought in a jug of water and glasses, and tea a while later. The owner came and told me lunch would be served downstairs.

Suresh and I ate rotis, boiled cauliflower-and-potatoes, and daal. The cauliflower concoction was lousy but the daal was another matter. Fiery, it was the perfect accompaniment to rotis: daal roti khao prabhu ke gun gao. Anyway, this set the stage for many meals to follow. I could alleviate boredom by ordering scrambled eggs – egg bhujia, but there was no meat to be found in public at least.

Traveling in those parts in jeans is not recommended. Track pants (no shorts) or loose pants are the best. Dress conservatively and shoes are recommended as the dust enters everything and the streets are piggy. T shirts are OK, but shirts are better. It is cold in the mornings even in summer though the days get really hot.

The only ways to get around are on foot, motorcycle or jeep. Cars are useless as the roads are almost non-existent. This is a ‘backward’ part of India, surprising since it is fertile land that was once the centre of great kingdoms. Beautiful also, with thick forests and hilly terrain from where many rivers flow. But its backward in the eyes of the government because there aren’t industries here. Perhaps it’s just as well. This is the land of 1000 year old architecture, Khajuraho and mysticism. The Pandavas and Ram meandered here in the past. So did assorted ascetics and sadhus. Now criminals hold sway but heaven knows what they find to plunder in this beautiful desolation.

We head to Tendura, Suresh’s village, to see a few ponds. Crossing the tracks near the railway station, we drive next to a swamp of shit water, Attara’s sewage. Tendura is 5 KM through fields of sugarcane and wheat. He has an rambling mud and brick house that accommodates his large family and animals. Outside is an abandoned well. A short walk through muddy streets brings us to one pond. Legend has it a rich trader stopped there to rest 400 years ago and had a dream to make a pond. The next morning villagers found a bag of money and used it to make the pond.

Nearby is another, built on the instructions of a baba after the village suffered an epidemic of plague. He decreed nobody should fish there, but a man did and was struck low. The pond teems with fish. Suresh drops me back to the lodge for the night, and I lock myself in. The bathroom has a strangely curving wall that threatens to collapse on me at any moment, especially while squatting on the Indian-style shitpot. The lodge boy knocks and leave a bucket of hot water outside. I dilute this with tap water and have a welcome bath. Lovely, lovely. A short while later after dinner there is a commotion outside – a drunk cop is arguing with another drunk man but they soon kiss and make up, and go back inside to continue their binge.

Suresh comes next morning with a jeep to being our 4-day Bundelkhand tour of the Chandela and Bundela ponds – large artificial lakes built a millennium ago by the Rajput rulers. The jeep is necessary given the lack of roads and the piles of garbage on what pass for streets. It also gives us some gravitas in this overly macho outpost of the country that no car can provide. This journey is chronicled in my book Jalayatra – http://www.jalyatra.com.

The great drying

India is drying up. We are hurtling towards a future without water, created by political expediency, bureaucratic ineptitude, popular corruption and corporate avarice. In a few years, we will have exhausted our long and short term reserves of water. Tens of millions of tubewells sunk by farmers promoted by blind politicians will have dried up sub-surface water reserves in most of the country.

A deadly mix of politicians, bureaucrats and business would have raped the country of its minerals, leaving no space for rivers to flow or forests to grow. In turn this would mean less water all around – in the ground, rainfall, on the surface and eventually in the Himalayan glaciers that support most of India’s exploding population. The poor for whom our World Bank-pensioned PM and PC Chairman weep would simply be lopped from the bottom of the pyramid.

The rivers dependent on Himalayan glaciers are already threatened by dams, deforestation  and over-population along their courses. We take out water and return waste – farm runoff, municipal sewage and industrial toxins. We hope the water will carry that, and our sins, to the ocean but that is not happening any more. There is no water. The waste accumulates, enters the ground and our food chain, water chain. We lap it up in increasingly greater concentrations.

This is our future – dry. Every time elections come around, there is a round of political bullshit; give farmers tubewells, waive their loans, provide more free power. Sure, some of this is needed as farmers need help to eke out a living. But they don’t need more tubewells, free power or means to extract water from the ground. What they need, and what nobody provides, is how to use that water better. To make a good life, to save for the future.

Is our consumerist culture to blame? When everything is reduce to the unidimension of money, can you blame farmers for maximising the present, at the cost of everything else? Can you blame politicians, businessmen or bureaucrats to live as if there is no tomorrow? If our World Bank pensioner-rulers are busy pushing a single agenda, who do you blame. Have a pasta and a pudding, and damn the rest. But you need water to grow pasta.

So what. There has to be some credible thought for the future. In the business as usual scenario, it seems really bleak. If we maximise the present by wising up to water wastage and pollution, we can still save the future from going dry. Dry statistics – India will be water stressed by 2020 – are not scary. Drying water tables are. Dry or dirty rivers are. Disappeared glaciers are. Chopped down and mined forests are. The Indian public needs to be fed a staple of this information so it wakes up to the fact there is more to life than just money. There are things money cannot buy – water, forests, clean air, rain, life itself. They need to checkmate politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen out to finish the country as soon as possible. An apathetic public is its own worst enemy and indeed, the enemy of the state. We need to wake up now to prevent the great drying or all money in the world will be useless.