Water: what…er?

 Water: and what your city is not doing about it.

Notice how every summer in Delhi, we stare at the serious deficit of almost every utility that the state is endowed to provide, most critically, water.

It’s no use starting a debate on splinters of the main argument – that there is wastage, or that there are leakages in the system or indeed that almost half of the water delivered by the Delhi Jal Board is unaccounted for. These are poster headlines by now, and we know these by heart. What is seriously missing is a rational view of the problem, its extent and what threatens to be its dangerous impact in the next few years, and finally a serious attempt at finding a workable solution.

First, I think the cardinal mistake is that Government has never allocated for its population. There is this eyes-wide-shut syndrome that regime after regime indulges in without wanting to engage with the horrific reality of a water famine. But problems don’t go away because you shut your eyes. This repetitive refusal to define the consumption of water, actual and potential, worked over decadal growth is the first blockade to having a sensible plan in place. That unaccounted supply of water is being supplied, defines consumption precisely; an unauthorised colony is not going to go away, it will only find legal status sooner or later so better account for its needs as well. Constantly hiding behind this population and unauthorized or illegal colonies argument is going to backfire on the city sooner than later.

Some time back a correspondent of a prominent TV Channel told me this amusing story. She recalled that when she had just joined the channel and she was given the local water body beat, to cover the Delhi Jal Board, or the DJB as we know it in its notorious abbreviation. She said she met the CEO of the DJB who while ranting about the problems of water distribution said, “Do you know that 40% of Delhi does not get piped water”. What is funny, she told me, was that having finished almost a decade in TV journalism, in the course of following a story she had per chance once again to cover the CEO’s views on some issue again [a different CEO, of course] and do you know what he said in the course of the interview: “You must realise that 40% of Delhi does not get piped water”. Wow! The question to ask of this Government is exactly what was it doing for the 10 years in between these auspicious statements of the able men who lead the DJB. [Oh, by the way, did you know that the CM of Delhi is the Chairperson of DJB]

Next comes the importance of shoring up supply for years in advance. This requires not publicity stunts like Sonia Vihar, but a serious attempt to push the agenda to the top of the table when inter-state water conferences are on. Delhi has played and continues to play the “Capital” card most of the time, and gets away too often. All it takes for the situation to get out of hand is antagonistic political parties in power in neighbouring states to bring the issue to boil. We don’t want that. We need to work with other states knowing full well that their obligation remains to their citizens first and then find a way to ensure that in spite of that reality we have negotiated enough water to last us  over progressive five year cycles, in advance.

Conservation is last in the list because it is a defensive strategy. But the way it has been used by the Delhi government, it would seem that it is merely a publicity strategy. Half page adverts continuously remind us that we must save water, inverted umbrellas have become similes for rain water harvesting and yet this is all aimed not at the problem of water but the potential of PR. To ask residents with no know-how, means or time or incentive to actively install water harvesting systems that cost half a lakh in cases, while the Government actively colludes in massive constructions on the Yamuna river bed which happens to be the largest natural conservatory of rain water for an 11-day Commonwealth games, is final proof that the state leadership is unconcerned.

The last word: Politically, we need to ensure that water becomes an election issue, but personally we must also ensure that conservation does not end up being just conversation.

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