That Delhi is terribly water-stressed is well known. But recently, Sushil Gupta, member secretary of the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), made a startling revelation about the level of extraction that continues in the city: “Some excavations [for water] run deeper than the height of the Qutab Minar”. Gupta says: “Our water resource is like a combination of a fixed deposit and a savings account in a bank. Over-exploitation from aquifers means over-drawing from the fixed deposit.”
The south and south-west districts of Delhi have been relentlessly mining water and the exploitation in these areas has increased by almost 240% in the past 12 years. The same holds true for Gurgaon and Dwarka. The water table being somewhat higher in the trans-Yamuna and north Delhi areas, they might face less problems in times to come, but only comparatively.
Despite the overall water crisis, the new CEO of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), Debashree Mukherjee, is benignly doling out incentives to consumers willing to undertake rainwater harvesting. Instead of treating consumers like children, the DJB should bring in a law to make rainwater harvesting mandatory and give itself enough powers to heavily fine non-compliance. Although over-exploitation of water also happens in rural India, the saving grace there is that it goes for irrigation. In south Delhi, it goes disproportionately to maintain lavish lifestyles.
To evade detection, Delhi residents have employed ingenious ways to camouflage their illegal borewells. Meanwhile, the water lords in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies commit daylight robbery, relentlessly digging into groundwater, even destroying the water mains. Each year, the Delhi government issues directions and appoints officers to seal bore wells and launch prosecutions.
The custodians of law are the district deputy commissioners. But they are ill-equipped to barge into palatial homes, get past formidable gates and sentries to curb the menace of illegal boring. When private electricity companies can command uniformed security, why doesn’t the largest supplier of potable water have a police force to protect its officials?
Delhi is today serviced by water sources as far as 250 kilometres away and non-release of water needs annual intercession by Delhi’s chief minister, along with her counterparts in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Threats of invoking contempt of the Supreme Court order (which has embargoed depriving Delhi of water) are regularly brandished, but are disregarded once irrigation demands peak.
Sermons about efficiency and conservation make good advertisement copy, but when half the water allotted to Delhi is lost or stolen in transit, parroting homilies becomes meaningless. The city treats less than half the wastewater it generates. The Delhi cantonment and the NDMC areas get five times more water than the rest of Delhi. Every day, millions of litres of sewage and industrial effluent flow into the Yamuna. Half a million new people come into the city each year, multiplying the demand for water, sewage and waste disposal. Slum dwellers beg, borrow and steal water, the acute deficiency taking its toll on health and sanitation.
Over the next 15 years, the DJB expects the demand for water to double in Delhi, but in south Delhi it will spiral five times. So it is shocking that building construction policies are encouraging more floors. The DJB is “happy” that the BJP-led Municipal Corporation of Delhi now “consults” it before sanctioning additional floors. But when asked how often the DJB denied permission due to the absence of water, not one instance was cited.
Given this state of helplessness, the authority to say no to more construction in water-scarce areas should rest with an independent regulator that is assisted by the CGWA, a body which has extensive knowledge about mapping water scarcity and could even access Geographic Information System technology to deal with the situation. Irresponsible building policies and soft handling of a dire necessity like rainwater harvesting are making Delhi unliveable. The time for soft options is long over.
Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.