Traffic in Ujjain is moving in a different lane these days. Almost every fourth vehicle is a water carrier — tankers, trolleys, goods carriers loaded with drums of water, handcarts pushing as many canisters as possible. Everyone in the town, 200 km west of Bhopal, seems to be moving with only one purpose — water.
Natural water sources in this town, frequented by Hindu pilgrims and home to five lakh people, have run dry. Water has to be transported to the town — the civic body supplies it through tankers once in six days. Those who can, often pay as much as Rs 10 for a canister. Typically, a canister carries 20 litres of water.
Madhya Pradesh is perhaps facing the worst water crisis in living memory.
For over 15 lakh inhabitants of the capital city of Bhopal, which once had a six sq km lake, water is rationed. Supply comes on alternate days and authorities could bring it down to once in three days.
But Bhopal residents are better off than those of Dewas, a bustling industrial town 150 km west of Bhopal. Water is once-a-week treat for town’s three lakh people.
Trickle of a monsoon
The monsoon failed last year, hitting the western parts the hardest. Average rainfall was 40 per cent below normal, leaving 158 of the 339 towns in the state in a drought-like situation.
“The situation is worrisome,” admitted Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Sixty-one towns, including tourist haunts like Khajuraho, do not get piped supply anymore. All local sources have dried up and water is ferried to these places.
With groundwater depleting sharply and getting muddier — the quality of water gets poorer with depth — disaster looms large. A few days ago, in the tribal area of Thandla in Jhabua district, 400 km west of Bhopal, a girl died and 12 children took ill after they consumed contaminated water.
In Ujjain, parents are waiting for summer vacations — begining in a week’s time. Along with the children, they will shift to their relatives in other cities. “Till then, we’ll have to pay Rs 10 for a bucket of water,” said a housewife. Special Armed Force (SAF) battalion officers in Indore, 200 km west of Bhopal, have advised, though unofficially, their men to send their families back. In Indore, the SAF, the armed branch of the state police, is running a water bill of Rs 1 lakh every month. In Bhopal, students staying in private hostels are using public facilities run by Sulabh International.
Knives are out
Vicious fights, which at times have turned lethal, are the norm in lower middle class areas and slum clusters. In February, a corporator was shot dead in Indore in a dispute over a new water connection. A month later, a youth was stabbed to death and four people were injured in a clash in another Indore slum. In Ujjain, two boys stabbed the driver of a water tanker after he refused to take his tanker to a particular area.
Protests, sit-ins and rallies are being held across the state. “We’ve written to the officers to keep a close watch on the situation,” state’s top cop S.K. Rout said.
The shortage has also set towns against each other. Indore, which has a population of 20 lakh, refused to pump the Narmada’s water to Dewas, going back on a written agreement between the two neighbouring towns. “If Indore supplies water to Dewas, it will have to get water... from other places. It is better that Dewas buys water...,” Indore’s Divisional Commissioner B.P. Singh said. Last week, the government gave Rs 2.65 crore to Dewas to buy water.
The Ujjain civic body is fighting a legal battle against Grasim Industries for drawing water from its barrage over the Chambal river. The district collector had issued an order taking over the water stored in the private barrage which supplies water to the industry and the township at Nagda. Grasim challenged the order in the court, which allowed it to retain one-fifth of the water, while releasing the remaining for the town. Dissatisfied, the municipal corporation has moved the high court.
Managing the flow
The Bhopal Municipal Corporation is planning to ask service stations to stop washing cars. In several districts like Dhar, the district magistrates have taken over tubewells and handpumps installed in homes and farmhouses for public use.
To drill new tubewells in Ujjain, the owner has to promise to share water with neighbours. In other parts, however, no new tubewells are being allowed to check exploitation of groundwater.
Two persons were jailed in Indore last month for drilling for water without permission.