It’s 1.10 am and the doors are all shut; the lights out. The dingy alleys seem locked up for the night.
But no one’s really asleep. It’s a restless silence as the residents of Vikhroli’s 25-year-old Varsha Nagar slum wait for a whistle to blow.
When the shrill cry finally pierces the night air, at 1.20 am, the lanes burst into life. Residents jostle one another as they head towards the slum’s community taps carrying pots, buckets and jerrycans.
Bleary-eyed children, men in shorts and women in nighties quickly take their place in a queue. Once the pots have been filled, they dodge one another with practiced agility, head home, and return to the back of the queue hoping for a little more. This cycle will go on until the taps run dry — usually in under an hour.
Each tap is shared by four to ten households here; each family ends up with about 90 litres per head per day, 60 litres per head less than the minimum they are entitled to.
“Sleep and water are two of the most fundamental needs of a human body. We are being deprived of both,” says Sunita Khaker, 36, a school bus attendant who reports to work at 7 am.
High-rises with swimming pools twinkle in the distance. But there are contrasts closer home. At the bottom of the hill on which Varsha Nagar sprawls, the taps begin to flow at 11.30 pm, envious residents say.
The relatively early hour is no comfort to Bajrangi Singh, 71, a double amputee and retired Mumbai Port Trust employee.
Every day he sits at his doorstep from 11 pm. “At my age and with my disability, it’s hard. But what other option do I have?” he asks, eyes darting between the tap and his watch.
Four households share this tap. He gets only 15 minutes.
“I have only one 225-litre drum,” he says. “On most days, it is one-fourth full. But with the 20% water cut, I can no longer fill it up even that much.”
Fulabai Kharade, 35, a homemaker who lives with her four children and husband, says she is now forced to carry unwashed clothes to a relative’s home nearby because there is just not enough water here.
This six-member family receives about 50 litres per person per day. Fulabai’s husband, a security guard, wears the same unwashed uniform for three to five days at a time.
“I would like for my husband’s uniform to be odour-free, but how?” Fulabai says. “We barely have enough to drink and wash utensils.”
For the drivers, cleaners, security guards, labourers, vendors, peons and shop owners who live in Varsha Nagar, the year-round struggle for water promises to be worse than usual for the next 10 months or so.
With a monsoon that has been 23% deficient and lake levels at their lowest in five years, the BMC declared a 20% water cut on August 27 and, on Thursday, announced that it would most likely keep the cut in force until the next monsoon.
Households across Mumbai are feeling the pinch. For some, the daily supply is now too little to run the washing machine daily; for others, it means slightly shorter showers, or washing the car less frequently. Those for whom water is constantly in short supply have, naturally, been hardest hit.
Speaking of the disparity in water supply between slum and non-slum areas or buildings, additional municipal commissioner (projects) Sanjay Mukherjee, under whose jurisdiction the BMC’s water department falls, says: “Why are we only comparing buildings and slums? We should instead look at how the BMC is able to match the national norm of 150 litres per capita per day [LPCD] whereas in rural Maharashtra water supply is 20 LPCD.”
So whose water is it, and how ought it to be distributed?
Some elements of this dispute were settled by the Bombay high court last December, in the case of the Paani Haq Samiti (a collective of NGOs, activists and water experts) vs the BMC & Others. The court recognised right to water as enshrined in the constitutional right to life. It directed the BMC to supply water to all those living in the city. Ten months on, the implementation of the directive is mired in red tape.
“There is nothing socialist or capitalist about demanding fair distribution and supply of water, both in terms of actual cost and the cost of time spent in accessing water in the case of slum dwellers,” says Pankaj Joshi of the thinktank Urban Design Research Institute. “In fact, if everyone is paying for electricity as per the units consumed, why can we not have a pay-per-use policy when it comes to water?”
In municipalities such as Hubli and Dharwad in Karnataka, pay-per-use policies have turned regions from water-deficit to water-surplus cities, as citizens become more aware of usage and waste.
It is a core issue of good governance, says Dhaval Desai of the Observer Research Foundation. “Water supply is one of the most obligatory duties of any civic government. How can adequate supply not be provided to the domestic help, milkmen, plumbers, vendors and drivers who live here and contribute to the city’s economy?” he adds.
It is the city’s poor, mainly the 62% of Mumbaiites living in slums, who are worst-hit every time a water cut is enforced, says Sitaram Shelar, convenor of the Paani Haq Samiti.
“First we used to use water to discriminate on the basis of caste, now we are using it to discriminate on the basis of class,” Shelar adds. “We are a city with infinity pools on the one hand and an acute scarcity of drinking and bathing water the other. This is creating social stress.”
OFF THE GRID
In Malad’s 24-year-old Ambujwadi slum, there is no municipal water supply. Through most of the year, residents pay private tankers Rs 15 for every 35 litres. Now, as demand for the tankers has risen, the rate has gone up to Rs 35 and even Rs 40.
Some households source water from shared hand pumps and borewells. Digging for water is a bustling side-business for the more enterprising residents. When groundwater levels dip, this water turns brackish and cannot be used for drinking.
“My four children have missed several days of school because we need them to stay back and help us fetch water from the tankers. It’s a state of terrible helplessness,” says tailor Jamil Akhtar Shaikh, 46. “This year, things have been so desperate that we carved holes into the tarpaulin sheet over our shanty and placed buckets below to collect rainwater.”
In Cuffe Parade’s Geeta Nagar slum, an angry Jyoti Narayan has missed out on Ganeshotsav, once again.
“I’m a Maharashtrian. You know how big Ganesh Chaturthi is for us?” she asks, angrily. “I was stuck washing utensils in my nighty instead of celebrating in my new sari because I had to time the washing to coincide with the water.”
Geeta Nagar receives water in two time slots — 11 am and 3 pm.
“These are official timings,” says Roshni Valmiki, 19, sneering. “Sometimes 11 is 11.45, and the 3 pm slot can instead start at 5. On days of pipe bursts or maintenance, water is released at 2 am.”
The erratic timings often delay men heading to work and schoolchildren heading to class. Lately, Valmiki says the supply has been so low that she is down to four jerrycans a day instead of seven, for their family of 11.
In Kaula Bunder at Reay Road, families live crammed in one tiny room because their second room is reserved for drums of water.
Rajkumari Kuppuswamy, 40, pays Rs 500 a month for her water connection and still ends up buying water. “Each day, one of us gets a turn to bathe. On most days, I just wash my face and put on some talcum powder to feel fresh,” she says.
Residents of Kaula Bunder walk, cycle or drag handcarts to a junction near the Reay Road railway station, where water is sold out of water tankers at rates that fluctuate wildly depending on demand.
Among the buyers last Thursday was a seven-year-old dragging a 12-litre drum. After waiting in line for 10 minutes, she finally filled it, paid Rs 5, shut the lid tight and laid it sideways on the road with some help. Then she began rolling it home with her hands and feet.
Midway, the lid popped open and the water began to gush out. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the drum upright. After struggling frantically for a few seconds, she gave up and began to cry as the water made its way into the drain.
THE WATER CRISIS IN A NUTSHELL
Where we stand
* This year’s monsoon has been 23% deficient.
* On October 2, officially the end of the monsoon, Mumbai’s water stocks stood at a five-year low of 11.43 million litres, down from 14.05 million litres at the same time last year.
* Since August 27, based on low lake levels, the BMC has been enforcing a 20% water cut across the city, and a 50% cut for industrial and commercial users.
* Currently, Mumbai has enough water for 243 days. The BMC usually takes stock of water supply on October 1, accounting for 304 days (till July 31, in case of a delayed monsoon).
Who gets how much
* According to BMC records, of the 3.81 lakh official water connections in the city, 2.35 lakh are routed to slums and 88,000 to buildings. Another 4,900 connections are for industrial users and 53,100 for commercial users.
* Slums, both notified (pre-95) and non-notified (post-95), account for 62% of Mumbai’s population of 12.4 million, according to the 2011 Census, and just under 62% of total water connections. It’s in the distribution and payment models that differences emerge.
* Currently, whether the water is being used for drinking, washing cars or filling up a swimming pool, building residents pay the BMC Rs 4.67 per 1,000 litres; slum dwellers pay Rs 3.87.
* In terms of quantity, buildings get 240 litres per capita per day (LPCD); and slums, 150 LPCD.
*But in most buildings and slums alike, BMC supply is not found to be sufficient and is supplemented by privately owned water tankers. The tanker companies get their water from wells and borewells, paying nominal sums to the owners and selling the water at a profit.
* Most buildings buy this water by the truckload, paying a ‘discounted’ rate of about Rs 2,000 per 8,000 litres—a rate of about 25 paise per litre. Most slumdwellers buy this water in much smaller quantities, usually in batches of 35 litres, paying upto Rs 1 per litre suring summer or in times of scarcity.
Interpreting the numbers
* Unlike housing, which is a man-made resource, and much like air, water is a shared naturally occurring resource. Ten months ago, the Bombay high court ruled that right to water was enshrined in the constitutional right to life and ordered the BMC to establish supply to all those living in the city.
* There are still large swathes with no access to BMC water supply at all. Meanwhile, as a result of faulty water meters (both in slum and non-slum areas), leaking British-era pipes, theft and pipe bursts and evaporation, about 700 million litres of water is lost daily.
Water stocks as of Oct 2
2015 — 11.43 million litres
2014 — 14.05 million litres
2013 — 13.72 million litres
2012 — 12.41 million litres
2011— 12.24 million litres
(Graphic text: Humaira Ansari, with inputs from Chetna Yerunkar)
The story was published in the print edition on October 4, 2015.