It’s 10.30 in the morning when the public water tap at Swami Vivekanand Chowk in Latur city crackles to life and Manisha Sawale’s six-hour wait ends. The queue at this public tap - one among the six or seven - in the city, now on the global map for water scarcity, like all others, is serpentine.
These are the only taps running on public water supply in Latur, a city of five lakh. The taps run for 10 hours daily, free for anyone who will queue up at these designated chowks. Otherwise, Latur relies on 70 public tankers that make rounds across the city, once in six to seven days. The tankers hand out rationed 200 litres of water per family a week.
Sawale like many of the city’s poverty-striken people, however, has no faith in the public tankers.
Every alternate day, she gathers all her pots and a newly-bought 100 litre water drum to come to this tap, 10 minutes from her home at Ramabai Nagar, typically at 4am. She hopes that by 10am she can wind up filling her pots and taking them home in four trips - carrying two pieces per trip. Only then she can make it in time for her shift at a private hospital, where she works as a cleaner and earn her Rs3,000 salary to feed her four children and an alcoholic husband. This month she has lost her three work days because the wait at the tap took longer.
Like Sawale, those who come to these public taps come from the city’s poorest settlements and they are getting squeezed out of a fair deal as Latur goes dry. “I can’t afford private tanker water and public tankers don’t come to our area unless someone raises a hue and cry. So all my strength and time goes to just ensure I get enough for my family at this tap. If we fall short, I then buy a pot of water or two from some private borewells that are sold at Rs4 per pot,” she said .
The queue at the Swami Vivekanand Chowk is full of such stories with entire families – made up of autorickshaw drivers, contract workers, daily wage earners - now engaged for five to six hours in a day to get their water supply. Children swap turns with their mothers in the queue and the fathers join in to take the water home. Those who can afford it take the rickshaw, the rest make trips to and fro home.
“There’s no choice, every hand helps. So, we try to maximise by standing in queues at such taps, for public tankers, free hand outs from NGOs, anything. How long can we miss a bath and how do we manage everything in just 200 litres of water among five of us for a week?,’’ asks Anita Nagesh Kamble, a contract worker at a school, whose two children are there to help her carry water. Her husband, who was working in the oil mill in the nearby industrial estate, is without a job now after the industries closed shutters in March as water supply got cut.
While the middle class has stretched its budget by Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 per month to buy water from private tankers and the rich have insulated themselves from the scarcity the way only they can, in some cases by moving into hotels temporarily or building bigger water tanks at home. The poor, meanwhile, are stretched beyond their means. The city’s best hotel for instance pays Rs1 lakh a month for its water requirements from private tanker after its two borewells ran dry.
Pradip Nandkar, a senior journalist from the city, said the middle class depends on public tankers. “The public tanker system is not efficient or accountable and the poor are facing the brunt because of it. It’s like those who wield influence get the maximum benefit. Majority of the middle class relies on private tankers and pay Rs3,000 on average a month for water,” he said.
Nandkar said this pinches but the middle class will survive the city’s two months of scarcity, for the poor it may not always be possible.
Around 5,000 largely contract workers engaged in garment factories, steel and oil mills have packed bags and gone home after the two industrial estates shut shutters when its water supply was cut. Other daily wage labourers have moved out in search of jobs to Pune Aurangabad, Mumbai while some other have gone back to villages preferring to struggle for water here than in the city.