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Liquid gold

Summer disruptions in the water supply to middle-class areas make the headlines, but in Govindpuri the quest for water rules every day of the year

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In , news headlines about acute water shortage in the city evoke no strong reactions. My friends from this area simply laugh patronisingly. “We don’t have the luxury of facing only a few months of water shortage,” says one. “If only we did! Water, its availability, its timing and fetching it, define our whole lives.”

The slums of Govindpuri fall in the ward of . They are made up of three camps: Nehru, Navjeevan and Bhumiheen. None of the three camps has piped running water to each house. Nehru and Bhumiheen Camps, because they abut legal settlements, do get municipal water, and have for the past decade — though still not through pipes. Navjeevan Camp started getting water just three years ago. Only Bhumiheen receives potable water regularly, through channels laid by the (DJB). It is also the only camp where shared taps are installed.

In Nehru and Navjeevan Camps, water arrives through flimsy pipes installed either right next to or actually within the open drains in each lane. These drains also serve as defecation sites (mostly for children, men, the elderly and the sick) and for garbage disposal. The water comes from DJB-authorised borewells controlled by sub-contractors. It is khara pani — untreated and un-potable. Residents say that using it causes skin diseases.

Outlets for this untreated water, piped along drains, are few and far between. Several households or a lane may share an outlet. Many households ferry water in 20-litre containers across several lanes, often all the way to another camp.

Access to these outlets is far from equitable. It is controlled by the household that has the outlet in front of its own jhuggi. Just before the fixed hour (which is not always reliable) a woman from the controlling household inserts a pipe into the outlet, and thus water is filled in containers.

Because certain areas are on a slope, the water flow is limited. Here, families have to fill water by placing a plastic bottle that has been cut in half inside the drain, and using that to scoop out water.

Preparations for collecting water are meticulously executed. They often start the previous afternoon or evening, depending on the supply hour. Plastic containers of varying sizes are brought out in the lane. One member of each family, usually a child, joins the queue. The routine of filling and fetching dominates every single day, all year round. No one is spared. Families complain that children’s education is affected because of the time they spend getting water.

Mona is in 11th standard. She is bright and spunky. “How can I demand time to study when I know that if I don’t help in fetching or filling water, there will be none?” she says. “Homework is not a priority compared to ensuring that there is water for toilet, bathing and cooking.” With a hint of mischief, she adds: “Also, everyone is out there during that time. All the gossip, fights and conversations happen during that time. How can one study, and miss all of that?”

Indeed, water-filling time is punctuated by cheeky banter, laughter, the exchange of vital information and everyday socialising. But it is not as casual as it appears. Owing to limited supply, control by a few households, and the absence of fair sharing, the politics of power, social control and exclusion are exercised through access to water. Water is liquid gold here; not having any is a stark reminder of one’s position in society.

There is a well-established order in which people fill water: self first, then neighbours, then tenants, then relatives, last of all migrants. In all three camps, short- and long-term tenants make up at least 45 per cent of the population. Tenants usually make an arrangement with their landlords for a certain quantity of water. There is a monthly charge — included in the rent or paid separately — of Rs 60-80 for up to 50 litres of water a day. It is the short-term migrants who lack the social and financial capital to make a claim to water. They are often the driest of all.

What water families get is used for cleaning, washing and bathing. It is not potable. Umedi of Navjeevan camp is an old lady of unknown age popularly known as Budiya Aunty. She says, “We fill this water from the drains. We piss, spit and throw garbage in it. We can concede to using it for specific purposes, but to use it to drink and cook, that is not done. There is a limit to how much, even though we are poor, we can degrade ourselves.” Residents of Navjeevan and Nehru camps buy drinking water water from houses in Tughlakabad and Govindpuri Extensions, both legal colonies. Thirty litres of potable water costs a family Rs 60 a month. People like Umedi have to shell out an additional Rs 50-80 a month — “to bribe the kids and young boys to fetch it for me.”

At water time, one sees young mothers followed by small children carrying tiny containers of water. There is much laughter and appreciation if they spill none of it. If this really was just a children’s game, it would make a pleasant sight.

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