The persistent problem of water shortage in Shimla town has precipitated into a full-blown crisis. The situation is so precarious now that picketing, protests and demonstrations are happening rampantly. The situation is so bad that the Shimla water crisis made to the headlines of BBC, The Guardian and The New York Times. The city administration has laid off the responsibility of water distribution, as just when the crisis erupted, the mayor left for a tour to China. The water distribution in the city has been taken over by the HP High court, which in its new avatar, is in control of everything from top to bottom, including the keyman. The chief minister invariably is holding meetings every day, and a committee headed by the chief secretary of the state is now responsible for water distribution in Shimla city, which is unheard of, in the history of the town. Today, there was a flash that the CM of Himachal Pradesh has rushed to Delhi to apprise Modi of the Shimla water crisis. Wonder if his staying in Shimla would have been better. However, both the courts’ intervention and the CM’s meeting are unable to cut much ice, and almost every day, people are screaming for water through their protests.
The situation is similar to what happened in Cape Town in South Africa. There are fights, quarrels and soon it can lead to riots. The police has been asked to guard the water supply through tankers. Just recently, the police arrested the residents of Kaithu locality who had blocked the road for their demand of water, as their locality had not got water in last seven days. The CPI(M) held a massive protest demonstration outside the mayor’s office. Arti Chauhan – the BJP councillor from Sanjaulli joined the protests against her own government and the municipal corporation. The situation is really bad.
The BJP has ominous answerability, as the Municipal Corporation (MC), Shimla, and the state government are ruled by the BJP. The local BJP MLA is also a cabinet minister. The party that won the MC, Shimla almost a year ago and the state six months after, had promised to provide water on daily basis. However, the reality is very harsh. The MC, Shimla is itself accepting that water is being distributed once in eight days and in some localities, it is once in 10 days. It means that the BJP- run administration is able to provide water just thrice in a month! The institutions have miserably failed to either comprehend the situation or effectively manage the water crisis. The people continue to face the crisis, and as a result, are forced to fetch water from the adjoining natural sources (bauris), which are highly contaminated.
What are the reasons behind such an unprecedented crisis?
The Shimla city has supply from five major water sources. These are Gumma, Giri, Ashwini Khad, Churat and Seog. The overall installed capacity is 65 million litres per day (MLD). The demand in the city is approximately 45 MLD. The figures would suggest that the installed capacity is far beyond the requirement and there should be no reason for the present crisis. Despite the installed capacity being high, actually the city never gets more than 35 MLD as an average throughout the year. More than 50 per cent is leakage. This leakage takes place at both the stages – pumping and distribution. No serious efforts have been made in the past except by the CPI(M)-run MC from 2012-17, when Giri, Gumma and Ashwinin Khad leakages were checked. The Giri scheme has an installed capacity of 20 MLD, whereas not more than 8 MLD was being pumped. More than 2 km-long pipe line was changed, and Giri was able to throw more than 20 MLD – even more than the installed capacity.
Another major problem is the contaminated water in Ashwini Khad. This source, which is one of the best sources, got contaminated in 2005, when a sewage treatment plant (STP) Malyana was constructed just 5 km upstream. Since then, there have been periodic episodes of hepatitis in the city. Since 2007, after every alternate year, the people got infected with this virus and many even died. The previous MC (2012-17) stopped lifting water from Ashwinin Khad. This source was able to meet the requirements of 25 per cent of the city’s population. Stopping water being lifted from this source is a major challenge, as this cannot be compensated even by an increase from Giri. At present, not more than 2-3 MLD of water is being pumped into the city from Ashwinin Khad. The MC has to take this challenge seriously. If it insists on lifting water from this source, then the chances of outbreak of hepatitis looms large. If they do not, then the persisting crisis would further deepen. There has to be a proper mechanism to deal with this source.
The third reason for the deepening of this crisis is that there are over 50 sources in and around the city, which are run and operated by the Irrigation and Public Health Department (IPH) of the state government. The IPH has virtually stopped lifting water from these sources on the pretext that these are contaminated. This has further mounted burden on the MC to ensure that water is supplied even to such areas, which are not under the MC jurisdiction.
The present MC run by the BJP is callous, and the management is also very poor. The elected council is not only apathetic, but also does not have the experience of running a city government. In the history of Shimla MC, it was run either by the Congress or the CPI(M). The BJP got elected in 2017. It is also believed that the BJP leadership is interested in getting the situation worse so that it becomes a fit case for privatising of the water supply in the city.
Is climate change also a reason?
Believe it or not, but the climate change and its impact is very profound in the Shimla city water supply system. The winters were by large dry. The average rainfall was 80 per cent deficient. It rained in March and April. But retention of water in these months is very less. The sources of water have gone 50 per cent below their average. It may be put on record that the Shimla city uses surface water only for water supply. Over a period, the impact of climate change is very vivid. The ecosystem supporting the city is witnessing less snow, more rain in the year, but less time period of rain. It means that there is less retention of water through natural water ecosystem, and more flooding as rain comes in torrents. Such water cannot be harvested.
The overall building plan in the city is also a matter of concern. As what is required is more embankment so that the flow of the water is restricted, and so that it percolates and recharges numerous water bodies. But the kind of infrastructure built for drains, houses etc. is where water gushes fast, and is hardly retained. The resilient strategies of building have to be made operationalised. Since, for long, the city is going to bank on surface water it, must be ensured that large catchment areas around the water bodies are developed so that natural water recharge takes place. Just like the Seog catchment area where no construction is allowed and which is a wild life sanctuary.
What is the alternative?
There has to be both immediate and long-term planning. For immediate planning, there must be proper monitoring and management. Proper distribution of water and checking of leakages must be done at war pace. The government offices and colonies – both the central and state – occupy almost 50 per cent of the land mass (minus forests) in Shimla city. It has to be made mandatory that at least the government offices ensure that they become resilient and ensure that they have 100 per cent rainwater harvesting in their offices and residential colonies. This planning is hardly there.
The Greater Shimla Water Supply and Sewage Circle (GSWSSC) must be strengthened for its autonomous functioning. The duality of water supply and distribution has ended. The strengthening of the GSWSSC will make it more accountable. The cadre of officers and other staff must be retained. One of the reasons precipitating the present problem is that as BJP came to power, it started transferring these people from the GSWSSC, and fill the posts with ‘their own men’. This was a disaster.
But this is not sufficient. The city requires another major source of water supply, which is perennial. The city is growing though not at a rapid pace. Having grown from a population of 30,000 (during the British period), the city has over 2,00,000 people now, with over 1 lakh entering and leaving the city every day. The city also has more than 4 million (40 lakh) tourists visiting every year. Hence the present set of water sources cannot suffice. The previous MC (CPI(M)-led) was instrumental in lifting water from Koldam by signing an MOU with the World Bank. The Koldam water supply scheme is supposed to have capacity of than 100 MLD. This is almost thrice than what the city gets at present. By now, the execution of the work should have begun. However, it is still at the negotiation stage. The BJP government has to take the initiative to ensure that the Koldam dam scheme is executed at war pace. Just like the Ghandal water scheme that was executed by the previous government in Shimla rural constituency.
There cannot be excuses for performance and the BJP must learn that. What is required is a cohesive strategy with a plan that has to be well executed and monitored. Else, the city will soon see loss of people, jobs, and economy, which will be highly detrimental for both the city and its citizens.