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No tiffs near taps, water flows free

Raghavendra Kadekar at the water treatment plant in Kundapur in Karnataka. Picture by K.M. Rakesh

Kundapur, Dec. 14: Gowri has been through it all.

Even four years ago, she would be among thousands who would queue up before public water taps in her fishing village near this south Karnataka coastal town.

Fish was abundant, but drinking water was scarce in the village, nestled between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters.

“There was never a day without fights as people let out their frustrations at each other,” recalled the woman, now in her mid-seventies.

Water salinity meant the poor were dependent on the creaky public taps built in the early 1970s. Although those with resources dug wells, groundwater contamination threatened public health.

“We had to struggle for water ever since I remember,” said Gowri, recalling her days spent at the village tap in tropical heat and blinding monsoon rain.

Not any more.

Today, piped water is available to almost all the 5,000-odd homes of this small town, some 430km from Bangalore. Most of the 1,400 public taps are gone and with them the coloured plastic pots that stood waiting with their owners for the taps to run.

One of the 10 south Karnataka towns that benefited from a $175 million Asian Development Bank loan to improve water and solid waste management in October 1999, Kundapur is inching towards 24-hour water supply.

While the project eased the lives of nearly a million people in the 10 towns — the others being Karwar, Ankola, Dandeli, Bhatkal, Sirsi, Mangalore, Puttur, Udupi and Ullal — it was Kundapur that benefited the most.

The ADB funds were managed by the Karnataka Development of Coastal Environmental Management Project and the local civic body. But if finance played a key role in the town’s transformation in just about six years, so did “unity”.

“Our elected civic body and the officials displayed unity and a sense of purpose in the larger interests of the people,” said K. Mohandas Shenoy, the president of the Kundapur Town Municipality.

“The BJP, Congress and CPM all worked together for the people and the result is a town with no water or waste problems.

“The ADB funds helped us most because we had only some 24km of leaky and inefficient water pipelines,” said Shenoy.

The ADB project funded a new water pipeline network of 53km that covered almost every home.

An immediate impact is soaring land prices. From a mere Rs 10,000 per cent just before the project was completed four years ago, land prices have risen to more than Rs 150,000 per cent. (100 cents make up an acre).

Gowri didn’t appear interested in land prices. She is savouring her free time. “I have lots of time to relax as water is not a worry,” she said.

Venkatesh too can afford to stretch an idle leg. “Earlier, I had to wake up very early to wait at the tap, collect water, and then set out fishing. I often ended up working till late.”

But the journey has not been without challenges, the biggest being a site to dump waste as the authorities faced opposition to a landfill project in 2002.

“Three sites had to be scrapped and the fourth one, where it is now, had to go through litigation,” said Raghavendra Kadekar, environment engineer with the municipality. “They just couldn’t accept a landfill in their backyard.”

The result of the protests was the ADB dropped plans to fund the landfill project.

The municipality went ahead on its own with the help of the state government. “The government, on the recommendation of (the late minister) V.S. Acharya, released some funds and we started work on the landfill once the court removed an earlier stay order in 2009,” Kadekar said.

Kadekar, who was part of the project team, is a happy man: the landfill is running as planned.

The reporter was on a trip organised by the ADB