Mumbai battles and bleeds for water - Building boom sucks a price

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By SAMYABRATA RAY GOSWAMI
  • Published 4.12.09
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Mumbai, Dec. 3: India’s commercial capital is bracing for severe water shortage and sporadic water wars.

The city’s 18 million have been restive since July, when the water reservoirs began getting depleted because of a sub-normal monsoon.

“The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had proposed a 30 per cent cut on July 7 but later, because of public protests, we brought it down to 15 per cent,” said BMC spokesperson Saudagar Jadhav.

“The decision overtaxed the lakes. Now the situation is such that if we do not continue to ration water, the lakes will dry out before the next monsoon.”

The civic body had announced on October 28 that it would retain the 15 per cent water cut for residential consumers and 30 per cent cut for businesses till July 15 next year.

“The crisis is expected to continue till next year’s monsoon. If the monsoon is good, things may improve; if not, the future is dark,” said additional municipal commissioner Ashish Kumar Singh.

He conceded that the scarcity could not be blamed on the monsoon alone.

“The monsoon certainly played a part. But over the years, the spurt in real estate construction in this city has put an immense load on water supply,” he added.

“Many builders eschew a commercial connection to avoid higher charges. Water theft is rampant and an old pipe system, much of it built in the British era, is giving way. The loss through leaks is massive.” (See chart)

The worst hit are the suburban and slum areas, which receive less water than the posh south Mumbai colonies where the rich and influential live.

“The water problem is acute — nowadays water comes for only two hours. We queue for hours and store as much as we can,” said Shamim Sayed, a resident of Bandra East, home to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

The Thackeray residence has 24-hour water supply, though. That is a sore point with many protesters, helping rival political parties turn the crisis into a political slugfest.

In the upscale lanes of Pali Hill, the wealthy are buying water from tankers while squabbling about the steep prices.

“A tanker costs Rs 2,500 for approximately 800 litres of water. That is not enough for an eight-floor apartment block with 16 families. So, we sometimes need two tankers,” said Usha Madhok, Pali Hill resident and actor Dev Anand’s sister.

“Then, some people use up more water than others; so, many do not want to contribute equal amounts to buy water. Things are getting very bad.”

In the nearby fishing village of Danda, residents make do with four buckets of water for a family of five every day.

“It’s a shame. Mumbai gets so much rainfall and still there is no water in the city,” complained Kandivili resident Anuradha Dutta, who left Calcutta to live in Mumbai in July.

In October 2002, the BMC had made it mandatory for all buildings with a plot area of 1,000 square metres or more to practise rainwater harvesting. In 2007, it was made compulsory for buildings with plot areas of 300 square metres.

But thanks to the lack of a monitoring mechanism, only 900 buildings had actually implemented the plan till June 2009.

The sales of loft tanks for household use have gone up in the city. Girish Malviya, chief executive officer of Sharp Water Tanks, said there was a 20 per cent increase in sales compared with the figures six months ago.

“Many Mumbaikars are enquiring about water tanks. We expect that the sales of these tanks in Mumbai will go up by 50 per cent to 70 per cent,” he said.

Last month, the BMC had announced a plan to set up a toll-free helpline through which citizens could inform the corporation about water theft and pipeline leak. It remains another number on the list of hundreds of similar helplines that have been announced, forgotten and abandoned.