Sunday, June 24, 2012

Water Bearers: On the Rounds in Najafgarh India

Standing atop a tanker, one hand placed firmly on his hip, the sun beating down on him, Pawan Kumar looks like the Greek god Poseidon, minus the trident. Instead, in his right hand is a water hose.

With Delhi reeling under a severe water crisis for nearly two weeks, Kumar’s tanker is one of the 535 private ones that the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has hired to meet the shortfall in water supply. While the demand for water in Delhi is close to 1,200 million gallons per day (MGD), DJB is equipped to supply only 835 MGD. The DJB, thus, has a fleet of 1,000 tankers to supply water to areas with major water problems. Around 40 tankers provide water to 80 villages in Najafgarh, on the outskirts of Delhi, throughout the year.

Around 10 in the morning, Kumar sets off for Jharoda village—his third round for the day. He has already made two trips to Roshan Pura and Ashram Prem Nath since 6 a.m. At Jharoda, the vehicle is brazenly parked in the middle of the road and almost 50 people carrying empty buckets and bright green and yellow pipes crowd around it.

Kumar looks away and says, “Wait for a few seconds and see how this road gets blocked.” Just then, an elderly man approaches him and asks about the “situation” at the Najafgarh filling station. After chatting with him for a while, Kumar says, “This job has earned me a lot of respect.”

Kumar moved to Delhi 11 years ago from Sonepat in Haryana and has been a water tanker driver ever since. “My father was in the army and I wanted to join the army too. But luck wasn’t on my side. I passed the physical education tests, but could not clear the medical test.”

Within five minutes, the tanker is empty and some people return home with empty buckets. One woman turns to Kumar and shouts at him for not supplying enough water. “I don’t have water in my own house. I can’t help it if the DJB has not assigned more tankers to this area,” he says with a shrug.

As he navigates the tanker back to the filling station, he complains of water shortage in his colony near Rawta Mor. “The water supply there was stopped two months ago. I manage to carry some water at night for myself and some neighbours,” he says, stopping to answer his cellphone. He tells the caller to station himself near a temple and that the tanker would reach there in an hour. He turns to us and says matter-of-factly, “Everyday I get calls from people, asking me to bring them water. We have been assigned six trips every day. Usually, 

I take three of them by afternoon so that I can have lunch at home.”

Around 11.30 a.m., at the filling station, Kumar’s tanker, with a capacity of 12,000 litres, takes almost half an hour to fill. On the way to Rawta Mor near Dhausa village, he says, “I don’t own the tanker. Earlier, my contract was with DJB and I paid huge rent to the owner of the tanker. But now, DJB has a direct contract with the owner so he pays me around
Rs 16,000 a month.”

Two kilometres before Rawta Mor, Kumar makes the unscheduled stop at the temple. 

People come here and drink water, he says. But this isn’t a DJB stop, is it? Kumar dodges the question and asks, “Is it wrong to give water to people who need it?”

On reaching Rawta Mor, Kumar jumps off the driver’s seat. An old woman who has fractured her hand asks him for help to fill her buckets. Ten minutes here and it’s time for Kumar to leave. It is almost two in the afternoon and he has two more rounds left. But for now, he is headed home for lunch. 

In India, the people living in many slum communities are served sporadically by water trucks - when these trucks show up, it's serious business. Women will show up from miles around to try and grab some of the precious water, and when the truck's tank runs dry, arguments can erupt.

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