Suez’s Sonia Vihar water treatment plant, the end point for Tehri reservoir water, is located in the slums of North East Delhi along the banks of the Yamuna River. On one side of Sonia Vihar is a no-man’s-land along the river’s edge where shantytowns have been bulldozed, allegedly to prevent them from being flooded. On the other side, slums stretch for miles and miles with very little access to water. Like many urban rivers, Delhi’s Yamuna River gradually dried up as the city grew to fourteen million people.

Sonia Vihar water treatment plant

Today, it is not much more than a sewer, and residents complain there is not even enough water to wash the sewage away. Gradually, wealthier people moved away from the Yamuna River and the poor moved closer. Slums now encroach on the riverbanks all across Delhi in areas prone to flooding. Houses wash away and are rebuilt.

Ancient Delhi was a water-rich city, served by hundreds of waterharvesting dams around its edges and surrounded by hunting reserves and resorts. According to water expert Anupam Mishra, “When the British first came to India, Delhi had almost 800 water sources of its own. Now there are no more than 10, and even those are heavily degraded. Delhi’s groundwater is being depleted very fast.”37 Recently, an ancient reservoir in Delhi was rediscovered after having been used as a trash dump for decades. Underneath the trash, a natural spring was found to still be flowing.

India’s vast system of small dams and rainwater-harvesting systems supplied the country for thousands of years, maintained through a system of self-repair and taxation. In the fourth century b.c., Kautilya’s Arthashastra set out elaborate conditions for developing and maintaining water systems, such as requiring that new settlements be built near natural waterways in order to avoid the expense of canals. It set fines for building a dam on someone else’s land. It mandated rainwater harvesting and explained how collection systems should be built on houses. Finally, it forbade the privatization of public water supplies, punishing it as a violent act: “If a person  .  .  . puts to mortgage or sale a charitable water-work, continued since old times, the middle fine for violence is to be imposed.”

Kautilya’s management system was practiced between 321 b.c. and 1857 a.d.—more than a millennium.40 But then the British arrived. As the British gradually moved into India, they came with their own hydraulic vision for the world. Rather than maintaining the ancient water systems, the British demanded that taxes be paid for their own water development schemes.

British engineer Arthur Cotton described Indians’ anger at these changes: The contempt with which the natives firstly spoke to us on account of this neglect to material improvements was very striking; they used to say we were a kind of civilized savages, wonderfully expert about fighting, but so inferior to their great men, that we would not even keep in repair the works they have constructed, much less imitate them in extending the system.41 British engineers wanted large dams, not small ones.

After the British moved in, according to Professor Sanjeev Khagram, “more than 200 big dams taller than 15 meters in height had been constructed in India by 1950.”42 After independence, Prime Minister Nehru continued building dams, viewing them as symbols of modern nationhood. (In contrast, Sunderlal Bahuguna said, “Large dams will stand as monuments to twentieth century stupidity.”)43 Happy to provide funding, the World Bank got involved in dam building in India in the late 1950s.

Calling rainwater-harvesting traditions “wishful thinking,” the Bank claimed these old systems relied “on a plethora of imaginative and then-effective methods for harvesting rainwater.” The implication was that these methods—though “imaginative” and “wishful”—were ineffective for the modern world. Yet one of the best-known examples of rainwater harvesting in the country is still at Gandhi’s home, where water is collected on the roof and then diverted to a 24,000-gallon storage tank in the house.

Today, an ever-growing percentage of India’s urban population consists of ecological refugees: people pushed off their land by dams, mines, and industrial development. Ongoing studies reported by the Indian parliament secretariat claim that around sixty million people were displaced between 1947 and 2000.

At least one study notes, “The reality is four times the number.” (Many estimates are unreliable because local governments and the World Bank want to downplay the impact of their projects.) Between twenty-one and fifty-five million have been displaced by dams alone.46 These figures do not include the tens of millions more that either have been or will be displaced by climate change and crop failures. These people usually head to the cities looking for employment. In Delhi, according to The Hindu, 52 percent of the city dwellers were living in slums in 2009. On the Yamuna River, life is bitter. Residents have installed hand pumps, but the water is not safe to drink.

Without local water sources, women will often collect water from the houses where they work as maids. They are used to being called “water beggars” and looked on with disdain. People live on a little more than 7 gallons of water a day per person, with the water brought in from other locations in gallon-size plastic jugs. In contrast, according to a 2010 Time magazine article, people in central Delhi receive 132 gallons of water per capita per day. There are no toilet facilities along the river, so people use the river’s edge. Because of this, there are regular outbreaks of disease in these slums. And there are no doctors.

Sonia Vihar has 150,000 residents. It is perhaps the worst slum area in the city, filled mainly with migrants from the Indian countryside— primarily from the Ganges watershed region. According to the mayor of East Delhi, Annapurna Mishra, Sonia Vihar has “no drainage facility, no health center, no piped running water” and is “on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.”

As the new mayor of this area, Mishra complained, “Sonia Vihar water treatment plant is supplying water to a large part of the city but the people of Sonia Vihar where that water treatment plant is actually located do not have access to water from the plant.” Instead, she said, “street fights are common over water in this ward.”

One girl recently died while trying to stop a water tanker; it ran over her. ishra described the plight of a young man in Sonia Vihar: Kumar’s eyes brim with tears as he shows a dark brown scar on his left leg. The 19 year old boy is barely able to explain in a choked voice that he has been attacked more than once while trying to fill his bucket with water from a public tap.  Public taps at Sonia Vihar being much fewer than needed, people often are ready to kill for drinking water.

Kumar described his living conditions: “This place is a hell.” While drinking water is not available, “large stretches of stagnant black-green water breeding mosquito larvae” cover the slum. In 2011, Sonia Vihar had a major jaundice outbreak, most likely caused by hepatitis spread by dirty drinking water.

Approved in 2000, Sonia Vihar treatment plant cost $68 million (50 million euros) to build and promised to supply water to a third of New Delhi. It was also part of a much larger privatization plan for the entire city. In 2001, the city of Delhi applied for a World Bank loan of $150 million for “water sector reforms,” hiring PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to write up a plan to hand over Delhi’s water management to foreign companies by 2015.

But then anticorruption activist Arvind Kejriwal (now chief minister of Delhi) found evidence of bid rigging by the World Bank, which had forced the Delhi Water Board to hire PwC. Discovering a revolving door between PwC and the World Bank, Kejriwal wrote a letter to the Bank complaining about what appeared to be corruption in the Bank procurement process. In response, a Bank representative then referred Kejriwal to the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity, stating that he should file a complaint and allow them to do “an independent determination of that case.” The Bank gave him a Web link that did not work.

At the same time, both the Bank and the Delhi Water Board (DJB) vigorously denied they were privatizing Delhi’s water. The Bank set up a “frequently asked questions” page about the Delhi project on its website, which included the question, “Will this amount to the privatization of DJB?” The Bank answered: This is not a “privatization” of DJB. Under the proposed scheme all the water and sanitation assets will remain in the public domain.

The Bank is not proposing privatization of any part of DJB nor is there is a timetable for any privatization. As a matter of fact, at this time, the World Bank would definitely not recommend privatization. Responding to a question about rising water rates, the Bank wrote: “The pace of tariff increase is expected to be gradual, corresponding to improvements in service efficiency and delivery.”

Meanwhile, Sonia Vihar was proceeding on schedule, though it was plagued with problems from the start. A 2005 Times of India article explained, “This is one jinx that Delhi has been unable to break. Seen as the city’s only hope for salvation, Sonia Vihar plant has been running into problems right from the word go.”

First, a tunnel collapsed at Tehri Dam, killing dozens and delaying the release of water through the Upper Ganges Canal. Since the treatment plant had already been completed, it was forced to sit empty for several months. According to the terms of the Suez contract, the Indian government had to pay Suez around $3,000 per day for every day that the plant did not receive raw water. One of India’s national newspapers, The Hindu, reported in 2005, “It is a classic case of public money going down the drain with no one being held accountable.” (Later, Suez agreed to waive part of this fee.)

In January 2005, water finally reached Sonia Vihar for a short time, but was quickly stopped because of contract disputes with the Tehri regional government. The plant’s pipes dried out and began to rust. Politician Vijay Jolly said that the mayor “needs to answer to the people of Delhi why she constructed such a huge plant at public cost when there was no written agreement for raw water with any State. It seems the plant was built to oblige a multinational company and not to benefit the people of Delhi.

The cost of the plant exceeded its contracted price by more than three times, leading to dramatic hikes in water rates in Delhi. At the same time, the situation in Delhi’s slums only deteriorated. On June 4, 2005, the chief minister of Delhi announced that 25 percent of Sonia Vihar water would go to the Cantonment area, where the Indian army was stationed and which already received five hundred liters per person per day, Delhi’s highest water allotment. The rest was divided between South Delhi and East Delhi, with the majority going to South Delhi. Though the Sonia Vihar slum is in East Delhi, it did not receive any water. In fact, the city set “standards” for the amount believed to be needed per person per day in different parts of the city: “planned” areas, 255 liters; “resettlement” areas, 115 liters; and slums, 50 liters.

This essentially institutionalized inequity, even as PwC pushed for the slum standard to be lowered even further. Ironically, Delhi is by no means a water-poor city. On the contrary, it has more water than Copenhagen, a total of 280–300 liters per person per day. Yet unlike Copenhagen, Delhi is perpetually in a water shortage crisis, particularly in the summers. Around Sonia Vihar, the water table has dropped twenty to thirty feet in the past decade; other parts of the city are even worse. When the levels get too low, the Water Board declares the area a “dark zone” and forbids further pumping because shrinking groundwater supplies contain concentrated pollutants.

In certain Delhi neighborhoods, the groundwater contains mercury 1,570 times higher than the safe limit. In other areas, bacteria, nitrates, and fluoride are found. In fact, the Indian government now admits that much of the country’s population is suffering from fluoride poisoning. Even the water tankers, the main source of water for many poor, have large signs on their sides that read,

“This water is not potable water.”

But people are nevertheless forced to drink it. Delhi’s water shortages stem not from a lack of water availability, but from inequitable distribution, crumbling infrastructure, and pollution.

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