As Water Runs Low, an Indian Town Blames the Men Who Work the Pipes


SHIMLA, India — The people of Shimla haven’t agreed on much lately. A drought in the Himalayan resort town has had residents blaming farmers, the tourism industry and one another for depleting the strained water supplies.

And everyone’s been angry at the key men.

Shimla’s decrepit network of water pipes, built under British colonial rule more than 70 years ago, depends on the civil servants known as key men to open and close the valves that supply each neighborhood. The current shortage, which in May left some homes without water for 20 days, has led to such fury toward the key men — accused, in just about every neighborhood, of depriving it of its fair share — that a court ordered police protection for them.

“I was getting angry phone calls calling me everything — stupid, worthless — at one or two in the morning,” said Inder Singh, 44, who has been a key man for 24 years. “I would be mobbed by dozens as I was trying to leave my home for work,” he said, inserting his key — a meter-long metal contraption — into the ground to open a valve.

Tourism is the mainstay of the economy in this mountain town, which the British colonial authorities made their summer capital so they could escape the brutal heat of New Delhi. But the drought — accompanied by unusually high temperatures, above 90 degrees Fahrenheit — has been so severe that in May, some residents took to Twitter to ask tourists to stay away and leave the water for local residents. Many in Shimla call it the worst shortage they can remember.

As much as 30 percent of the city’s hotel bookings have been canceled since last month because of concerns about the water supply, said Sanjay Sood, the president of northern India’s hotel and restaurant association. Some of those reservations were canceled by tourists, others by the hotels themselves.

Water tankers have been lined up at hotels along Shimla’s windy mountain roads. A slogan on one of them read, “If there is water, there is a tomorrow.”

A government report released on Thursday said that India was experiencing the worst water crisis in its history, threatening millions of lives and livelihoods. Some 600 million Indians, about half the population, face high to extreme water scarcity conditions, with about 200,000 dying every year from inadequate access to safe water, according to the report. By 2030, it said, the country’s demand for water is likely to be twice the available supply.

In Shimla, rising annual temperatures and dwindling rain and snowfall — the city’s main water sources — have been major factors in the crisis.

“There’s global warming all over India, and Shimla is no exception,” said Vineet Chawdhry, chief secretary of the state of Himachal Pradesh, whose capital is Shimla.

But the city’s ancient pipe system also leaks five million liters of water every day, Mr. Chawdhry said in an interview in his office. A $105 million, World Bank-backed upgrade of the system, including a pipeline drawing water from a nearby river, is scheduled to be finished in 2023.

The strain on the water supply increases greatly during the summer tourist season, when Shimla’s population essentially doubles. In the summer months, Mr. Chawdhry said, the city typically needs 45 million liters a day. He said the current daily supply stood at 31 million liters, and at the height of the crisis in May it was as low as 22 million.

Shimla is not the only Indian city whose water supplies are under increasing pressure. Last year was the country’s fourth hottest since record-keeping began in 1901, with rainfall down by nearly 6 percent from 2016, according to the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences.

And many of the country’s cities have outdated water distribution systems, said Rajendra Singh, founder and chairman of Tarun Bharat Sangh, a conservation group. India has also fallen short on conservation measures like capturing rainfall and snowmelt, he said.

“There are around 90 cities in India which are water-stressed. They face crisis today, tomorrow and the day after,” Mr. Singh said. “Shimla got more media attention, but many areas are facing water scarcity.”

That includes the capital, New Delhi. Earlier this year, in the city’s chronically water-deprived neighborhood of Wazirpur, a father and son died after a scuffle broke out among people waiting in line for a tanker.

Rahul Kumar, 18, was fatally injured in the fight in the grueling March heat, which began when a neighbor accused him and his brother of jumping the line. His father, Lal Bahadur, 60, died of a heart attack after trying to intervene, the authorities said.

Mr. Kumar’s mother, Sushila Devi, said that Wazirpur had run out of water in January — earlier in the year than usual. Other Wazirpur residents said that in the rare instances when tap water flows, it is dirty and undrinkable.

“My husband and son died because of water,” Ms. Devi said.

On a hot recent afternoon in Wazirpur, neighbors lined up again with empty jugs waiting for a government-supplied tanker. This time, as the tanker arrived, an older man directed the crowd, to make sure it was orderly.

“I do a public service,” the man said. “After the fight we came together in the neighborhood and made this system of queuing.”

But there were still tense moments. “Why is your pot so big? It’s too big!” one woman yelled at another. “It’s fine,” the other woman snapped back.

In Shimla, the water crisis has eased since last month. Municipal officials divided the city into three zones in late May, distributing water to them on a rotating basis so that none would go without for more than two days. Residents complained that the city had been slow to act, but over all, tensions have decreased.

“Namashkar!” residents yelled cheerfully to Mr. Singh, the key man, from their balconies as he made his rounds recently. Mr. Singh returned the traditional greeting, but he said they hadn’t always been so nice.

He said he was cursed and shouted at during the worst days of the crisis, but never physically attacked. But some of the city’s 61 other key men were held down by mobs and forced to keep the water on, municipal officials said.

The pandemonium moved Shimla’s High Court to act. It ordered that key men be supervised to ensure that they were not giving favorable treatment to hotels or V.I.P.s. The acting chief justice went into the streets personally to watch some of them work.

“The key man not only holds the key, but in fact, by the strength of the key, he can put the entire town to ransom,” the court said in its ruling this month.

The court also ordered that every key man be escorted by two police officers while on duty to ensure their safety. Some key men — surrounded by a veritable entourage — said they had never felt so important in their lives.

Source : Nytimes