While the neighbouring cities of Gurgaon and NOIDA have exhausted their ground water and are nearly on their deathbed, the citizens of Delhi heard grand promises of 700 litres of free drinking water each day along with a 50% reduction in electricity tariff. Such assurance, undoubtedly, made a fancy election manifesto. However, parties promising any assurance of water supply in Delhi will have to rethink their strategy for water management in a much more urgent and serious manner.
According to a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey, 15.6% of Delhi’s urban households and 29.7% of its rural ones don’t get sufficient drinking water throughout the year, well above the all-India average. The survey suggests that in comparison to 27 states and six union territories, Delhi’s rural household are found to be poorly affected in terms of sufficient drinking water availability. In Haryana, 91.3% of urban households and 95.8% of rural ones had sufficient drinking water throughout the year. Topping the list was Uttar Pradesh, where 96.6% of urban households and 97.1% of rural ones had sufficient drinking water throughout the year.
Groundwater levels in Delhi and the rest of the NCR are not only decreasing at an alarming rate, but contamination and poor quality are making it severely unfit for consumption. The National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) has warned that ground water resources in the NCR are depleting due to over exploitation. Seven out of nine districts of Delhi are categorized as over exploited with respect to dynamic ground water resources. The deeper aquifers are mostly underlain by saline water in alluvial areas. The extent of fluoride contamination in ground water is also high in western part of Delhi in areas like Northwest, Southwest and West districts.
In its draft revised regional plan 2021, the NCRPB notes that ground water contamination is one of the important risk apart from lowering levels. According to the Central Ground Water Board [CGWB], the status of groundwater the NCR (ratio of annual draft to net groundwater availability) in 2009 was about 103 per cent compared with 61 per cent for India as a whole. This indicates the imbalance between the net annual recharge and withdrawal in the NCR and that groundwater withdrawal significantly exceeds the rate of aquifer recharge. Surprisingly, a few decades ago, the quality of urban water services in Delhi was similar to some of the best urban regions of Asia.
Asit K Biswas, an eminent water resource expert recently noted that water provisioning in Delhi was better than Tokyo or Osaka in 1950. Even at the beginning of the 1960s, argues Biswas, Delhi’s water supply was at par with Singapore and better than Bangkok, Manila or Phnom Penh. While, many Asian cities such as Bandar Seri Begawan, Bangkok, Colombo, Manila, Phnom Penh and Singapore have improved their water services significantly in the post-1970 period, Delhi’s water situation has continuously deteriorated. The aforesaid cities continue to provide their citizens with 24 hours of potable water. By contrast, in the so called world class city of Delhi, less than two-thirds of the households receive one to three hours of water which can not be consumed without additional treatment at home.
Experts are of the view that Delhi’s water woes are as much due to its own poor water management as the tussle over supply. So far, the political drama over the water crisis in Delhi has largely centred on acquiring more water from other states and the internal conflict between state apparatus involved in water management. Sadly, water management as a necessity continues to be a subject for blame game rather than a resource centric strategic planning. A good example is Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi from 1998 – 2013 who bemoaned that the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) had 20,000 unsackable employees. However, neither she (during nearly the 15 years she was in power) nor her predecessors, ever attempted a vision to restructure an inefficient DJB. This definitely indicates a lack of political will and environment centric leadership.
Rapid groundwater depletion is a very serious issue. It is classic example of a ‘public good’ – a resource where it is difficult to exclude potential users and it is not in the self-interest of the individual to use the resource in a collectively beneficial manner. Water as a public good typically requires some form of government regulation to change the incentives of users and produce socially optimal outcomes. The present situation of water in the capital compels urgent solutions to the unsustainable levels of demand for its dwindling groundwater supplies.
But, this is no simple task. Despite the critical role of local groundwater resources in the city’s water supply, it remains largely ignored. Asking whether Delhi’s water situation will be addressed might, in fact, be the wrong question. Mechanism to address the impending crisis will have to be sought. What these fixes, solutions and strategies are, how should one apply it to Delhi, and how can these be addressed at policy and management level are the real questions.