Flourishing water markets in Darjeeling

Better governance and equitable as well as sustainable use of water resources are essential to solving the deepening water crisis in Darjeeling.
Private water tankers, a common sight in urban areas. (Source: India Water Portal) Private water tankers, a common sight in urban areas. (Source: India Water Portal)

"Darjeeling today has a thriving water business, with a fleet of 105 trucks plying three or four trips a day from April to June, carrying 5500 to 6500 litres of water on each run"

Source: Lama and Rai (2016)  'Chokho Pani: An Interface Between Regional And Environment In Darjeeling'. Himalaya, The Journal Of The Association For Nepal And Himalayan Studies, 36(2), 90-98

Darjeeling, one of the oldest municipalities in India, better known for its scenic beauty and cool climate, has been a major tourist attraction for a long time. However, it is going through a major water crisis in recent years.

The paper, Privatization of local water resources: A challenge to water justice and sustainability in Darjeeling town, West Bengal published in the International Journal of Innovative Studies in Sociology and Humanities informs that urbanisation and increased tourist activity have led to a rapid growth in Darjeeling’s population and the present drinking water supply has been unable to keep pace with the growing demands.

Gap in demand and supply of water in the town

The drinking water provided from the Darjeeling municipality is sourced by tapping springs from the catchment area of Senchal Forest and wildlife sanctuary located 15 km away from the main town. The water from the springs is collected in an Arrestor tank and fed to the Masonry conduit line which brings water by gravity to the twin Senchal lakes to be distributed in the town. This system was constructed to meet the demands of around 25,000 to 30,000 citizens under the British period.

However, nothing substantial has been done to solve the water crisis in Darjeeling after independence. This has led to a huge gap between the actual demand and supply of water. The daily water demand of the town is 18.6 lakh gallons while the supply is only 52.75 lakh gallons leading to a deficit of 13.32 lakh gallons of water per day.

As high as 65 percent of the people in Darjeeling town do not have access to public water supply and are forced to depend on the locally available alternate sources of water. It is the urban poor who suffer the most because of this water scarcity.

Water markets thrive to fill in for this water demand

This lack of adequate water supply is now being met by a rapidly growing water market catering to the demands of people in the town who can afford to buy water at a price. Private water suppliers are thriving by selling water through private pipelines, water tankers, manual carts and jerry cans by tapping water from the nearby local springs, streams and Jhoras (drains).

Local water sources have now become private property!

The local water resources such as springs, streams and jhoras that were accessible to people and were traditionally used to meet their water needs have now been converted into private property, controlled by a selected few who are in the water business.

A person who is interested in doing water business and wants to own a spring has to find one not owned by anyone else. This spring holder is then provided with a written document regarding their temporary occupancy over the source. They are, however, not allowed to construct any concrete or permanent structure at the source site. A verbal agreement is made between the water supplier and the consumer before they set up the connection of the pipelines to the houses. The water is supplied for a fixed duration where the consumers have to pay a negotiated amount every month or year according to their convenience. One normal connection provides the water supply for a duration of an hour at a fixed time which generally starts from 5 am to 8 pm at the rate of around Rs 600-Rs 700 per month or about Rs 7200-Rs 8400 per year.

The total charge for the setting up of pipelines between the distribution point and the connecting house has to be paid by the consumer. People can also get water supply for more duration by paying more than what they normally pay. Being a tourist destination, water is always in demand in hotels, restaurants, tea stalls, etc in Darjeeling and the business is in demand throughout the year.

Water is distributed through different modes

Water tankers and private pipelines are preferred for water distribution--the latter supply water throughout the year while the former has high demand during dry seasons. Private pipelines are used for supplying water from the springs but are limited to low-lying areas. Around 62 percent of private water supply in and around Darjeeling municipality is dependent on the private pipelines. The demand for water supply through private pipelines is perennial and hence is mostly connected to the permanent residents in and around the town. This system is predominant in the regions where a large number of springs exist and are controlled by several individual vendors who supply water from these sources located in their private lands.

Others sell water on handcarts and these small scale water suppliers include people who own manual wooden carts (known as Gorkhe Jeep) that supply water to local restaurants, tea stalls and the households. People selling water in handcarts usually buy water from the nearby perennial springs at a low cost and sell it to the town at a higher rate. A cart normally has a carrying capacity of 16 buckets of 20 litres each and they charge about Rs 130-150 for 300 litres of water. They do not supply water throughout the year but normally during dry months i.e. from March to early June.

Then there are also water sellers who store and carry water in jerry cans that serve to cater to the immediate needs of the people in the dry season when there is acute water scarcity. These water sellers mostly collect water at night or early morning from the nearby springs in the town and travel short distances to distribute the water cans of varying quantities such as 20-30 litres at the doorstep. About 80 to 90 litres of water is delivered on an average at a cost of about Rs 80 to Rs 100 per trip. These water sellers normally deliver water to permanent households or small tea stalls who demand water on a daily basis during lean seasons.

The poor continue to lack access to water

The paper argues that this privatisation of water in Darjeeling has given rise to injustice and large disparities where the poor continue to suffer due to lack of access to water and inability to bear the high costs of water. They have to stand in queues for many hours to fetch water from community springs or public taps whose supply is too irregular and uncertain. The situation worsens in the dry season and it is mainly the women and school going children who suffer as they spend a long time in queues to fetch water.

This inequity and lack of social justice in accessing water raise a number of ethical and legal dilemmas that need urgent attention. The paper argues that it is important that this failure in governance is addressed and an attempt is made by government authorities to ensure equitable distribution and sustainable utilisation of local water resources. One of the ways to do it is by encouraging the use of community-based small-scale water management and distribution models that offer cost benefits and long term sustainability over privatisation models.

The paper can be accessed from here

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