Water access is a gruelling game for Hyderabad’s slum dwellers

An estimated 17.61 lakh people live across slums in Hyderabad and many of them still struggle to access water.
Water access is a gruelling game for Hyderabad’s slum dwellers
Water access is a gruelling game for Hyderabad’s slum dwellers
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It's 3 am at BS Maqtha, a densely populated slum in the heart of Hyderabad, just a stone’s throw away from where the Telangana Chief Minister sleeps. Every alternate day during the week, the women at the slum wake up to the sound of water hitting the bottom of an empty 50-litre barrel.

Lakshmi, a resident of the slum, just wants to go back to sleep, but she has to wait until the barrel fills up. The water trickles slowly and she is unsure if the whole barrel will fill all the way during the 45 minutes of water supply they’re given.

"Somedays I leave the tap open and if I don't wake up to the sound, the water will sometimes overflow and flood the house. On other days it barely fills the barrel," says Lakshmi, who works as a domestic help at the upscale Kundan Bagh neighbouring her basti.

An estimated 17.61 lakh people live across slums in Hyderabad. While almost all notified slums in the city have access to water through the Re 1 water connection scheme, not everyone necessarily gets their fair share of water.

In 2016, the city had over 3,87,532 water connections and of them, 98,696 water connections were to the slums. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) has recorded 1,468 slums spread across the city, of which 1,131 are notified and have access to water connections.

But although BS Maqtha is one of them, for residents, it’s still a struggle. At home, the burden of storing water also falls on Lakshmi, and the family's access to water can depend on how tired she is that given day. "If I forget to keep the tap open, then there will be no water in the house for two days. It gets difficult, I have to ask others for a few pots or rely on water tankers that may or may not come," she adds. Unlike the residents of BS Maqtha, neither the residents of Kundan Bagh nor Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao has to wake up at 3 am for water access.

A citywide water crisis

Hyderabad as a city is at the edge of a water crisis. Two water sources, Osmansagar and Himayatsagar reservoirs have almost dried up and are not in use. The board in February stopped drawing water from the Singur and Manjira reservoirs.

The Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB) in the last week of May was forced to draw water from the dead storage levels of Nagarjuna Sagar on the Krishna basin. The Board has even deployed 10 emergency pump sets to draw water from the dam's reservoir to feed the city.

The city presently draws 410 million gallons per day (MGD) as against a demand of 732 MGD. Of that, 260 MGD comes from Akkampally in the Krishna river basin and 150 MDG from the Yellampalli reservoir in the Godavari river basin. The water levels at Yellampalli reservoir had dropped down to 141 meters at the end of May and officials are mulling emergency pumping if the water level drops below 138 meters. The officials are hoping that the water will last until the monsoon arrives.  

The effects are being felt all over the city, even in localities that are not slums. Suresh V, a resident of West Anandbagh colony alleges, “Since April the water supply has become irregular to the West Anand Bagh area. The area already has a lot of water supply problems due to leaking pipelines. The HMWSSB hired contractors with little or no experience and they laid the water pipelines barely a few centimetres below the ground. The pipes broke within a week of laying as vehicles used the road. These leakages already reduce the water pressure and they haven't fixed the broken infrastructure despite one year of complaining. Now with summer going on, the water supply varies between three to seven days. It’s really difficult here.”

HMWSSB struggles to provide water to those with water connections. But the challenges grow deeper for residents of 337 slums in the city that aren’t notified. For the residents of those slums, their rights to the land are being legally disputed and their settlements are not recognised by the municipality. And for those without a connection in the unnotified slums, the struggle to access water is life itself.

Saroja's water hunt

Saroja, a 28-year-old has to achieve a target of bringing home 20 pots of water for her six-member family. She has to finish the task before 11.30 am, after which she goes to various homes at SR Nagar for domestic work to earn a living. Saroja resides barely five kilometers away from the Chief Minister’s office in the heart of SR Nagar at Dasaram Basti.

A slum of roughly 300 crammed into 140 odd huts, the people at Dasaram basti are involved in the informal economy of waste picking and segregation, an integral process in the recycling of Hyderabad's waste. But the slum is not notified, and hence illegal. The basti survives as they are a vote bank for the ruling party the Telangana Rasthra Samiti (TRS), by their own admission.   

They have been promised apartments under the 2-bedroom housing scheme but have not heard from Talasani Srinivas Yadav, the Sanathnagar MLA and Animal Husbandry Minister who made the promise after state elections last December. The basti doesn't have a water connection but free toilets were built for them by the GHMC under the Swacch Bharath Abhiyan. Most women at the basti wake up at 4 am to go in search of water to nearby apartments every day.  

Getting 20 pots of water a day is not easy for Saroja, and most days she manages to bring home perhaps 10 pots of water. This unnotified slum is located surrounding a non-slum locality that gets water every day in the morning at 7 am, according to HMWSSB data on water timings.

(Saroja from Dasaram basti walks back home with her pots, the first of the three trips she makes everyday.)

Saroja and other women source water from nearby apartment complexes that have borewells. "The building owners charge Rs 2 per pot so as to pay for the electricity bill," says Saroja, who has to do multiple rounds carrying all the pots.

Some days, her husband helps ferry the pots in a waste carrying van of the GHMC, an unhealthy practice, but the family knows they have no other option.

The residents say they had been living in at the basti for close to 20 years, and most of them hail from drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh. But none of them has paper records to prove their legal ownership to the land. "We have no water connection to our homes but there are five taps provided by the water board surrounding the basti," says Nagesh, a rag picker and Saroja's husband. The water is supplied through these taps once in two or three days from 8 am for close to an hour, but it's not enough, "The water trickles and is enough to fill just two pots," he added.

On days when the women are unable to procure water, the men fill up their GHMC waste trucks with their 50-litre barrels and drive to nearby water tanker filling station of the HMWSSB. They are allowed to fill their water drums for free but get scolded if their visits become more frequent.

The cost of a free water truck

The HMWSSB provides 600 water trucks to supply water to the slums this year. The trucks are monitored through GPS and when called upon, the slum residents often pool in money to pay for water, despite the HMWSSB saying the service is free. The board also has a paid system for booking water tankers. Though the booking is done online, the payment of Rs 500 per truck has to be done directly to the truck owners. Officials say they are aware of the issue and would try and bring an online payment facility soon to stop cash payments to the trucks.

Mohammad Yasin, a resident of MS Maqtha neighbouring BS Maqtha told TNM, “The water trucks are sometimes unreliable. If I call them today they may show up maybe a day later and one has to beg and call them many times.” TNM spoke to slum residents from Kamala Nagar at Chaderghat, Mairaj colony at Tolinchowki, BS and MS Maqtha at Begumpet, Talla basti at West Anandbagh, and all had similar complaints about the water tanker service. The residents pay up to Rs 1,000 for a trip for a 5,000-litre water tanker.

The so-called free water truck service is also extended to the unnotified slums in the city, but the service to Dasaram basti was stopped due to political interference, residents allege. "The water trucks don't serve us as there was an accident where a water truck ran over a child and it had become an issue. The local political leaders asked the water trucks not to service here after that," alleged Kumariah, another rag picker.

A resident from Mairaj colony said most truckers to his locality take over three days to respond to calls for water, they also charge higher than Rs 1,000 fee levied across other localities.

The Sanathnagar corporator, Kolanu Lakshmi under whose jurisdiction the basti comes under told TNM, "We could not provide them with any services until now as there is a court case going on regarding the land if the government wins the case the land will be given to the dwellers.”

The HMWSSB has laid water supply pipelines up to the mouth of the slum, it's only a matter of extending the connections to the households. “We are expecting a positive outcome soon. The slum will get water and drainage access soon," he added. But how soon?  The corporator has no answer.

With no water connection and no tanker supply, it’s the women of the basti, more than men, who face the hardship. Despite the hours spent hunting and fetching water, the women of the slum still don't have enough water even for toilet use.

Radha's toilet woes

When the GHMC proposed to build a free toilet in Radha's 80 square feet hut where she lives with her six-member family, she was thankful. But two years after its construction, the toilet has now become a nuisance and a health hazard as it was built right next to where the family wash their dishes and clothes. The water shortage has led to less effective cleaning of the toilets.

"Now the whole house stinks of faeces. The toilets are used mostly by the women as we can't go outside to relieve ourselves and so we feel bad that the house stinks because of us," says Radha, noting that the toilets have no direct access to water.

The short supply of water, the resulting difficulty in cleaning and stench has ensured that these toilets are used sparingly by the women. The men and children still defecate in the open in a city that was recently declared 100% defecation free. The women sometimes are forced to defecate in plastic bags inside their homes and dispose of the bag later. The locality doesn't have public or community toilet either.

'It's a trickle'

Each locality under the HMWSSB are overseen by general managers who are the contact points for residents to raise complaints about water supply and tanker-related issues. M Prabu, the general manager for the Begumpet area which includes BS, MS Maqtha and Dasaram basti, says the residents can approach him anytime if they need water tanker services to their areas. He also wants the residents to complain to him if any free water tanker service charges money or if the booked water tankers charge above the Rs 500 fee.

The GM insists that water is supplied to the locality only between 4 am and 7 am to the Maqtha area. "We have improved the pressure and quantity to the locality in the last two years. We have laid a new water supply pipeline and since then these issue has been resolved," according to the official.

However, he admitted that the timing of water supply often changes due to power outages at the water pumping stations. "Sometimes at the pump works, if there is a power failure the pumping breaks down and the pumping stops. It happens mainly during summer due to high voltage power tripping, if one small power outage occurs, it will take two to three hours for normalisation," he added.

(A trickle of water comes once in two days)

"But the water does not flow, it trickles," says Mohammad Imran a resident of MS Maqtha who receives water at morning 5 am. "The water trickles from the tap and doesn't fill the drum on most days. The water board stops the supply after an hour and we end up with very little to use," he added.

Most residents connect small pumps to pull more water to their homes, "This practice is illegal and a lot of water gets wasted in the process," says Imran who has been actively trying to get the HMWSSB to change the water supply schedule to the area, “I had raised a few complaints but got no response," he added. The HMWSSB had filed over 29 water theft cases against citizens from January to March this year, and over 10 have been arrested.

But Prabu counters by noting that slum housing that still faces poor supply is due to them being overcrowded. "For low rents, many families pack themselves into small buildings and the water connection to that building cannot meet that demand, a 20 mm diameter pipe connection will be enough for 3-4 families but not enough if 10 families are housed in the building. When the bore water dries up during the summer, they have to rely on HMWSSB and on water tankers which are not enough for their needs," he added.

VL Pradeep, the technical director for HMWSSB told TNM, that most notified slums in the city have water connections and only those lands that are in dispute are yet to get water supply. "My task is to bring the water to the city, but distribution is the responsibility of two other officials."

The official said not much could be done about the disorganised water timings in some localities in the city unless there is an infrastructure upgrade. "The water for the city is drawn from its sources at Krishna and Godavari on a 24-hour basis and it would not be possible to adjust timings to humane hours. We don't have a system where we draw water only at a particular time and then distribute it at another time. When we draw at night, what do we do with that water? We have to keep supplying,” he says. The HMWSSB decides who gets water in the city and at what time, based on the requirements of the locality.

The director is aware that water tankers in the city charge money, even though they are meant to be free to the slums, and is urging the citizens to file a complaint. "People can always reach out to the concerned general manager of the area and note their demands. If the concerned operator is asking for money, we can ask them to shut down his business and appoint someone else," he added.

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