Guwahati: Santipur Hillside Residents Surviving on 'Ditch' Water From Overflowing Tank
“Are we even considered citizens of this country despite having voter cards and regularly exercising our right of franchise?” lamented Nirmala Deka, and not without reason.
What could be more agonizing for someone like her with a life so harsh? Living in a place without water where the residents have to travel to a fair distance to collect this basic necessity? Or having a water source at close proximity, yet being unable to get the minimum amount required for everyday survival?
Despite having a water reservoir right in front of their houses, these residents are forced to walk downhill to collect water regularly. And we are not talking about some remote interior village of Assam here but a colony of about thirty households residing in the Santipur hillside.
The residents of Nizaramukh Path, PNGB Road on the Santipur hillside, have been living with this plight for the last twenty years. And to add to this hardship is the fear of leopard attacks, lack of proper passage and no streetlights.
At the far end of the Nizaramukh Path, one comes to an old municipality water tank. Given its dilapidated condition, the first thought that would cross one’s mind is, “Is this functional? Are people actually using water form this dirty old tank?”
Surprisingly, the answers to all these questions are in the affirmative. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) is supplying water to the residents of Santipur from a tank that no one recalls when it was last cleaned.
Even more saddening is the fact that adjacent to this tank is a hill where resides about fifty households. A rock cut stairway, if the steep steps can be called so, leads to the houses. And although the residents below are supplied water via pipelines from this tank, the residents atop the hill are left to survive on the water that overflows from the tank and gets accumulated in a ditch that has formed below the base of the reservoir.
Drums are lined up near the structure and a small pipe has been connected from the tank by the residents. The little water that is collected through the pipe directly, is used by the people for drinking, and the amount bucketed out from the ditch caters to other household activities.
A resident, Maloti Saikia said, “We have been residing here for about twenty years. This rock cut road was made by our own money. This water facility was present from even before then. But we can only see the water, it’s not for us to use. We feel outcasts like in the old days.”
“I have a three year old child. We use the overflowing water for bathing and cleaning. My child has got rashes all over his body. We consulted the doctor and were told it is a water-borne ailment. Also my knee joints constantly pain. We do not have enough to get treatment, but I don’t think doctors can help as I have to keep on climbing these huge rocks anyway. Imagine having to climb the hill with water drums three to four times every day,” she added.
Adding to the woes is the fact that the municipality has failed to deliver water regularly and at the prescribed time and the desired quantity. While there is massive irregularity in water supply, the lack of proper timing compels these residents to be on alert throughout the day for possible supplies, thus hampering their daily schedules.
“There is no fixed time for how long the water will be available. Every day someone has to be on alert so that we can connect the pipe and get drinking water for all. It’s a community effort. Once the water overflows into the ditch it is rendered unfit for consumption. Again we need to check if the amount is distributed equally amongst us all. Once we get water some we are not sure when we will get again,” said a mother waiting in queue with a child in her arms.
When G Plus reached the spot to take stock of the issue, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon. We saw small exhausted children sitting on the rocks with their school bags lying nearby. A mother said, “Our children are back from school hungry, but we cannot go home to serve them lunch until we fill our share of water. The day is coming to an end and we are all left without food, just filling the drums. Then we have to carry them uphill to our homes in about three to four trips before it gets dark.”
“There are leopards in the surrounding jungles that can be sighted right in our vicinity after dark. So we keep ourselves locked up. We cannot be outside collecting water then. So, even our children have to wait until we complete this chore,” she added.
The locals have dug out a well for emergency usage. However, the quality of water is unsatisfactory and the position of the well renders it difficult for everyone to collect water. Alternatively, water is brought from the private suppliers in lieu of exorbitant amounts that again have to be carried up in drums laboriously.
“We are indigenous Assamese people here, surviving on meagre earnings. We do not have the means to buy water or lay pipelines. What we do have is our legal voting documents to prove that we are not illegal Bangladeshis. Our local MLA, Ramendra Narayan Kalita, knows about our existence. Prior to elections he visits us seeking votes and promising the facilities but disappears after the elections,” said an angry local, Nipon Bora.
“We do not have ration cards or the other basic facilities despite living in Guwahati city. We have approached all possible authorities over the years, trying to persuade them to pay heed to our demands, but all have gone unheard. Many media reports have been done for our cause, but none have succeeded in moving the government. It’s as if we do not exist,” he added.
On a rough estimate, it was calculated that every household gets about 60 litres of drinking water from the tank to survive for uncertain number of days, generally two to three days, until the next time the tank gets refilled.
GMC has stopped providing new water connections claiming saturation
G Plus raised the issue with the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). Manoranjan Bharali, Superintending Engineer of GMC, Water Supply informed, “We have closed the process of giving new water connections to households about one and a half years back. No new households are entertained. GMC water supply is saturated. We have already provided more than the possible number of connections.”
“Our production is limited but the demands are ever increasing. We cannot cater to more people. It is not just our limited production but people also steal water using water pumps. No doubt new connections will help boost our revenue but it will hamper the supply to the rest of the people who are already dependent on us,” Bharali added.
As for the cleaning of the water reservoirs, sources in the GMC revealed that every reservoir is cleaned about two times a year tentatively. “The reservoirs are massive and we have to stop water supply for about two days to clean them. And it is a tedious process. We still try to clean twice every year and when issues are raised in this regard.”
Beleaguered residents considering boycotting upcoming elections
Their issues and sufferings have been left unheard for twenty years now. The bulbs that light up the passageway to the hills are connected from the households that add up to their personal electricity bills. Despite submitting their documents regularly many have failed to receive a ration card or any other benefits although they are categorised under the BPL (below the poverty line) category. The area has a constant problem of leopard-human conflict.
Residents claim their daily working hours are limited only to the daylight hours, restricting children from going for tuition classes in the evenings and the adults from working for longer hours for extra pay for fear of leopard attacks.
“We are thinking not to vote in this election. Over the years we have understood, no matter who gets elected we will be overlooked as outcasts. If the MLA does not provide immediate respite, we are not going to cast our votes,” said a local.
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