-By Suchismita Chatterjee
About 30km away from the megacity of Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta), at the southernmost edge of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) is the peripheral and rapidly urbanizing municipal town of Baruipur. A historically significant urban settlement in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, Baruipur had early rail links (since 1882) to Kolkata, and an administrative sub-centre status on account of its district-level offices since colonial times. In more recent times, the town features in official plans (Draft Development Plan 2007, City Development Plan 2013) as a ‘promising growth centre’ looking ahead to a ‘viable, liveable future.’ However, constrained by finances and capacities, the urban local body is largely dependent on the state government for infrastructure expansion, the town’s water supply system being one of them.
About Baruipur: a perspective
Baruipur lies in an area where the risk of groundwater Arsenic and iron concentration in subterranean water, is a matter of concern. Citing this contamination and the risk of serious health problems, metropolitan development authorities have been keen to replace groundwater systems and the more traditional open sources such as ponds. They have, as an alternative, presented piped water networks transporting treated surface water from the Hooghly River as an ‘assured’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘quality water supply’ system (Field notes, 28.05.2018). Yet, constant negotiations with the state government and the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) are the norm for funds to come to Baruipur and to hasten the slow and disorderly expansion of piped networks. Says one of the town’s elected councillors, ‘But ours is a small place. For us it is entirely a matter of dependence, we have to depend on whatever little we get and work accordingly. It all depends on the Sarkar [State government] entirely. Whatever the Sarkar gives us, the way it does, the extent to which it helps us’ (Interview, 30.11.2017).
But as this photo story illustrates, Baruipur continues to display a co-existence of non-networked and networked infrastructural arrangements despite attempts to ‘modernise’ existing local water supply systems by successive local governments. The town’s heterogeneous water infrastructures consist of ponds (pukur), shallow hand pumps (tube kol), hand pumped deep tube wells or locally, the 1000 foot. Water flowing through piped networks is accessed through ‘time kols’ – a collective name for house service connection (HSCs) taps and public stand posts, this is the municipal treated water supply which comes thrice a day (approximately 4.5 hours per day).
Ponds – the earliest infrastructures
Surrounded by an agrarian hinterland, Baruipur with its population of 53,128 (Census 2011) is largely residential. The land-use, unplanned and haphazard across the town’s 17 wards (spreading across approximately 9.50 sq.km), is dotted with homestead orchards and numerous ponds. Like in the case of most settlements in Bengal, ponds met the town’s earliest water needs, their digging sometimes financed by the town’s landed elites.
Neglect has led most ponds to choke and turn green with algal blooms and hyacinth growth. The local political leadership admits that pond water quality is deteriorating and claims to have put up cautionary notices against littering or dumping garbage in the water bodies.
Although a walk down Baruipur’s lanes and by-lanes may reveal the odd cautionary sign, the heaps of refuse are sighted far easily. Local residents share in hushed tones that the likelihood of filling a pond for real-estate gains is also increasing, since land in the town is getting dearer, given its growing importance. When such ‘arrangements’ between builders, pond owners and neighbourhood strongmen to broker lucrative deals are successful, trees at the pond edge may be cut and the water body is either emptied out or left to choke (Field notes, 20.04.2018). Yet, there are residents from poor households who still consider the neighbourhood pond a necessity. With no in-house piped water and sanitation facilities, they wash clothes and utensils at pond edges, some even taking a dip in the pond every day. However, unwritten social rules still regulate the usage and maintenance of private and temple ponds, where collective usage is permitted by owners with conditions to maintain sanctity.
The introduction of shallow tube wells
Despite the high iron content in groundwater, most town residents across socio-economic groups make do with shallow tube wells at home for ‘rough use’. This implies cleaning and washing chores. Shallow tube wells were an add-on to Baruipur’s water sources in the post-colonial era and represent a move, ostensibly to side-step increasing contamination worries from open sources such as ponds, in favour of water extracted from the ground. Installed by the municipality, the roadside hand pumps or tube kol in the local parlance made water more publicly accessible. The ones on the road are now used little or lie abandoned since most households have a shallow tube well within their premises.
1000 foot deep tube wells: Arsenic-safe drinking water for Baruipur
In the nineties, residents’ demand for Arsenic-free water had prompted the civic body to undertake the digging of public deep tube wells or 1000 foot, as they are commonly known in the town. This is a trusted drinking water source for many, as the water drawn is from a safer depth. Even in middle-class localities with piped network coverage, residents continue to fall back on their 1000 foot source for drinking water purposes. ‘Not used to the taste of water from the time kol’, they explain in conversations on everyday water use. But carrying water from a 1000 foot each day is an arduous task.
It is common across the town to see 1000 foots in want of repairs or come across neighbourhoods left only with ones that have gone dry, necessitating a longer walk to the next site. This adds to time constraints, longer queues and bickering crowds – prime reasons why many residents avoid going to one themselves and look instead for alternatives. While some have arrangements with their house help, packaged drinking water sold by private vendors are also becoming increasingly common. Albeit rare, one may come across a resident who still consumes water from a shallow tube well, discounting the risk to health and well-being.
Networked alternatives – public stand posts and municipal house connections
Public stand posts linked to Baruipur’s pipeline network came up in the seventies. A highly localised network that was connected to three submersible pumps supplying groundwater, this project was proposed by the then chairman of the local civic body, an influential landed elite.
The expansion of piped water networks in Baruipur however, has proceeded in a fragmented and disorderly manner. Caught in political tussles, piped water flows to the town have largely been determined by alignments of successive local governments with the state government.
Treated surface water to Baruipur was supplied for the first time in 2003, by the state Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) following a public uproar around Arsenic contamination. Prior to this, the distance from the River Hooghly and the town’s dispersed population had excluded it from receiving filtered surface water supply.
Baruipur, being a part of the KMA, received its large scale filtered drinking (surface) water supply project through the central government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) – Urban Infrastructure and Governance sub-mission. Formally inaugurated in 2013, this project attempted to introduce metering, a standard water tariff, 100 per cent network coverage, and a constant 24X7 supply. Metering and tariffs have, until now, been resisted by the ruling state government, given its populist policy and municipal water continues to be ‘free’. While the number of individual house connections has steadily risen over the years, the municipality gives connections only to those with formal property titles, levying a one-time connection fee for a house tap installation.
In this situation of diverse and uneven development of water infrastructures in the town, water difficulties are many. Piped drinking water supplies are intermittent and erratic, and network coverage is partial and fragmented. Since surface water supplied by the PHED is not enough to meet Baruipur’s daily requirement, local water supply department engineers have responded to the shortfall by ‘mixing’ groundwater, extracted with municipality run submersible pumps. This gives residents a hybrid flow of piped water supply. Though troubled by shortages and increasing demand, the local body has little control over centralised surface water supplies to divert more in its favour. Unable to provide complete piped surface water coverage and apprehensive about water scarcities, local political leaders consider the 1000 foot a vital ‘substitute arrangement’ (Field notes, 18.08.2018). Besides their qualitative merits, the visibility of this water infrastructure is also a means of safeguarding local electoral interests.
Interestingly, while many in the town do not use time kol water for drinking purposes, they do attach an aesthetic appeal to tap water, in addition to the conventional notion of upward social mobility and status it embodies. As a resident says, ‘There is a mixed use, completely. No one drinks water directly from the time kol… But it is used for all other purposes. Everyone does that. Can you tell me why there is such a big demand for taking time kols in Baruipur? The iron content in water, here in Baruipur is very high. Tube well water is extremely high in iron. Nowadays everyone is using tiles, they are doing up their bathrooms nicely, giving them a new look. But if you use that [ground] water in your bathroom, the fittings are getting damaged, from taps to everything. Since time kol water has less iron, people’s demand is for a time kol line’ (Interview, 19.08.2018).
Ironically, for those relying on public stand posts, since many get submerged under overflowing drains or ponds during heavy rains, such sights and contamination fears keep residents away.
Delivering drinking water to people’s homes: the local water vendor
Suspicion around piped water quality, its sporadic availability, muddy flows and the uneven and fragmented nature of the network, has encouraged enterprising locals who have set up small businesses in their own courtyards to extract and ‘filter’ groundwater. Sold as ‘mineral water’ across the town, Baruipur’s ‘jol er byabsha’ or business deals around groundwater (which started about five years ago) has grown well in the last two to three years according to insiders. According to officials in the municipality, vendors in all probability collect their PHE water, perhaps mix some chlorine in it so that it appears whiter, a little cleaner and package it in jars for sale (Field notes, 23.08.2018). On the other hand, vendor networks claim that their ‘pure’, ‘Arsenic-free’, ‘filtered’ mineral water is drawn from depths close to 1000 feet. Such claims are configured, and business expanded through neighbourhood contacts and roadside banner advertisements.
These mineral water businesses are not strictly illegal, since they have municipal trade licenses to operate their units. However, some plant owners say there are units that blatantly flout norms. Unlike the ‘water is a basic service, a free public good’ rationale of the state-led drinking water provisioning, the mineral water business operates on a market logic. Relying on vendor supplies are residents across socio-economic groups, eateries, service and commercial establishments in the town; and deliveries are not limited only to neighbourhoods where water infrastructures are poor or absent.
Fieldwork in Baruipur has revealed myriad experiences of trust, social preferences, established habits, apprehensions around the town’s water infrastructures and the political pressure to provide water to all. Inhabitants’ narratives and their everyday practices show that there continues to be a strong reliance on groundwater, which is understood as a matter of preference (taste), a habit and business in the town. Contradicting official top-down modernisation goals of centrally planned and controlled surface water networks for urban water service delivery, Baruipur municipality continues to operate its groundwater submersible pumps for consistent supplies. Adding to its fragmented efforts from time to time, the local government is currently installing five new submersible groundwater pumps with fund support from the KMDA to expand pipe networks and increase supplies.
1 Baruipur municipality’s filtered surface water requirement is 8500 cubic mt. according to municipal water supply department officials, but the town receives 6800 cubic mt. from PHED (Field notes, 04.09.2017).