Drinking water crisis is deepening

First time in recent decades, the shortage of drinking water has become a pan-Kashmir problem. From Tral to Shopiyan, Bandipora to Kupwara, and the entire Srinagar and Budgam districts, Kashmir  is suffering the worst-ever crisis of drinking water. Kashmir is neither a desert nor lacks the natural resources yet the official inefficiency makes it look like one.

Even a cursory look at the functioning of Jal Shakti Department, previously known as PHE, can testify that the department has committed two grave sins. For one, huge funds were pumped into new schemes without fixing the distribution infrastructure thereby misleading the center that the money was being spent in right direction. Second is even graver. JSD has misled even the Prime Minister by offering a speedy execution of the PM’s ambitious new drinking water supply mission.

Among a host of ambitious public welfare schemes, Prime Minister Narindra Modi’s Jal Jeevan Mission is most significant. The newly set up mission seeks to provide safe and adequate drinking water through Individual Household Tap Connections (IHTC) by 2024 to all households in rural India. The states, chronically suffering from drinking water shortage, have already heaved a sigh of relief as the parched lands of Rajhasthan, Odisha, Madhyapradesh and Bengal, are now flush with drinking water.

As is the habit of Kashmiri officials, they misled the Prime Minister Modi by offering the execution of the scheme in J&K by 2020, well before the deadline. The ground reality mocks at such a boast.

Almost all Jal Shakti Divisions in Kashmir have miserably failed to come up with a plan to deal with the current situation. In different villages of Sonawari Tehsil of Bandipora including Rakh Shilwat, Ganistan, Nowgam, Shiganpora, JSD has stopped the practice of supplying water to locals in tankers. Media reports suggest that JSD tankers have stopped supplying water to them saying these tankers ran out of fuel and they can’t afford the fuel for these tankers due to pending liabilities.
Now, the protests against the outage of drinking water have moved beyond Srinagar. Multiple protests against PHE were witnessed past week across Kashmir Valley. People, especially females, blocked roads. In Aabghar Tral area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, protesting women blocked Tral-Dadsara road, forcing commuters to take alternate routes.
Similar protest was held in Krawoora village of Southern district, which is just six kilometers away from Shopian mini-secretariat. The villagers said they yearn for drinking water while all their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. In the capital, Srinagar, which the officials claim to be a ‘smart city’ soon, people from Ahmad Nagar through Soura to Batamaloo and Alucha Bagh and from HMT to Panthachowk have no water to cook, leave alone the frequent hand-wash.

Forget about the funding worth Rs.6000 Crore in past decade, the freshly earmarked Rs. 63.34 Crore for 174 schemes is meaningless unless the department is held accountable for the worn-out distribution network. Despite more than 100 highly paid engineers, over 1000 technical staff, around 20 thousand employees and 10000 sourced laborers, the department has not moved an inch toward fulfilling the Prime Minster’s dream of ‘har nal jal’.

According to our own administration, during the current year the Union Territory (UT) is planning for 100% coverage of all 5,000 villages of 3 districts i.e., Gandarbal, Srinagar and Riasi. Recently the officials presented a plan before the former Lieutenant Governor G C Murmu and claimed that out of 18.17 lakh 5.75 lakh households in the UT were covered under the PM’s Jal Jeevan Mission.  “Out of the remaining households, J&K plans to provide 1.76 lakh households by 2020-21,” the officials told the LG. Despite getting Rs. 680 Crore central assistance under JJM, the department is not yet able to fix small fissures in its lines, leaving millions gasping for drinking water.

It is indeed heartening to know that the administration is planning 100% coverage by December, 2022 ahead of national goal by 2024-25. By doing so, J&K will be a leading example to accomplish the ambitious target of providing tap connection to each rural household. But a classic example of official lethargy is enough to make such claims sound hollow. Over two lakh households have been suffering drinking water crisis due to a breach in Malshahi Bagh Canal. The breach happened last summer and on January 24 the then chief engineer Abdul Wahid said on official TV that it will be fixed by March. It has been more than nine months and the people in almost all of northern and eastern Srinagar are without proper drinking water supply. After assuming charge, the new Chief of Jal Shakhti Department Iftikhar Wani said on June 30, “Repair works will be completed by August 15.” (Greater Kashmir 1 July 2020). Not a stone was turned at the site of damage after this loud claim. Irony is that just two days before the promised deadline, secretary Jal Shakti pays a visit to Malshahi Bagh damaged site in order to “review” the progress of the repair work. Such is the response to crucial damages to the distribution infrastructure. The Rs. 400 Crore Sukhnagh water supply scheme, that feeds entire south city and parts of Budgam, is also in a shambles.

LG Manoj Sinha and Chief Secretary BVR Subramaniam are supposed to see Prime Minister Modi’s welfare schemes efficiently executed on ground. When the promises made in loud headlines are observed in blatant breach, what would be the state of affairs in other matters. Chief Secretary’s move to rationalize the engineering wings of various departments is a welcome step. He should primarily focus on Jal Shakti Department, which is custodian of PM Modi’s ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission. The higher authorities should bear in mind, it is the ground officers and field staff that make the center’s good work look like a joke. They should either be held accountable or dispensed with.

(Author is a noted social worker)