Dossier People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues

Water Movements in Delhi

, by Intercultural Resources , MANCHANDA Tarini

This article focuses on peoples’ movements around water in New Delhi, the capital city of India. New Delhi is characterized by water “issues.” A majority of the city’s 18 million residents have to queue up for water supplied by the government or private tankers, as piped supplies are either defunct or unavailable. The water supplied by the Delhi authorities is discolored or odorous, and thus considered unsafe for drinking. Everyday conflicts around water are common.

These realities, coupled with the fact that water is a basic need, makes it easy to talk to city residents about water. In one conversation, a lady said she was surprised to hear that the Yamuna River, Delhi’s primary source of water, is dead. Surprise is an appropriate response to the death of a river when compared to the more jaded responses others have. A river is described as “dead” when its dissolved oxygen levels are very low. Such rivers are choked to death by sewage and pollutants.

The Yamuna River originates at Yamunotri in the state of Uttarakhand. At a site ten kilometers from Yamunotri, the parallel stream of the Ganga River is redirected into a power plant and used to generate electricity. Despite the odds, the Yamuna is still alive in this region, a smaller stream flowing undisturbed and clean. The future of this stream is determined by all kinds of people along the way.

To begin understanding Delhi’s water, one must first understand the geography, history and governance of water in the city. Each of these plays a role in creating the current struggles around water in Delhi.

Geography and Water

Delhi lies next to the desert of Rajasthan and close to the foothills of the Himalayas. The desert gives Delhi its dry climate, while the Himalayas act as a cloud barrier and lead to the 611.8 mm of annual rainfall in Delhi.

Delhi has seen eight incarnations, and the latest city was planned with a forested area that would act as a groundwater recharge. The forest is located on the Delhi ridge, which is the tail end of the Aravalli mountain range; now, however, the forest is scattered in shrinking spaces around the city. The Aravalli hills form watersheds or depressions that collect water. A watershed is described as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

The Yamuna river runs from the Southeast to the Northwest corners of the city. It is a source of surface water, groundwater recharge, and the city’s sewerage system. The Yamuna has been declared a “dead” river in the 22 kilometer stretch within and around Delhi.

Four aspects – rain, watersheds, a river and the forest – and the management of these by Delhi’s government and citizens determine actual water availability within the city. In addition to these sources, Delhi’s government augments the city’s supply with water from neighboring states.

History of Water Management

Geography set the course of Delhi’s history. Delhi was settled by communities as early as 300 B.C. Historians have noted that Delhi’s early rulers such as the Tomar Rajputs, Iltutmish of the Slave Dynasty and the Mughal kings created water management systems. The rulers followed the slope of the land, creating hauz (artificial lakes), ponds, and baolis (step-wells) to store water for the population. These water bodies were managed by the citizens. Once the British administration moved their capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1912, however, they took over water governance, created new systems and left the old systems in disrepair.

Water Governance

Currently, the capital’s water is managed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), a Delhi state government authority. In addition, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Corporation, the Cantonment board, Delhi Development Authority, Central Groundwater Board, and Central Water Commission also play a role in Delhi’s water governance. Further, these bodies are often governed by rival political parties. Finally, not only are there many bodies, there are several mandates within each of these bodies. Much of the governance is communicated via the Internet or newspapers, but it remains inaccessible to the average citizen. Like the governing bodies, state and national laws pertaining to water governance are layered and multifarious.

Funding and Debt

The Delhi Jal Board is in “debt” to the Delhi government, as the revenue generated by water is declared less than the cost of procuring and supplying it. Additionally, more than 15 billion rupees has been pumped into sewage treatment plants. Nonetheless, pollution and sewage in the river remains untreated and has even increased. In addition to spending on sewage treatment, much money has been put into building dams to harness and redistribute water in the Yamuna and Ganga. Dammed rivers, submerged economies, incomplete resettlement of oustees and environmental losses have not been factored into the cost of dam projects. Finally, even though several expensive dams have been constructed, the water supply is dubious.

Water Supply

According to the Delhi Jal Board’s website, their current water supply does not meet the calculated demand. As documented by a researcher with the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi is dependent on neighboring states for its water supply. “Delhi’s own share of Yamuna, as per interstate agreements, amounts to just 4.6 per cent. Other than the Yamuna, Delhi banks its supply on Himalayan rivers and sub-surface sources like Ranney wells and tube wells.”

In addition, the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand, built for Delhi, has been supplying Delhi water through the Sonia Vihar treatment plant. The researcher finds that “nearly 315 million litres per day [MLD] are being supplied at the moment. The Plant plans to bring a total of 630 MLD in the near future.”

Large dams such as Tehri have been controversial, and several peoples’ movements have challenged their benefits on a national and international level. According to The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage, 100,000 people were displaced by the Tehri dam.

Water Consumption

Delhi has grown in size and population immensely within the last 25 years. A majority of the residents fall into economically backward classes. However, with the significant growth of the middle class and the economy, the city is seeing rapid physical build-up, housing complexes, malls, wider roads, highways, golf courses, a new airport and metro system, as well as many more cars on the roads. Large-scale industries are more significant to the lifestyle in Delhi than ever before. Such growth in private and industrial consumption has put pressure on resources such as water. While private groundwater extraction is illegal, it is rampant in the city. Both private and government companies are running bottled water plants using illegal groundwater.

Movements around Water

The issue of water has been taken up by a variety of groups within civil society in Delhi. These include but are not limited to NGOs, informal and formal sangathans or groups, Resident Welfare Associations, individuals, professionals, and students.

While each group within civil society is its own entity, several share platforms on diverse urban issues. Water is one such platform, shared by multiple groups on many different levels. It is important to note that the ideologies, demands and actions of each entity varies greatly. In Delhi, one can find some groups taking a charity and aid-based approach, while others work with a rights-based approach. Each group uses a different medium, whether it is advocacy and awareness or direct action.

Environmentalists, NGOs and even Delhi’s current chief minister Shiela Dixit advocate putting water back into the ground and raising the groundwater table by rainwater harvesting. Others are focusing on pollution, toxics, industry and waste, or fighting legal cases and protesting to maintain the Delhi ridge as a groundwater recharge zone. Even more are working on awareness and campaigning to bring the Yamuna back to life. Since rivers are a spiritual entity within the Indian context, religious and spiritual groups form a large part of those working for the life of the river.

As dams have been a topic of much debate, water issues are in a complicated relationship with dam struggles. To a citizen who does not have access to water, dam-building seems integral to access water. At the same time, people who are protesting the negative social and environmental impacts of dams are asking for a more environmentally just alternative to dams. An additional point being raised is that dams have caused immense internal displacement, but resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced remains unaccounted for and often overlooked.

Womens groups, NGOs, sangathans and activist groups are working in Jhuggi Jhompadis (slum clusters) to raise issues of womens’ safety and sanitation, access to water, and water quality.

Many within civil society use the Right to Information Act to access information about water and increase government accountability and transparency. Others monitor corruption within the Delhi Jal Board. Water activism in Delhi is seasonal, as many protest against summer water shortages. Since water is a fundamental need, it is a highly political topic in India, especially popular during elections. Every political party claims that it will supply water to the needy.


The Delhi government has attempted privatization of the city’s water supply since 2005. While a fierce peoples’ campaign defeated privatization efforts in 2005, the Delhi Jal Board has recently handed over parts of its water distribution and monitoring duties in South Delhi (the neighborhoods of Malviya Nagar and Vasant Vihar) to a private company affiliated with the Tata Group. A clerk with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) explained that while the decision to privatize has been announced recently, the DJB has been raising water tariffs gradually over the years to prepare for handing distribution operations to Tata, as DJB did in 2012.

The campaign to stop the privatization of water in Delhi in 2005 was initiated by Parivartan, an NGO run by Arvind Kejrival (who is currently bringing a new party into India’s politics). The movement was large, with Resident Welfare Associations playing a big part in the process. The major concerns of the movement were: the imposition of raised tariffs; that public money for water would be used to pay large salaries to foreign experts; and that private companies are not accountable to all citizens of a democratic country. In this way, people were demanding that water be a right for all, rather than a commodity for the rich.

The Scarcity Vs. Distribution Debate

The website of the Delhi Jal Board states that while demand for water in Delhi is currently 800 MGD (Millions of Gallons per Day), the city has a supply of only 650 MGD of water. According to the Jal Board, Delhi faces an absolute scarcity of water. Civil society groups argue that Delhi has more water per capita than some European countries. Thus instead of an absolute scarcity, inequitable distribution and mismanagement are plaguing Delhi’s water systems. In terms of inequitable distribution, a map of water distribution shows that while the cantonment area receives 509 lpd (litres per person per day), and south Delhi receives 138 lpd, Mehrauli receives only 29 lpd. In terms of mismanagement, civil society groups point out that approximately 52% of Delhi’s water is lost within the supply system, due to leaky pipes. While some of this leakage includes the litres “stolen” by those who do not get any water, it also includes water that is “stolen” for “luxury” purposes. Alternately, Arvind Kejrival and his new Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) claim that the water tariff system is corrupt, as it records false losses.

The debate to define Delhi’s water “problems” as scarcity or as mismanagement will have larger implications. The Delhi Jal Board states that there isn’t enough water in Delhi, so it plans to augment the supply by spending large amounts on building dams in neighboring states. The Renuka Dam is one such dam, planned 300 kilometers away from the city; Lakhwar Vyasi and Kishau Dam are others. Civil society is pointing out inequalities in the government water supply system and asserting that if the government was to do away with these, dam building would become redundant. Many groups ask that instead of building dams, the government fix leaking pipes and equalize the water supply of Delhi.

The government emphasizes scarcity, but why is it that, since the Tehri dam has been built and water has been supplied by the Sonia Vihar project, low income areas have not received an increase in their supply of water, while high income areas have? If water supply is used only to fulfill the greed of a few, instead of the need of many, how will any dam ever supply enough water? Who will benefit from an increase in water supply? Who will lose?

Population growth vs. Consumption

While many people believe that Delhi does not have enough water because its population is growing, some groups present a more complicated picture. They argue that although the population is growing, consumption is growing exponentially along with India’s consumer culture and industrial growth. Indians once believed in homemade and home-grown, but today, new hotels, brands, malls, and the growing industrial production of goods and agriculture are multiplying water consumption. Thus, instead of blaming population growth, critics demand that consumption be limited.


Delhi is an old city with a rich history of water management. But Delhi’s river is dead, and water governance is corrupt and inaccessible. Those with less are subjected to longer queues for water; children skip school and women face severe safety and sanitation issues. Thus, the task facing Delhi’s civil society and the government is enormous. The first s