At the heart of Darjeeling’s thirst lie several questions. Why is it that Darjeeling, which is among the highest rainfall receiving regions in the country, has endured a water crisis for over three decades? Why is it that in spite of the myriad attempts made by several governments, the people of Darjeeling continue to depend on non-municipal sources of water for their daily life? If water is available, why can’t people drink it?
It is this question that, Rinan Shah, a PhD researcher working in Darjeeling with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment hopes to answer. “Darjeeling receives among the highest rainfalls in the country, it is comparable to the Western Ghats. But that is one aspect, even if aspects such as climate change or the growth of population are making things worse, the crisis has existed. These factors are making an existing problem worse,” she said.
The Eastern Himalayan Region (EHR), of which Darjeeling is a part, is one of the highest rainfall receiving region nationally and has among the highest per capita and per hectare “availability of water”. The issue of water scarcity has typically been viewed through a narrow paradigm - a shortage viewed as physical, economic or institutional scarcity.
But Shah argues that the crisis is not simply a paradox, but a “conundrum” and the result of several factors, ranging from political differences between the Left-led and then TMC-led Bengal government and the regional institutions at Darjeeling to insufficient investments.
“It is important to look at how the state is providing water. Are you (the state) even working towards getting water for everyone? What is the process? Which are the institutions involved?” she added.
Shah points out that governmental responses to address Darjeeling’s crippling water crisis have primarily been “high cost”, “high energy”, engineering solutions and not those that are more local.
“The average person in Darjeeling consumes around 30 - 40 litres per day…even in rural parts of India, this is several times higher,” she said, adding that this led to communities not fully understanding the extent of their disenfranchisement.
“Instead, there is an idea that we should make do with whatever water we have. But if you are depending on two or three sources for water, and if those were to dry up then what?” she added.
On the face of it, a centralised formal water supply exists in Darjeeling town from municipal sources. But, quite simply, the administration isn’t able to meet the water requirements of the communities living in the town. The result: water scarcity is countered from different informal sources, ranging from water tankers to springs. “Right now, the focus is on understanding the nature and extent of the problem. If it is not understood properly, it doesn’t matter…many proposals have been made, and the government has given money multiple times,” she added.
A review of the different proposals made by the Centre and the state government indicate a pattern: a focus on augmenting the water supply and providing engineering solution. “But the reality is that a lot of the work that needs to be done by the government is done by the common people of Darjeeling,” said an official of the state administration, who didn’t wish to be named.
The official admitted, “Even when it comes to public health, issues related to water there are different groups which take the initiative.”
In an article, published in the Official Journal of the World Water Council, Shah drew a parallel between Darjeeling’s emphasis on engineering solutions to the global experience and wrote, “Success rates of such augmentations have been low and have not been enough to close the gap between increasing water demands and augmented supply. Low success rates show the need to look at aspects of both harnessing and supplying water. An acknowledgement of natural, social and traditional knowledge is needed to provide better solutions and water rights and, in this case, existing systems such as springs and the array of private water suppliers should not be left out.”