Sumitra Rabha, a 57-year-old widow, was killed when the boundary wall of her house on Kharghuli Hill in Guwahati collapsed on her from the force of water that burst through a large pipeline of the Guwahati South Central Water Supply Project on May 25. The water gushed from the damaged pipeline for around 20 minutes before the situation was brought under control, but by then at least 22 houses were damaged and several people injured.
The pumping station had no system to detect the leak and the workers switched off the pump only after residents rushed to inform them.
And therein lies a more than a decade-old history of callous neglect by civic authorities responsible for the supply of drinking water to Guwahati, the largest city in India’s north-eastern region. The Gauhati High Court is now hearing the matter and there is yet hope.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma inaugurated the partial commissioning of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)-assisted Rs.1,600 crore project on December 21, 2022. Against the target of providing drinking water to 1.42 lakh households, only 4,700households have been covered so far under the project.
“The facilities involved in the project, including the intake well and water treatment plant..., the Ramsa Hills reservoir, the Amiya Nagar reservoir and distribution network of 106 km in 14 out of 126 Districted Meter Areas (DMAs) in Amiya Nagar and Geetanagar distribution zones, have been completed and put into operation. These facilities are expected to provide water connection to 10,000 households, of which1,500[at the time of the press release; the number is presently at 4,700]have already been served,” states an official release, put out after the partial commissioning by the JICA.
A preliminary investigation of the incident revealed that a lid on the pipeline had blown off when water was being pumped to a reservoir. This has led to questions about the quality of the sealing work on joints and lids on the pipes and about the possibility of this occurring in other areas. In fact, experts in water supply engineering have warned of more such events if adequate safety measures are not taken quickly.
On June 3, ten days after the incident, this reporter found that while the damaged portion of the pipe had been sealed and covered with a concrete slab, the pipe was exposed in several stretches as it snaked its way to the reservoir at Ramcha Hill. Besides, several sluice valves were yet to be covered with precast slab. At one location the pipeline had a rusted iron grill around it with concrete work half done.
Given the condition of the pipeline, residents on the ghat road that leads to the reservoir live in constant fear. They recalled that about five years ago, the construction company dug up the road to lay a pipeline to the reservoir on the promise that the road would be relaid once work was over. However, the company left without repairing the road, residents alleged. They informed a probe panel about this during a public hearing at Joypur Lower Primary School on June 3.
“A preliminary investigation of the incident revealed that a lid on the pipeline had blown off when water was being pumped to a reservoir. This has led to questions about the quality of the sealing work on joints and lids on the pipes.”
Satyabrata Sarma, retired Chief Engineer, Assam Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board (AUWSSB), pointed to the use of a mechanical system of water distribution using a pressure relief valve (PRV) and said that without round-the-clock monitoring, worse disasters could happen.
Sarma explained: “For distribution of water in some localities where a service reservoir has not been built, the project management consultant has used PRVs along the distribution network to reduce water pressure when water flows from large diameter MS [mild steel] pipes to the small diameter DI (ductile iron) pipes that are used for transmission of water to household connections.
“The MS pipes have a water pressure of 40 kg/cm2, while the distribution pipes can sustain a maximum water pressure of 16 kg/cm2. Water is pumped to the height of the reservoir in large diameter pipes and then released to the distribution network using PRVs to reduce the pressure. If this is not monitored continuously, a failure in the PRVs may lead to distribution pipes bursting for 50 to 100 metre lengths.” According to Sarma water distribution using PRVs is technically feasible only if constant monitoring for mechanical failure of the valves is ensured.
Four mega projects were initiated in 2008 to end the water woes of Guwahati city, but they have missed several deadlines. Existing water supply systems run by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation, the Public Health & Engineering Department, and the AUWSSB cover only 30 per cent of the city’s population. Most of the treatment plants have outlived their lifespan, and the pipeline network is also damaged, with treated water getting contaminated with drain water because of leaks.
About 70 per cent of the city’s population is dependent on groundwater through borewells in individual households or unlicensed private tankers who source it from borewells.
Some large tankers also supply treated water from an old water treatment plant in the Panbazar locality. Except for the new connections to4,700households, the coverage of piped water supply has not changed from what it was when work on the mega projects was launched.
The projects are the Guwahati South West Water Supply Project, with financial support under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission; the Guwahati South Central Water Supply Project, with JICA assistance; the Guwahati North Water Supply Project, with JICA assistance; and the Guwahati East Water Supply project, with assistance from the Asian Development Bank.
- A 57-year-old widow was killed when the boundary wall of her house collapsed on her when a large pipeline of the Guwahati South Central Water Supply Project burst on May 25.
- The four existing water supply mega projects, initiated in 2008, cover only 30 per cent of the city’s population.
- Most of the treatment plants have outlived their lifespan, and the pipeline network is also damaged, with treated water getting contaminated with drain water because of leaks.
Guwahati Jal Board set up
In 2009, the Assam Assembly passed the Guwahati Metropolitan Drinking Water and Sewerage Board (GMDW&SB) Act, and on December 23, 2011, the Guwahati Municipal Drinking Water and Sewerage Board, also known as the Guwahati Jal Board, was set up under the Act for the operation and maintenance of water supply projects.
The Master Plan for Guwahati Metropolitan Area 2025, published in 2009, estimated that 132 million litres a day (MLD) of water (at the rate of 135 litres a person a day) would be required to cater to the city’s 9.8 lakh population.
“On June 3, ten days after the incident, this reporter found that the pipeline was exposed in several stretches as it snaked its way to the reservoir at Ramcha Hill.”
The main source of water for the existing treatment plants is the Brahmaputra river. It was estimated in the Master Plan that the water demand in the Guwahati Metropolitan Area would increase to 425 MLD in 2025. With less than two years left for the Master Plan period, piped water supply to the entire city’s population remains a pipe dream.
In August 2022, the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) terminated its contract with Gammon Engineers and Contractors Private Limited for the South West Water Supply Project, for failing to meet even extended deadlines. But the government informed the Assembly on September 26, 2018, that 95.45 per cent of work on the project had been completed by Gammon and that water was due to be supplied to targeted households by June 2019.
Work on the project meant to supply 107 MLD of treated water began in 2009 with a total allocation of Rs.389.53 crore, and Rs.359.80 crore was released to the contractor.
The South East Water Supply Project has also plunged into uncertainty, with contractors leaving work incomplete. The government informed the House in 2018 that work in three reservoirs at Jyotinagar, Kenduguri, and Gopalnagar was only at 36.78 per cent; the re-tender for work at three reservoirs at Basistha, Hengerabari, and Nabajyoti area saw no progress and only 51 per cent of the pipe-laying work was completed.
As for the South Central project, the government told the House that 55.35 per cent of the work was complete and arrangements had been made to partially start supplying water by taking 20 MLD water from the South West project.
Of the eight reservoirs to be constructed under the JICA-assisted South Central project, only two, at Ramcha Hill and Amiya Nagar, have been completed so far. The Guwahati Jal Board has fixed the connection charges for individual homes at Rs.12,000 with PRVs and Rs.9,000 without PRVs. It has also notified the tariff structure for the partially commissioned project and fixed different slabs for homes and institutions.
Guwahati South Central Water Supply Project
The GMDW&SB Act provides for the constitution of the Guwahati Water Regulatory Authority for consumer protection and regulation of tariff in the Guwahati Metropolitan Area. The Act states that the regulatory authority shall, with or without modifications, approve the tariff proposals submitted to it by the Jal Board and the tariff shall be notified and given effect to by the Jal Board only upon approval of the regulatory authority. This regulatory authority is yet to be constituted.
Chiriyakhana Path Jestha Nagarik Sanstha, a body of senior citizens, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition before the Gauhati High Court on September 7, 2021, seeking a directive to the GMDA and the Managing Director, GMDW&SB, among other respondents, to take time-bound steps to provide safe and clean drinking water to all areas coming under the GMDA.
It also sought the constitution of a high-powered committee of experts to look into the works undertaken so far and make recommendations for the expeditious supply of potable water to all areas of the GMDA.
High Court intervention
The High Court, in its order of May 25, 2023, observed that the affidavits of the GMDA and the GMDW&SB gave no details of the progress relating to water supply/distribution in the city. The court observed that the declarations made in the affidavits were contradictory to other material available on record of the PIL. It directed the CEO of GMDA and the MD of GMDW&SB to be personally present in the next hearing on June 15.
The government announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.5 lakh to the next of kin of Sumitra Rabha. Her son-in-law Rajib Das said they had so far received Rs.2 lakh of the amount.
Narrating the aftermath of the pipeline burst, Tarini Deka (60), a retired employee of an insurance company, said: “I heard a loud bang and after some time it sounded like heavy rain. Soon, the tin roof of our house starting falling apart, the walls broke, and water gushed inside and, in no time, rose to waist level. Our car was washed away but got stuck on a tree.”
“A failure in the PRVs may lead to distribution pipes bursting for 50 to 100 metre lengths.”Satyabrata SarmaRetired CHief Engineer, AUSSB
Deka and his eldest son, Hirakjyoti Deka, who had to cut short his medical course in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion, managed to save themselves, but the family lost most of its household goods. Deka, however, has received a compensation of only Rs.6,500 and wonders how the authorities can estimate the losses without even a survey of the damage.
Gunajit Haloi, a plumber, will have to rebuild his house from scratch; it was completely destroyed by the gushing waters.
Haloi’s wife, Mridula, said: “It was around 2:45 pm. We heard a loud sound and suddenly I felt the wall of our house crumbling. At first I thought it was a landslide. The wall suddenly fell and we came under it.” Her neighbours rescued her, her 3-year-old son, Ankit, and her mother-in-law, Daiboki Haloi (60).
The trauma of the loss of their homes and property continues to haunt these people even as they look to move on. Pulak Chandra Das (56) said the rehabilitation grant of Rs.1.20 lakh was not enough when their losses ran into several lakhs of rupees. Along with household assets, many dreams too lie buried under the mud and debris.