Old-time journalists based in Shimla haven't forgotten an anecdote about a senior colleague, who was called-up early one morning by his editor, demanding to know why he hadn’t filed anything recently.
“It’s because nothing is happening, absolutely no news flow, sir,” said the scribe. “So at least do a story on the Shimla water crisis,” responded the irate editor.
This held true till June 2018 –when the hill town and north India’s favourite tourist destination faced it’s worst ever drinking water crisis, making headlines even in top foreign newspapers. The water availability had dropped from 39-40 million litres a day (MLDs) to a mere 18 MLDs. Hoteliers put out notices asking tourists not to visit Shimla. The town went without a drop of water for eight long days, forcing the intervention of the state High Court. The state’s first-time Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur– barely months into the post--found himself at the receiving end as protests, demonstrations and street dharnas erupted across the beautiful capital.
“How to fix the perennial water scarcity issue in the popular hill town, where the population growth of 2.30 lakh and a tourist influx of between 15,000 to 20,000 per day almost had exceeded its carrying capacity, was biggest concern of the new government,” says Dr Dharmendra Gill, Managing Director, Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) Ltd—a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) set up that year to address the crisis.
Today, barely two years later, water is no longer in the news. Whether it’s peak or lean tourist season, the town is getting a supply of 42 to 44 MLD, enough to meet daily needs without any rationing.
And now, the Covid-19 induced pandemic and lockdown appears to have given a new opportunity to the SJPN to plan and sanction an ambitious World Bank funded drinking water project, which aims to target availability of 107 MLD of water by 2022--- the election year in the state.
Conceived in 1980s, the project to lift water from Sutlej river –flowing through Shimla’s Sunni and Tatta Pani catchment, was formalised last month when the SJPN awarded the work to M/s Sai Engineering Foundation – a Shimla based engineering firm to supply 67 MLD of additional water.
“The project is unique in many ways, especially its designing and operation. The water from the Sutlej river will be lifted and pumped in three stages to an elevation of 5000 feet. The commissioned company will spend Rs 330 cr and maintain it for next 10 years. For this an additional 42 cr has been earmarked as performance-based money -- to maintain all standards of the water, the quality and quantity of water made available to the town,” said Rajesh Kashyap, Additional General Manager SJPN.
The project is expected to be completed in 36 months, which includes laying a 22-km pipeline to bring water to Shimla.
“We have already obtained necessary clearances from various state and central government bodies .The land acquisition process is more or less done, barring a compensation award for the land which Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Shimla (Rural) will announce,” said Dr Gill .
The tendering process for the scheme took almost a year. It initially got struck in 2019 when only one bid was received in January, and two in June.
After Dr R N Batta, advisor to the Chief Minister, who was secretary Irrigation and Public Health (IPH) earlier, reworked the project and its features, it attracted four bidders, of which a joint venture led by M /S Sai Foundation was finally selected by the government.
“Shimla is a world-renowned British era city, which also remained a summer capital of India. It has one of India’s oldest water supply schemes at Gumma, which is still working fine. We are going to set up a new landmark for the town, which the people will be delighted to see. Making quality drinking water available to Shimla till 2050 is a dream and also our mission. We will fully meet the deadline set-out for the project,” Raj Kumar Verma, who heads Sai Engineering Foundation, told Outlook.
The SJPN has engaged the services of TATA consultancy to monitor the performance of the Sutlej river scheme and project executions by the Sai Engineering Foundation.
Since the biggest reason for Shimla’s water crisis every year till 2018 was wastage and leakage of the water from the supply lines, the SJPN has tasked Sai Engineering Foundation to plug all such leaks. “We will measure the performance on the basis of delivery of services, i.e. quantity and quality of the water received in the town’s main supply line,” pledges Dr Gill.
A survey done by WAPCOS Ltd, a government agency in 2017-18 at the behest of Shimla Municipal Corporation, revealed that 47 percent of the water pumped to the city was going waste. The reason: leakages in the old main water supply line, commissioned in 1924.
“Of this, 25 to 30 percent of the water was lost in the distribution network because of the worn-out distribution pipes. We got the old pipeline replaced between Craigneno and Dhalli investing Rs 8 Cr. A new scheme -- Koti-Brandi has been commissioned to add another 5 MLD of water. The IPH also commissioned a 10 MLD scheme to bring water to the existing Gumma pumping station. All these measures have made Shimla quite comfortable with its water demand, ” sums-up Pankaj Rai, Commissioner Shimla MC, who posted as DC Lahaul-Spiti on Tuesday .
Currently, Shimla gets between 44 to 45 MLD, and sometimes even upto 49 MLD of water from six different sources. The commissioning of the Sutlej river scheme --also called the Kol Dam (Reservoir) Scheme, will make a total 107 MLD of water available to Shimla at end of 2022, or early 2023. This is projected need of the town till 2050, Dr Gill says.
Today, water is in the news for all the right reasons.