In the third week of April, when the temperature in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, touched 43.2 degrees Celsius, five degrees above normal, 41-year-old Mamata Swain barely slept at night. It wasn’t just the heat that kept her up. A year ago, her home was among 50-odd homes that were burnt in a fire in the slum she lives in. Swain lost all her savings in that fire.

Unlike Cuttack, its amorphous twin, Bhubaneswar is a planned city. But it still has some 500 slums – authorised and unauthorised – that about 40% of the city’s one million residents call home. These slums, many of them nothing but black plastic-sheet covered homes, fit cheek-by-jowl into just five per cent of the city’s geographical area.

As climate change intensifies natural disasters like the current heat wave, rural migration to the city is expected to increase. The recurrent drought means there is already a palpable movement into the city. The bigger the influx, the greater the challenge to provide them all with clean drinking water.

Drinking water crisis

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation faces is to make drinking water available across the city and summer means more trouble for city dwellers and municipality alike.

In the last week of March, a jaundice outbreak in Jharana Basti and Kargil slum of ward number 53 – where chief minister Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik also lives – left the municipality red-faced.

Stung by criticism that it wasn’t providing safe drinking water to all the residents of Bhubaneswar, the BMC has decided to supply piped drinking water to all slums in phases. Bhubaneswar mayor AN Jena kickstarted this plan by inaugurating eight water stand posts last month. “After a spurt of jaundice cases in the city due to contaminated drinking water, we are planning to provide water to the slum-dwellers,” said Jena. “We will cover all the authorised slums within three to four years.”

City residents point out that besides slums, other areas also do not have drinking water connections. “Forget slums, many better off areas like Satya Vihar, Palasuni, Rasulgarh are yet to get piped drinking water supply,” said Dwarika Das, a senior citizen.

In January, Bhubaneswar topped the list of 20 cities selected by the Union government for its Smart City initiative. Kapilas Bhuyan , a documentary film maker refers to this while talking about the drinking water situation in the city. “Planning for a smart city is fine,” he said. “But if we are unable to endow citizens with basic amenities, the whole purpose of the smart city will be lost.”

Working through the heat

Rainfall brought by a norwester storm last weekend brought little relief to the state. At least 15 districts are recording temperatures upwards of 40 degrees Celsius. In industrial towns like Talcher, Jharsuguda and Angul, the temperature still hovers between 40 degrees and 45 degrees Celsius. If the blistering heat is now on the wane in Western Odisha, the coastal regions are heating up.

The heat means sunstroke deaths are on the rise. But sensitive to criticism, the government seems to be keen to underplay such deaths.

Statewide, over 150 people have been reported to have died due to the heat. But officially the death toll is only 15. The Special Relief Commissioner’s office said that it had received reports regarding the death of 150 people due to heat stroke. It said, of those cases, it has inquired into 70 and confirmed that 15 cases had been caused by sunstroke. It concluded that the other 55 deaths were due to other reasons.

“At such a sluggish rate of admission, it is doubtful if all the 150 who lost their lives, and any future casualties, will ever be eligible for compensation,” said Biswapriya Kanungo, a lawyer and human right activist.

Last month, to prevent heat-related deaths, the Odisha government imposed restrictions on construction work and the movement of public transport between 11 am and 3 pm. It issued an advisory asking people to stay indoors between those hours.

But that’s easier said than done. Those who depend on a daily wage to feed themselves and their families don’t have the luxury of stopping work.

Trolley puller Jitendra Narayan Sahoo said he had to work under the scorching sun to feed his family. “I have to carry steel frames and rods to construction sites,” said Sahoo. “It is arduous. [But] if I don’t work, I won’t be able to support my family who will have nothing to eat.”

Cobbler Kalipada Mallick echoes Sahoo. “It is difficult to sit idle even in this sweltering heat,” said Mallick. “Poor people like us have no other option but to work to earn.”

Grand plans stay on paper

And at the end of a long day at work, these daily wagers return to their homes in slums without any guarantee that there'll be water available to quench their thirst.

Odisha has had problems supplying drinking water to rural and urban areas in previous summers, but this year, the water supply is worse than usual.

For instance, in steel city Rourkela, a massive drinking water crisis unfolded in mid-April after the river Koel dried up. It is the only source of water for the Rourkela Steel Plant township. This meant that Rourkela Steel Plant was able to supply its township with just less than half of its daily demand of 15.5 million gallons of water. With taps running dry, Rourkela residents are reportedly wary of inviting guests home. Television news feeds repeatedly broadcast footage of Rourkela Steel Plant employees and their families queueing up near tube-wells or water tankers.

Similarly, several tribal settlements around Byree in Jajpur district are being provided with water tankers by private donors.

Last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that Odisha was unable to supply adequate drinking water to people in 95 out of 106 urban areas. It also found that during 2009-14, as many as 17 water supply projects worth Rs 407.03 crore were sanctioned by the Centre and the state received central assistance of Rs 197.39 crore. However, six projects – in Angul, Berhampur, Bhawanipatna, Jharsuguda, Parlakhemundi and Phulbani – faltered because the state Public Health Engineering Organisation did not utilise 70% of the central fund in time. The CAG audit also found that in another four projects – in Bolangir, Bhanjanagar, Berhampur and Rourkela – water supply works remained incomplete even four years after these projects started.

In view of the double-barrelled drinking water and heat wave crisis, the Odisha government recently announced the provision of free drinking water to rural and urban areas. Rs 300 crore has been earmarked for developing water infrastructure in the whole state.

“This Rs 300 crore given by the 13th Finance Commission and previous commissions to all panchayats will be spent for drinking water infrastructure development,” said PK Mohapatra, the Special Relief Commissioner. All panchayats have been directed to spend 30% of their funds towards piped water supply.

But there’s nothing to suggest that these plans – like the ones in previous years – will not just remain on paper.