Water wars in Shimla as taps run dry, police escort tankers

SHIMLA: Indian police on Wednesday were forced to escort water tankers through the streets of Shimla as an unprecedented shortage sparked brawls and desperation in the Himalayan hotspot popular with the rich and famous.
The mountain getaway is generally crowded with vacationers but hotels are closing and tourists being told to stay away as a crippling water shortage pinches the picturesque retreat.
Anxious residents have been waiting for hours in queues hundreds deep to collect water, filling buckets at tankers guarded by police.
“We all know for the past fortnight the situation is so bad that people are getting water barely once in a week,” Sanjay Chauhan, a former mayor of Shimla, said.
Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital of British India, requires around 42 million litres per day but often suffers water shortages in the summer.
But supply has dipped by nearly half this year, sparking what residents say is the worst shortage in living memory.
The mountainous northern state of Himachal Pradesh endured record-low snowfall during the winter which experts say is responsible for taps running dry earlier than usual.
But some residents in Shimla, the state capital, say water has been syphoned off to hotels for the well-heeled or to VIP estates.
Protests outside the chief minister’s home late on Tuesday turned violent, with demonstrators clashing with police and chanting slogans against the local government.
The state’s highest court has asked for an explanation from authorities and a plan for managing the crisis.
But critics say the water scarcity underscores the strain placed on Shimla every summer as tens of thousands descend on it.
A social media campaign urging tourists to avoid Shimla until the crisis passes has gone viral online.
“Don’t visit Shimla this year, let the place breathe for a while, it’s overcrowded and exploited to the limits,” reads the campaign slogan circulating on social media platforms like WhatsApp.
Many hoteliers and travel agents say the bad publicity is already having an impact.
Shimla is usually brimming with tourists in summer as temperatures on India’s lower plains hover around 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit).
But visitors were cancelling bookings or shortening their trips, said travel agent Mohit Sharma.
“Booking inquiries for June have dried up. Those who had booked rooms are asking to be shifted to other places outside Shimla or cancelling their bookings,” he said.