NEW DELHI, Sept. 28 The quest for water can drive a woman mad.
Ask Ritu Prasher. Every day, Mrs. Prasher, a homemaker in a middle-class neighborhood of this capital, rises at 6:30 a.m. and begins fretting about water.
It is a rare morning when water trickles through the pipes. More often, not a drop will come. So Mrs. Prasher will have to call a private water tanker, wait for it to show up, call again, wait some more and worry about whether enough buckets are filled in the bathroom in case no water arrives.
"Your whole day goes just planning how you'll get water," a weary Mrs. Prasher, 45, recounted one morning this summer, cellphone in hand and ready to press redial for the water tanker. "You become so edgy all the time."
In the richest city in India, with the nation's economy marching ahead at an enviable clip, middle-class people like Mrs. Prasher are reduced to foraging for water. Their predicament testifies to the government's astonishing inability to deliver the most basic services to its citizens at a time when India asserts itself as a global power.
The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as India in recent years. A soaring population, the warp-speed sprawl of cities, and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.
The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten India's ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake is not only India's economic ambition but its very image as the world's largest democracy.
"If we become rich or poor as a nation, it's because of water," said Sunita Narain, director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.