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Backstory: India's no-flow faucets

Hyderabad's desire to become India's next great global city – the next Silicon Valley spiced by chutney and chilies – sometimes seems pathological. There is Hi-Tec City, where buildings of tinted glass double as ostentatious statements of India's global arrival. There is Genome Valley, heart of India's nascent biotechnology industry. And there is a 100-mile beltway under way, along with a new international airport with no shortage of sinuous shapes.

Yet for 46 of every 48 hours, Hyderabad cannot deliver one simple staple to its people – water. Those who have the means survive by storing water – when it comes – in rooftop tanks so their taps never run dry. Those who do not live life in 46-hour increments, rationing water and thronging taps at communal wells in lines that last two hours or more.

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Now, however, this city of 6 million is undertaking an experiment that could change how it – and perhaps the rest of India – uses one of its most basic resources. It is a modest beginning: Hyderabad is offering continuously flowing water to one neighborhood. But the plan holds significance for the whole nation, as one of the world's most powerful economies struggles to meet increasing water demands amid chronic fraud, waste, and neglect.

Along the way, the project has, in many ways, become a parable for modern India, where the sheer immensity of its problems, combined with people's willingness to live with their own, imperfect solutions, creates an inertia against even the most necessary change.

In truth, no city in India delivers water 24 hours a day. But none of the country's other major cities offers water for as little as two hours every other day, as Hyderabad does. The plan here is eventually to expand the pilot program throughout the city, making it the first major metropolis in India to offer continuously flowing water.

It is, on one hand, a matter of public health. Experts note that all pipes leak, whether they are in Berlin or Bangalore. If they are full, they leak outward, but if they are empty, they leak inward, sucking in polluted groundwater. This seepage contributes to the death of 2.1 million children annually due to a lack of clean drinking water, according to a United Nations report.

But there is also the hope that continuous water will force India to amend decades of mismanagement. After all, the problem here isn't supply: Hyderabad, for example, gets 42 gallons of water per person a day – more than Paris. The real questions facing India are those of decaying pipes and socialist-era policies that eschew water meters – making the commodity essentially free and leading to enormous waste.

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On a bright winter's day, officials from the Hyderabad water board trundle through the streets of Adikmet, the project's pilot neighborhood. In the middle-class sections, where high gates protect calm courtyards, the project has been a tougher sell than one might think.

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This is not the playground of millionaires who can fix anything with the drop of a few thousand rupees. The California-style plots of green grass and red-tile ranch homes that have sprung up to serve this city's high-tech elite are far away. This is a more organic India, where LEGO-block masonry homes are weathered with a dull brown patina left by monsoon rains and searing summer heat. Multistory apartment blocks rise unseen into the canopy of tired streetside trees frosted in India's ever-present gray dust.

Yet even here, the water crisis doesn't seem all that severe. As is the case throughout the country, India's middle class has been able to use money to ameliorate the problem. Some have their own wells. Many others have storage tanks that they fill when the water comes. So whenever they turn on the faucet, something comes out. "I don't say that I don't want it," says local businessman G.V.R. Reddy, reflecting an ambivalence up and down the main street here about the availability of 24-hour tap water.

Given the problems he has encountered, his reaction is perhaps charitable. In his small store, lit dimly through shopworn windows and matted with dog-eared papers, one of the water officials is giving a tutorial, complete with scratch-paper drawings. The subject: Why the bespectacled businessman's monthly bill went from less than $3 to more than $550.

It is the pipes. Both parties agree leaks exist, but they disagree on who should pay for them. Water officials say they are on his property; he says the water company should be responsible.

Mr. Reddy will have his bill adjusted. In general, Hyderabad is trying to tread softly considering this is such a novel program, says K.S. Jawahar Reddy of the Hyderabad water board. But the incident suggests the enormity of the problem both here and throughout India. Citizens like Reddy will not abide higher bills, and Hyderabad can't fix every leaky elbow joint in Adikmet – let alone the rest of the city.

The Hyderabad water board is already spending $1.6 million on the project, and Adikmet is perceived to be the easiest neighborhood in the city for 24-hour water. Officials hope the plan – and the 30,000 new water meters that came with it – will bring conservation, as residents are forced to account for their water usage. But some residents see the reverse.

"This 24-hour supply is not at all required," says a gray-bearded Ahmed Mohsin, a local resident. He points to water cascading down the street – the product of an unattended tap. "Nobody is going to close the tap," he declares.

To some degree, he is right. In Adikmet's poorer sections, water sometimes courses through the streets in a shoelace-high flood, serving as an open-air bath for clothes and children alike. But these areas can only afford to do this because they opted out of the 24-hour plan – and thus don't have water meters.

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In a tiny storefront in an Adikmet slum, one local merchant admits that he would like to have a steady flow from his tap – and would be willing to pay for it. But local political parties have declared that anything short of free, continuous water is unacceptable. "There is political pressure to oppose the plan," says Satyanara Reddy in a cautious tone. "This is a small community, and one person cannot stand alone."

This is one reason India finds itself in its current position. Water is often seen as an inalienable right, not a consumable resource. Moreover, fees don't cover the cost of operations, much less fixing and expanding the system to meet needs. As the population has expanded, cities "couldn't make the investment to go to the nearest water supply, so they started water rationing," says Srinivas Chary Vedala, a water expert at the Administrative Staff College of India in Hyderabad.

Yet the project has brought little victories, too. D. Padma is not nearly as destitute as some others in Adikmet. Alongside the broken-down brick buildings of her slum are rows of houses, spare but tidy, lining narrow earthen alleyways filled with the shriek of shoeless children.

She peers through a doorway painted neon and says she is "very happy." The project has at least been able to make water available daily and at scheduled times. Before, it came every other day, at random times, forcing her to go to the communal tap 10 times a day. Now, "I don't need to go at all anymore," she says.

Never mind that she now has a water meter beneath the floorboards of her house, counting every drop she uses. The water bill is manageable, her husband says. In fact, the improved water-supply schedule has made him only more eager for continued improvements. "Give us the water," says husband Srinivas, "and we'll manage it."