Nuvodita Singh is a Sustainable Development professional working in the areas of water security and climate change adaptation. She was based in Centre for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR), Dehradun when she conducted research in Dhobighat, Mussoorie. She is currently based at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal.
As one travels on the road to Mussoorie from Dehradun, a steep slip road opposite the ‘Mussoorie Jheel’ (Lake) leads to a community of Dhobis (washermen) that is neatly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the traffic and tourists flocking to the lake and shops for entertainment. Dhobighat is a visual treat with colourful houses of different sizes and shapes packed close together on the hill slope, with their tin and concrete rooftops concealed by clothes left out to dry at all hours of the day – white vests and bedsheets, red uniforms, blue jeans, grey trousers – you name it. The word ‘Dhobighat’ may conjure up images of the extensive dhobighat in Mumbai, Mahalaxmi, where washing is carried out on a grand scale, with dozens of washermen flogging clothes behind rows of compactly organized concrete wash pens. The water they rely on is pumped and supplied through pipes. In contrast, Mussoorie’s Dhobighat is small and unlike other typical dhobighats. Here, wash pens are arranged along the gradient of a hill adjoining a water stream locally called the ‘khad’. Some say that even if concrete wash pens were built, they would not survive the force of water sweeping down, especially during the monsoons. Clothes are put out to dry on every spare area of land; some dhobi place clothes on bushes on the hillside, on the grass that abounds the settlement area, and alongside the roads leading in to the settlement.
The water flowing down the khad is a lifeline for the dhobis. Out of the approximately 40 households that live there, about 30 work as dhobis and operate an individual laundry business. Along the tiny lanes in between the houses, frothy water crisscrosses the paths in mini canal-like spaces, giving off a whiff of detergent. This water comes from the workstations where some of the households keep their washing machines. One of the community members told us that while Mussoorie faces severe water crunch, Dhobighat is endowed with plenty of water. “Yahan toh kudrat ki den hai ki chaaro taraf paani hai”. He adds with some regret that despite being surrounded by such paucity, the abundance of water in the area isn’t valued much.
Since the 1930s, when 6-7 families of the Dhobi caste were made to settle here by the British to cater to their laundry needs, to the present day, Dhobighat has seen a slew of changes. For one, the number of families has increased. Washing that used to be done entirely by hand is now partly done in big loader washing machines. There are electric spin dryers too. Some hotels (whom the dhobis cater to) have purchased their own machines, and in doing so have done away with the need for dhobis for washing clothes. Switching to machines is therefore a way of keeping up with the times. Even the detergents used have undergone a change. All together, these changes have reduced the time taken per bundle of clothes considerably, and increased the income generating capacity of the dhobis. The number of clothes washed by each household could be as high as 2000 per day. However, the costs of electric washing and drying do not translate into a big income. While there are financial disparities among the different households, the stream or the khad can be seen as a great equalizer. Everyone has to situate themselves along the same stream to wash clothes, and is similarly affected by the quality and quantity of water in the stream.
The khad is one among several springs that originate around Mussoorie. With the drying up of springs and a reduction in the flow of others, the water department supplying drinking water to Mussoorie decided to tap the spring at Dhobighat in the 1990s. This was a move resisted by the residents of Dhobighat. These negotiations for water sometimes teetered on the edge of turning into brawls, and after more than five years a deal was struck between the erstwhile Lucknow Jal Nigam and the Dhobighat community for the sharing of the water from this spring. This corresponds to the laws brought in to assert State sovereignty over natural resources and especially drinking water in 1975.
In 1997, the Jal Nigam started to tap this spring at its source to quench Mussoorie’s growing thirst. In return, the Jal Nigam agreed to lay pipes from Dhobighat’s drinking water source (another spring located some distance away from Dhobighat) and install community water taps at five points within the settlement. All water charges and water tax were waived off for the community. The dhobis’ initial reluctance to permit the Jal Nigam’s access was based on concerns that the water in the stream would be reduced and detrimentally affect their use of the khad and their livelihoods. This fear has not been realised; instead, the pipes that brought in another spring-based water connection brought better quality water in greater quantities, which enabled many people to use washing machines, to setup their own workstations with wash pens, washing machines and electric dryers, right next to their homes. However, the dependence on the khad reduced.
Most dhobis are still entirely dependent on the stream. However, there are complex dynamics taking place within the community along the banks of the up- and down- stream of the khad that reflect differences in perceived responsibilities for the long-term maintenance and care for the quality of the water stream. These relationships are well demonstrated through the prism of plastic.
Consumerism has slowly but surely ensconced itself into our lifestyles: all good things these days seem to come in plastic packaging. Mussoorie’s once pristine green hills and mountains are now littered with plastic waste. In Dhobighat, the water in the stream was once considered pure enough to drink. In fact, it was considered pure enough to carry out the ritualistic wuzu before namaz. Now, in addition to the detergents and chemicals that flow down with the water, there are also plastic bags full of garbage that get settled at different points in the stream’s uneven bed.
Dhobighat’s upstream houses blame the downstream for the poor upkeep of the stream, accusing them of throwing the garbage. This is strongly contested by families in the downstream, where a woman recalled her feeling of revulsion when a used sanitary napkin flowed past her while she was washing utensils in the stream, “That obviously came from upstream.”. She stressed the benefits of collective effort to clean the stream from time to time, but also noted that such efforts are entirely missing from Dhobighat. “An outsider will first notice the cleanliness of our area, not who is rich and who isn’t. We’re so many in number. Why does nobody want to help out in cleaning the khad?” she asked.
The children of these dhobis do not seem to wish to continue their family washing businesses. Education is their passport out of Dhobhighat, and a lot of them have moved to the cities or overseas for work. Clearly for them, the water in the stream will not hold the same importance as it did for their parents. For the younger kids, the water collection points built recently by the Jal Nigam serve as a play pool, where they can cool off during the hot summers.
The summer temperature in Mussoorie has been rising, as have temperatures around the globe. Precipitation patterns are changing. According to the dhobis, 2014 was a good year for them because warmer temperatures gave them business all year round. But less snowfall during the winter could mean less discharge from the spring. A man in his 80s, whose house is centrally located, said that earlier he could hear the sound of the stream even at his house, but not anymore. Thus erratic weather pattern is a threat to their livelihood, especially since the summer season is the peak tourist season. Springs are also threatened by the dumping of construction debris onto them; numerous khads have ceased due to this activity. Immediately next to Dhobighat, two new buildings are being built. Will that add to the deteriorating condition of the stream? It is possible.
Dhobighat has surely kept up with the times. It has adapted itself to new technology, new lifestyles, new aspirations, but somewhere along the way, the community appears to have changed the nature of its relationship with ‘their’ water. They call it ‘hamara paani’ (our water), but have moved on from being conservationists traditionally to mere appropriators, much as we all have.
 “It is nature’s gift to us that there is water all around”.