NEW DELHI — The Indian army on Monday wrested control of a canal outside India’s capital from protesters whose blockades and rioting had cut off water in millions of homes for a third straight day.
The unrest was led by a privileged group in India’s society, still stratified by its ancient caste system. The group of farm owners, the Jats, wants to be included in a government classification for the socially disadvantaged that would give its members access to reserved seats for government jobs and schools.
Schools and businesses across the capital region were closed Monday after days of rioting paralyzed the nearby state of Haryana, leaving a dozen dead and more than 100 injured.
Over the past week, protesters had destroyed businesses and homes, blocked roads, forced the cancellation of more than 1,000 trains and left travelers stranded.
The violence prompted curfews in eight districts, including the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, home to many multinational corporations, some of which closed down or let employees telecommute.
In Delhi, tanker trucks delivered water to the hardest-hit areas, and officials called for conservation. The army’s seizure of the canal should enable the city to restore service, officials said.
“They are essentially a farming class, and agriculture is suffering. That’s why they are asking for this reservation in jobs, so they can survive,” said Nawal Singh, 60, a Jat who protested in solidarity with others by blocking an intersection in his home town last week. Singh is a retired banker who owns a five-bedroom house and drives a new Honda sedan.
India has long reserved special seats in universities and government jobs for tribal communities and Dalits, the Hindi term for the group once called “untouchables.” Those set-asides were later expanded to include some socially disadvantaged castes, a designation called “Other Backward Classes.”
The Jats — who dominate politics and village life in Haryana — had long lobbied to be included in this second category, despite their history. “Yes, we are in charge, but it’s not about the past — it’s about the future,” Singh said. “Of course we were the main landholders in the state, but land is shrinking, land has been divided. If a family has a small plot of land, it’s very hard for them to survive.”
Last year, India’s Supreme Court struck down a government plan to include Jats in the reservation system, siding with the judgment of a panel that said they could not be classified as “backward” and that doing so would deprive more-deserving groups of benefits.
Last summer, another group of relatively privileged merchants and hoteliers from Gujarat, the Patels, mounted a similar string of agitations.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, after meeting with Jat leaders, said Sunday that a committee would be set up to reexamine the issue, despite the court’s ruling. Some critics accused the government of caving under pressure.
“Is violence the key to everything? You can bring a government to its knees for three days?” said Vivek Vats, 43, who runs a mobile-phone shop in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the city was gripped by what Kapil Mishra, chairman of the Delhi water board, called New Delhi’s “worst-ever water crisis.” Seven water treatment plants were shuttered.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called for the city’s 16 million residents to conserve.
“We’ve completely run out of water,” he tweeted Monday.
Once the army had evicted the protesters from the canal, Delhi officials said, the plants would open and water would be gradually restored in the city starting Monday evening.
Throughout the day in New Delhi, about 140 tanker trucks fanned out to give temporary water to neighborhoods, some of which had been dry since Friday.
“I have not had a bath for three days,” grumbled Akhilesh Maurya, 32, a civil-service student. He said that he and his fellow students were paying double what they normally paid for bottled water and that a street near his home was blocked by protesters. “They should not trouble people with their agitation,” he said. “Common people shouldn’t suffer.”
Farheen Fatima contributed to this report.