Story by Aliza Noor
Petite and lanky, Laxman Gole only occupied the space he needed. He wore a crisp white shirt with a few creases here and there, navy blue pants and a wide belt which seemed to hold him together.
Standing tall in the RK Laxman Hall of Xavier’s Institute of Communications he spilled all the beans on the mafia he was once a part of – Mumbai’s infamous water mafia.
In My Story with Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings.” Gole came across the book while serving time in the Nasik Jail under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999, and it was this quote and this book that Gole credits with changing his life.
It impressed him so much that he pleaded guilty to all 19 charges he was facing including extortion and assault. His admission of guilt and determination to atone for his misdeeds led the judge to reduce his sentence and saw him acquitted of most of the charges. When he was released in 2008 he felt a moral compulsion to inform people about the water mafia and its complexities. His transformation from criminal to model citizen captured the attention of storytellers and his life history has now been immortalised in a 2015 a biographical movie by Faisal Hashmi, and a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Madhavi Tangella. But on this occasion, he is sharing his insider knowledge.
The water mafia traces its origins back to the illegal encroachment of state owned barren land more than three decades ago, which led to the birth of land mafia who sold pigeon-hole sized houses at exorbitant rates to people desperate to find a place in Mumbai city. They quickly realised the potential of tapping into the next basic amenities – electricity and water.
“Brihanmumbai Corporation (BMC) did not supply water to these areas as they were illegal settlements so people drilled holes in the pipelines, covered it and sold water after 9pm at Rs 100, which was still a huge amount back then.”
They also introduced borewells to pump up the supply and before anybody knew it, this created a business opportunity for the poor. Once it started, the water mafia grew bigger and bolder.
Gole unabashedly explains the ways in which Indian institutions have facilitated the water mafia.
“It’s like a chain system. The water mafia could not survive if it were nott supported by local politicians, the police and the water department.”
One major element, he says, is the ‘Hafta’ system; the bribes to the police and the water department. He said politicians know that a hundred houses are being provided water today, makes for a large vote bank tomorrow, so they are reluctant to intervene.
He also sheds light on the vested interests of the builder’s lobby and local shopkeepers. A lack of proper water supply proved beneficial for the latter as demand for bottled water increased. The builders meanwhile made money from digging borewells and supplying water from them. If they charged Rs 100 from 80 houses in the area, they earned Rs 80,000 per month.
“The builders usually give excuses that they have filed requests and complaints to the BMC but being a government body, it will take time,” Gole explains.
On the surface it might sounds simply opportunistic, but Gole says water supply is a multi-layered and a far more serious problem than most people realise. According to the Times of India, in February, 2018, a water mafia racket was busted in Masjid Bunder and 50,000 litres of water concealed in a slum pocket was found. Gole also noted recent incident two months ago wherein two tankers were caught in Saki Naka, Andheri East only after the public made inquiries and informed the BMC. But Gole says few Mumbaikers know about it, because it failed to get any media coverage.
While the water mafia may have become a lucrative business opportunity for some, Gole says it is important to note that most people get involved with the mafia because of the failures and inefficiencies of other institutions. It leads mafioso to think they are doing a good deed by providing water to the poorest of families.
So, how do you solve a problem when there’s a conflict of perception at the very root of the problem? Gole said that what people overlook are the long term consequences. Consuming untreated and unfiltered water supplied by the mafia leads to various water-borne diseases such as fever, cholera, diarrhoea and even stunted growth. That’s the part that the water mafia and BMC must focus on.
“The public mostly doesn’t object because they think they’ll be deprived of what they have and for them, something is better than nothing,” he says.
He said the water mafia knows exactly what they are doing. They have no policies but they strategise and plan, knowing the repercussions and potential consequences and ways around them. It’s for this reason he also urges residents to question more, to raise their voices, demand better supply.
“There is a notion gaining ground that water may be the reason for a third world war, and we will be doomed if that becomes true,” he says.
The sad fact is we just don’t talk or hear enough about the water mafia even when it’s omnipresent in Mumbai. The last time water mafia received any significant attention was when Bollywood vigilante action film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero hit the cinema last year offering some insight into the water mafia of Mumbai through a mix of fact and fiction.
It seems fitting that Gole should wrap up his storytelling session with a water story from Gandhi. He tells the story of when Gandhi was at Sabarmati Ashram and would go to the Sabarmati River to freshen up every morning but would use only the water that would fill his vessel. His friend mocked him, pointing out that the vast river was available to him. But Gandhi replied that he took only what was enough for him, while the rest of the river belonged to his four million brothers and sisters. Gole said that that is what made Mohandas, a Mahatma.
Gole now works at the Saksham Peace Foundation and his stories illustrate the Gandhian he is. Determined to spread awareness about the water mafia, he is concerned about the plight of the common man who is the worst affected by this complex web. It’s time, he says, for collective voices to demand action from all our institutions. And he’s right. We don’t have time to wait for more Laxman Goles, time to wait for all those other criminal and corrupt opportunists to go through the same transformation.