The Water Mafia of Mumbai

Story by Jake Kearnan

“Informal systems deliver”. The three words hang in the air in Sulakshana Mahajan’s comfortable living room. It is clear that Mahajan, an Urban City Planner with an impressive track-record in Mumbai, is a pragmatist. 

Her description of the lucrative black market for water in Mumbai, orchestrated by the so-called water mafia, sums-up the dilemma many Mumbaikars faces. With just three short words she brings into sharp focus the corruption of government officials colluding with the illegal tanker operators and profiteers in Mumbai’s water black-market. 

Water is big business in Mumbai, and the water mafia are at the centre of it.

Mahajan explains how the water mafia exploit the vulnerability of people in a city, where obtaining a few buckets of clean water is a luxury for some. But, she is quick to point out that while the water mafia may be opportunists and petty thieves, they are also a lifeline to thousands of Mumbaikars unable to secure a reliable water supply by other means. 

In a city where council water supply is unreliable, everyone from slum dwellers to the millions who live in the multi-storey apartment blocks that mushroom around the city, rely on the thriving unofficial water industry.

But Mahajan explains the term ‘water mafia’ is particularly tricky. 

The epithet popularised by the news media refers to disparate groups of independent operators who illegally obtain and supply water to meet the ever-growing demand. 

From water tanker operators who steal water from council pipelines and local hoodlums and slumlords who control water distribution at the poorer end of town, to ‘legitimate’ water suppliers who are accused of profiteering from the city’s water shortages – the water mafia is broad church. 

Laxman Gole is a short, well-groomed man with a smile that could light up a room. It is hard to reconcile the idea that the well-spoken Gole comes with an extensive, and rather frightening, criminal resume. He’s a changed man now of course – apparently, reading Mahatma Ghandi’s biography had such a profound impact on him, that he confessed to his crimes and served prison time.

Among the many crimes that litter his past, Gole was a strong man of the Mumbai water mafia and he says people who buy water from tankers either don’t know or don’t care to know, where their water comes from. 

“Water is a basic necessity so even the people who are buying water are never going to object to it being illegal or legal because they know that if they object to this, they won’t be getting water anytime soon,” Gole says. 

“Everybody has made peace with what is happening because they are getting water and if this system was to be eradicated they would not be getting any water.”

Not all water tankers are illegal. The tankers who purchase water from private sellers who own wells or rain water tanks are legal suppliers. The same is true for companies who have contracts to legally access pipelines that belong to the Brihanmumbai (Greater Mumbai’s) Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Only the tankers that illegally tap into the council pipelines or steal water from private storages and distribute at an inflated price, can truly be considered the water mafia.

It is impossible to understand the water mafia without understanding Mumbai ¬– home to some of the largest slums in the world. According to India’s last census in 2011, a staggering 5.1 million people – almost half of Mumbai city’s 12.5 million population, live in slums. 

Architect and Urban Planning Consultant Sulakshana Mahajan argues the mafia are simply catering to the population’s basic need for water.

“If it were not for the water tanker mafia, there would not be enough water for people residing in slum areas,” Mahajan says.

While the state recognises the tenement of those living in ‘notified’ slums, the city council was not legally bound to provide water supply to ‘non-notified’ slums until 2014, when the Mumbai High-court disentangled the right to water from the property rights of slum dwellers, ruling access to water was a fundamental human right. But five years on, the water supply to non-notified slums is still far from adequate.

This is where the water mafia comes in.

A 2018 audit found the Municipal Corporation was unable to account for 27 per cent of the 3,800 million litres of water used in Mumbai everyday. Referred to as ‘non-revenue water’ the report attributed it to leaks, pipe maintenance, meter errors and illegal tapping. While the audit claims the figure dropped by five percent over the past five years, BMC is still considerably short of its 15 per cent ‘non-revenue water’ target.

While the audit does not specify what percentage of the water was pilfered, Urban Planning Consultant Sulakshana Mahajan says it would be a mistake to count the missing water as a mere leak or a loss.

“…(T)hey aren’t really losses they are gains to those in need,” she says explaining that mafia water is often the only source of clean water to many people at the bottom of the city’s food chain.

But Gole chuckles at the thought of labelling his water mafia actions altruistic. 

“It was a good opportunity for me to make some money,” he says rather dismissively, before conceding that there are those in the water mafia who believe they are doing people a service. 

“One of my friends in the water mafia told me that what he was doing was not a bad task because he is providing water for people who would not have water if they went by the legal ways. At a particular time for one hour, him and his men would sit near the bore wells and people would come with huge buckets and whatever containers they had to fetch water with.”

While the one-time strong man of the water mafia now turned Gandhian, confesses he is a bit rusty on current water mafia practice, Gole believes not much has changed since his days.

 “What would happen in the slum if there were pipelines nearby, is we would drill a hole into the pipeline and cap it and after 9pm we would open the cap and allow the civilians to take water from it and charge accordingly,” Gole explained.

“After a while we realised the drilling holes system wasn’t working so we decided that we would build wells wherever possible, one well would cater to around 100 families so if we charged 100 rupees per family we would make 10,000 rupees and after that we would use that money to employ more people to look after the well and this is how the mafia business started expanding.”

Tata Institutes’ Prof. Medha Somaiya, says there is a vast range of social-justice issues intertwined with water access in the slums, from the ludicrously high cost of water in the black market to the ever-expanding reach of slum lords. 

Prof. Somaiya says part of the issue with Mumbai’s irregular water supply is the low cost of water that results in the rich hoarding water while the poor struggle to secure a few buckets.

Wealthy residents including those who live in housing societies pay about five rupees (10 Australian cents) for a thousand litres of water, whereas some non-notified slum dwellers pay as high as a one rupee for just five litres from water mafia tankers – or what amounts to a staggering 200 rupees (AU$ 4) for the same amount of water, which is 50 times more than the wealthier end of town. 

The renowned sociologist says while people in the notified slums have access to relatively better water supplies they are at the mercy of slumlords.

“They have a political influence – for example, control over ration cards,” she says. 

People living in slums are part of tightly controlled communities, subjected to both formal and informal structures that can be easily manipulated to secure political compliance. 

A number of these schemes including pensions for the elderly, widows, and people with disabilities; and the dispensation of red, yellow and white ration cards that provide access to low cost groceries, are regularly controlled locally by community leaders.

Prof. Somaiya explains that it is common for a local political leader, a Dada, to become a slumlord and extort political compliance in exchange for access to ration cards.

“He is someone who will take responsibility of all those cards … and when someone comes to oppose him… he hold so much power over the people that… he won’t allow it to happen, ,” she explains. 

Prof. Somaiya says the Dada’s ascent to power and journey though the political hierarchy is seen as a normal part of political life in Mumbai. 

“These people will grow and become local leaders like municipal leaders. This is how the hierarchy goes,” Prof Somaiya says, explaining to some extent the entrenched nature of corruption in the city.She says a slum lord or local leader will claim he is the one who is responsible for water being available in his area, but the truth of course is more complicated.

“If you look at the slum as four stages, the slumlord will try and shut off the water at the second stage and then distribute it to stages three and four at a higher price.”

But it is not just the lower end of town that relies on the commercial and even illegal water suppliers, and not all of the water stolen from council pipelines end-up in the slums.

As the water levels in the major supply dams drop before the annual monsoon, sporadic water cuts become a reality of life for many Mumbaikars. Even the wealthiest areas in Mumbai can get as little as two hours of piped water access per day, which is spent filling up the household’s water tanks. Some residents are satisfied with the two hours they get access to, but it depends on the living situation. 

For residents in housing society (apartment) buildings that can be upwards of 20 floors high, two hours of mains water supply is barely enough to get by, as the water pressure drops during the peak filling hours. 

Mumbai Watchdog Foundation co-founder Godfrey Pimenta, says piped municipal water simply does not reach his 17th floor apartment.

“The building has been sanctioned by the corporation. And if the building has been sanctioned by the corporation, is it not the duty of the corporation to supply your municipal water?” the activists asks rhetorically.

As a result, many people like Mr Pimenta, rely heavily on water tankers to supply water daily.Unlike mains water, tanker water is discharged to an underground tank and pumped up to the apartments. 

“I am taking water from the tankers which are supplied by the water mafia, so why is the corporation allowing the construction of more and more buildings if it’s not able to give me the stipulated (BMC mains) water supply?” 

In Mumbai, there are also housing societies that don’t get any access to BMC water due to signed water agreements which puts the responsibility of water supply on the builder’s shoulders. It has long been a common practice in neighbouring Pune.

Since 2001, the Pune Municipal Corporation has abrogated its responsibility for providing water to housing societies in East Pune by using these agreements. Instead property builders take on the responsibility of constructing water storage, but in reality, all that does is delegate the water supply problem to the tankers. 

But the laws around new constructions are slowly changing, and it is now mandatory for new multi-storey buildings in both Mumbai and Pune to harvest and store rainwater.

But Watchdog Foundation’s Godfrey Pimenta is sceptical. “This rain water harvesting is a recent concept because the BMC is trying ways to conserve water, it is a condition of the building permit that the builder has to install water harvesting but this rainwater harvesting… no one is policing it,” Mr Pimenta says. 

Water cuts are part of life in Mumbai when the seven dams that supply potable water to the city are at their lowest – just before the monsoon season. With last years’ July-September monsoon rainfall reaching just 91 per cent of the long-term average, Mumbaikars are again bracing for cuts.

In November, the Municipal Corporation warned water levels in the lakes had dropped to just 76 per cent of capacity, just two months after the annual monsoon. It was a marked reduction from the 92 per cent recorded for the same time last year. 

In December, the BMC confirmed a 10 per cent water cut would be in place until the next monsoon in June 2019.  

Of course critics say Mumbai wouldn’t need to impose water cuts if the municipality provided the infrastructure needed to supply all areas of the city properly and imposed harsh penalties to those who illegally tapped into the city’s water supply.

Drop Dead Foundation founder and prominent water activist Aabid Surti says all the council need to do is fix the loss of more than 1000 million litres of ‘non-revenue water’ every day.

“Last year they had nearly announced that because of the water shortage there would be a 30 per cent cut,” Surti says.“I went and met the commissioner and asked why he wanted to have a 30 per cent cut in the water supply. My argument was that they have 30 per cent of water loss through the leakages, I said if you stop that 30 per cent you don’t have to cut 30 per cent.” 

“But this is their shortcut, this is where they make their money.”

The water mafia is a touchy subject among council officials, and the BMC is reluctant to be drawn in.

The Municipal Corporation’s assistant engineer Anil Kopkar, argues leaks are primarily responsible for the ‘non-revenue water’ the city officials can’t account for.

“The most common causes of leaks are old plumbing,” Kopkar explains. “Water theft used to be a problem but now there is policy in place to reduce theft in slums since December 2016. This policy aims to supply water to every citizen.” 

But those in the know, like Laxman Gole, say there are no signs of the water mafia slowing down.

“It is impossible for the water mafia system to operate if it is not supported by the local politicians, by the police and by the water department. With the water department and the police, they have a system where they would pay monthly bribes,” Mr Gole said.

In a city where corruption has become part of the political fabric, there is little hope for change. Mr Gole explains that local politicians and the police are also paid bribes to turn a blind eye to the water mafia’s tapping of council pipelines. 

Furthermore, Mr Gole says during election campaigns, local politicians target slum dwellers who have poor water supply and make exorbitant water promises they never intend to fulfil. In a world where an empty promise carries more hope than no promise, people vote on the off chance something might change. 

“…(I)f there were 100 houses and every house has five people, it makes a large voter bank,” he says, while noting that it is in the politicians’ best interest not to find a permanent solution to the water problem as it would dry up the source of future political exploitation.

So the vicious cycle of lofty political speeches and unfulfilled promises continues, and so does the stranglehold of the water mafia.

Savita Talwari lives in Ganpat Patil Nagar slum on the north-eastern end of Mumbai. 

It is a non-notified slum that is home to about 50,000 residents. She says there is no shortage of unfulfilled promises in her part of the world.

 “The politicians only come down during election time make promises and then disappear,” Talwari says. “In the last ten years, we have had two politicians come to this area and make promises, but they had no follow through. One politician came this year and built one bathroom, but we are not in a position to use it because it is so dirty.”

Water activist Aabid Surti says there is no shortage of government committees being set up to resolve the water crisis.

“…(B)ut all of the mafia and corrupt government officials are in that committee, so they are not going to do anything.  This has gone on for 15-20 years in these areas, the same fight for water everywhere,”  Surti says.

He claims corruption is rife and says with so many high-ranking ministers at the top of the state’s political food-chain implicated in crime, expecting honesty and integrity when it comes to water promises is foolish.

A February 2018, report released by the Association of Democratic Reform (ADR) claims that 35% of 31 chief ministers had “declared criminal cases against them”. The report claims Bharatiya Janata Party Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had topped the list, accumulating a staggering 22 criminal cases against him. ADR classified three of these case as ‘serious’, which included a charge of “voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means”.

In a glaring example of the connection between money, power and corruption the ADR report also claimed 81% of the 31 chief ministers were millionaires. 

Surti says, the city’s water shortage is a resource scarcity created by these kinds of corrupt officials who work hand-in-glove with the water mafia.

“The right phrase is that this is a daylight robbery,” Surti says. “The tankers belong to the mafia and the mafia is running the government.”

“Even the tankers you see driving along the streets, they don’t announce they are taking water from the supply that is supposed to go to the citizens, they take water secretly from there but they announce they are getting it from private wells,” Surti says. 

Unlike legitimate tanker operators, the water mafia have no supporting paperwork to prove where they get their water from, so even if the police can’t catch them in the act of stealing or selling, they could technically pick illegal operators off by tougher enforcement of water licences.

But Surti says there is no will in officialdom to do so. 

“Who will catch them? The police department are the most corrupt.”

Jake Kearnan is Journalism graduate. (See LinkedIn)

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