Story by Navashree Nandini
In February 2018, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) busted a water tanker racket in Masjid Bunder. Officials say the local mafia were selling water at 300 rupees per tanker.
In October 2018, about 5000 residents from the Evershine Global City Complex in Vasai-Virar region took to the streets claiming the water mafia and poor facilities had caused water shortages in their area, and residents claimed any water they had received was unfit to drink.
A month later another group of residents from Colaba made headlines protesting against water shortages at Azad Maidan.
News about water supply is common in Mumbai.
According to a 2011 census, Mumbai has a population of around 20 million, or as it is described in India – two crore. And based on data compiled by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) it uses 3800 million litres of water per day (ML/D) from six major water sources – Modak Sagar, Tansa, Vehar, Bhatsa, Tulsi and Middle Vaitarna and Upper Vaitarna. That amounts to a rather reasonable 190 litres per person per day.
But that water is rarely distributed equitably and flaws in the system are difficult to ignore. The affluent, notably those in South Mumbai which has the lowest population, gets the highest supply of water while the suburbs with a population of around nine million significantly less.
Meanwhile on the other end of town, on the edge of the Modak Sagar Dam, farming communities struggle to access any water.
Santosh Jagtap, a farmer from the state’s interior in Latur says one of the key reasons for the ongoing water shortage is the government’s inability to manage water supply for irrigation and drinking.
While the reservoir supervisor BR Jadhav claims water is available to villages near the dam through pipelines, the reality is men and women from Palshin village must travel more than four kilometres daily, often on foot or by bullock cart, to fetch water from a borewell. Once there, the women pay 10 rupees per pot and those carrying cart-drawn tanks pay 250 rupees per tank – often on-selling the water to villagers at 50 rupees per litre.
Villagers from Shahapur Taluka also travel up to five hours to fetch water for their households. They say they are only allowed to take one pot at a time, and because that is not enough, they must make the journey again in the evening for more.
The other community which has long struggled for any kind of official water access is the poor living in non-sanctioned slums in Mumbai city itself. In the past, BMC had no obligation to provide water to these ‘illegal’ tenements, making them soft targets for black-market water sellers.
In 2014, a Mumbai High Court ruling declared access to water a human right in line with UN declarations. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognised every person’s right to safe, clean water and sanitation, a position consolidated in 2012 the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.
Despite the acknowledgement both domestically and internationally however, access to water is still hard to come by in some communities without the intervention of blackmarket water suppliers.
Former water black-marketeer Laxman Gole, explains it is common practice for the water mafia to drill into a pipeline and fix borewells to get water to sell to waterless communities.
Along with the land and electricity mafia, Mumbai’s water mafia began back in 1970s and 1980s. Gole claims it is now only present in a few pockets like Karjat, Badlapur Ulhasnagar, Ambernath, but says is still an important dhanda (business).
Furthermore, Gole says the city’s builder lobby in Ulhasnagar directly draws water from the river for construction work and has a sideline providing water to local water suppliers who in turn charge and distribute to residents who live in buildings where there is no regular water supply.