Saturday, December 26, 2009

Water, Yes, but at 10 times the cost

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

If you ask the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for a tanker of potable water, it is very likely that you have to wait for at least one week. However, if you have some ‘contacts’ in the civic body or are ready to shell out a few thousands over the Rs 601 that the BMC charges for every tanker (11,000 litres), you can get as much water as you want, and some more. For which, you can thank the water mafia, which operates around 10,000 tankers across the city.

And, they have a large clientele to cater to. As for the exorbitant charges, water is too precious a commodity for the 1.8 crore citizens of Mumbai to bother about a few thousand rupees. The metropolis needs tonnes of water, but never gets enough. If we have not witnessed any water war so far, it is because the BMC ensures supply for at least a few hours every day in every part of the the city.

Ask BMC for more water and they will say: ‘shehar mein shortage hai’. But, why doesn’t the mafia encounter this problem? Ever.

Mumbai Mirror carried out an exhaustive investigation to get to the source of the mafia’s inexhaustible supply of water. And, the answer was startling. (November 12, Page 2 and 3)

If you have bought the BMC’s version that water cuts have been imposed as reservoirs are not filled to the brim, consider this - BMC gives away millions of litres of water every day to the tanker mafia, which sells it at 10 times the price you would have paid to the civic body.

Our quest began at the BMC’s A-ward office near Old Custom House at Fort. We sought a tanker of potable water for a film shoot, which comes under ‘commercial purpose’. The officials flatly refused.

“We do not sell water. We provide water tankers only for public meetings and to residential buildings that face a shortage. For the latter, we need a letter from the society and proper permission because there is shortage of water across the city,” said R B Sayyed, assistant engineer in the hydraulic department.

Then, we went to the D-ward office at Nana Chowk and made a similar request to P G Khadge of the hydraulic department. He too refused to supply potable water for ‘commercial purpose’ saying the city faces a shortage. Besides, he said, ‘the shoot is happening in A-ward, which is not in my jurisdiction’.


However, he asked us to call a private tanker operator - Gupta Tanker Water Suppliers - and even gave the owner’s cell phone number. Khadge assured us that Gupta will ‘manage’ a tanker of water.

We went to Gupta’s office, which is a fiveminute walk from the D-ward office, with our request. Gupta replied, “Rs 6,500 per tanker, regardless of the purpose.”

We insisted on water from the BMC and not a tube-well, which gives hard water. Gupta promised that the water would indeed be from the BMC.

We handed over Rs 1,000 as advance and assured that the rest would be paid on the day the water would be required. This was sealed over three recorded conversations with Gupta.

Two days later, we met Gupta again and paid him the balance Rs 5,500. Gupta sent one of his employees with this reporter to the nearest BMC water pump at Nana Chowk. The rule is that only BMC employees can operate its pumps across the city. But, in this case, no civic employee was present at the pump. Gupta’s employee used the pump to fill a tanker, which he handed over to us.

Wandering around the city with a tankerful of water that we did not really need we decided to give the ten thousand litre to the Bennett Coleman and Company guest house at Walkeshwar.

So, citizens may be told that there is a shortage, but if you have deep pockets, you can have any amount of water, whatever the purpose.

To be certain that this was not a one-off incident, we tried another locality - this time at Lokhandwala complex at Andheri (west).

We learnt that tanker water is supplied by a man who everyone calls Yadav. His full name is Vijay Pratap Yadav. We asked for 10 tankers of BMC water for a rain scene to be shot at Film City in Goregaon. We told Yadav that the scene involved A-grade Bollywood actors who would not perform a dance sequence in hard water from a bore-well; they would do it only if fresh BMC water is showered on them.

Yadav agreed to supply the water to us at Film City for our ‘shoot’ and demanded Rs 3,000 for each tanker that he gets from the BMC’s pump at Goregaon or Andheri. We paid him Rs 1,000 as advance. But, the meeting yielded more than just a tanker of water. Yadav, who was more garrulous than Gupta, let in on some details of how the water mafia operates - territories are clearly earmarked; poaching is dangerous to one’s wellbeing.

A water tanker supplier operates in a BMC ward of his choice and will not encroach into another ward whatever be the temptation or amount of money offered.

One water tanker supplier, who did not want to be named, said, “We don’t want to supply water in an area where some other supplier is already operating. We don’t want to fight with each other. We stick to our jurisdiction like the police department.”


Sounds like a sophisticated and organised racket. And, it involves local ward officials, hydraulic department officials, police and corporators. Is it any surprise that no one raises a hue and cry about this obscene loot?

“Ham sab mil baat ke khaate hai, to kisiko aitraz nahi hota [we share the booty to ensure no one has a reason to complain],” said one of the water tanker suppliers who did not wish to be named.

And, what is the amount that these khaate peete log are talking about?

The private supplier will not accept less than Rs 3,000 for a tanker. There are around 10,000 private water tankers across the city. If each one makes just one trip a day, it works out to a turnover of Rs 3 crore.

So, what does the BMC have to say about this racket?

When we spoke to outgoing BMC commissioner Jairaj Phatak about this, he insisted that the BMC’s water department took great care to ensure that the water tanker mafia did not use BMC sources. “Tanker mafias would only exist if there was any water scarcity, what we are experiencing is a little water shortage. There are only a few water filling points for the tankers provided by the BMC, the rest is drawn from private wells.”

As if tanker mafia is not enough... WATER MAFIA IN SLUMS

While water tanker suppliers cater to housing societies in multi-storey buildings, another mafia operates in slums. It is led by slum lords. According to a water tanker supplier, these are local goons who steal water from BMC pipe lines and sell it to slum-dwellers.

“Whenever a BMC official pumps drinking water to a particular area, he calls the slum lords in that locality. These men get ready with electric motors to draw water from the pipe line and fill their drums. They give haftas to local corporators, hydraulic department officials and the police to ensure smooth operations,” the water tanker supplier alleged.
Up to 60 per cent Mumbaikars stay in slums. Hence, the magnitude of the pilferage is massive.

A senior civic official said that the BMC supplies 3200 million litres per day (MLD) against the demand of 3600 MLD. Of this, the BMC says that 20% is lost to leakages. But, sources said, the figure is closer to 30 per cent.

“However, the BMC has no concrete plan to plug leakages,” says a civic official on condition of anonymity.

“On the contrary,” a water tanker operator says, “politicians are busy trying to regularise more illegal slums.”

That’s because these 60 per cent Mumbaikars constitute a huge vote bank.

Civic officials who tried to stop the racket were no match for the mafia.

“Whenever we try to cut unauthorized connections, a mob gathers. Instead of protecting us, cops ask us not to take action saying it will create a law and order problem in the area. What should the BMC do?” an official fumes.

Due to this pilfering, localities at the far end of BMC’s pipe line do not get enough water or the pressure is low. Eventually, people in these localities have to purchase water from the BMC. But, the civic body owns only 24 water tankers, one for each ward. They would not be able to meet the demand. So, citizens have no choice, but to approach private water tanker suppliers.

In the aftermath of the deluge of July 26, 2005, there was no electricity in eastern suburbs for a couple of days. On those days, all localities received sufficient drinking water. “We did not receive a single complaint on these days because the slum lords could not operate their pumps,” a civic official said.

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