Monday, July 23, 2012

Water Mafia and the City

In Bangalore, it has taken control of the city’s water supply to run an extortionist private supply network
Most of India is fretting over a flop monsoon. In Bangalore, however, some are rejoicing that the rains have failed. They are the city’s dreaded water mafia.

“Water mafia” was recently coined, but it is a term that Bangalore’s residents recognise all too well. In many parts of the city where government water supply has failed, or a scarcity has been deliberately created, a merry coalition of thugs, local politicians and even some water department employees run a parallel and private water supply network that borders on the extortionist.

During the last few summers when the water crisis progressed from bad to acute, the mafia has prospered. This year, the city’s predicament on account of a bad monsoon is dire. In a story that runs parallel to the coal mafia in Bihar and the iron ore mafia in Karnataka-Goa-Andhra, the city’s water mafia is mining a depleting water table unchecked and unregulated.

In Bangalore, the private water supply to water-thirsty neighbourhoods is controlled by water tanker operators backed by the local corporator, the legislator or a powerful politician. In some cases, political patronage is open. In others, patrons operate in the shadows. The mafia has strictly demarcated territories.

This is how it works. Large apartment complexes and big residential communities are prime targets, though the gangs operate with impunity in smaller localities too. First, the state water supply is curtailed or a water connection is never sanctioned to a new building. Then the mafia steps in to supply water with tankers. Once the tanker operator has a foot in, he has a virtual monopoly over pricing and supply. 

Water is becoming a huge revenue source for many of Bangalore’s corporators and legislators who are running the water tanker business either directly or benami, says R.K. Misra, an urban reforms activist and member of the city corporation’s Technical Advisory Committee, and member of ABIDe, Bangalore’s infrastructure taskforce. Misra and his fellow campaigners have been trying to get the government to rein in the water mafia by framing guidelines to regulate borewell digging and streamline the pricing and quality of water supplied. But it has become a monster too big to handle, says Misra. Water is a bigger challenge in Bangalore than in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, says Sangeeta Banerjee, co -founder of, a communication portal for apartments and housing communities in India’s biggest cities. Suppliers are taking advantage of the skewed demand-supply situation and the situation is precarious, she says. In some of the more prosperous communities in Whitefield, a recently developed suburb filled with technology parks, high-rise residential buildings and sprawling gated communities, the mafia is in full control. Residents’ associations are afraid of taking on the thugs.

One such association that spends a few lakh rupees each month on private water tankers says that they have no choice but to agree to a price hike per water tanker every few months. A developer who builds homes for the rich says he had a bad run-in with the mafia, was threatened, and now steers clear. Both spoke only after being guaranteed anonymity.
Sensing this middle-class and upper middle-class acquiescence, the mafia itself has grown bolder. The gangs have expanded to controlling not just the water supply but other essentials, like milk supply, cable TV connections, internet connectivity and newspaper delivery. In many communities, one vendor controls all daily necessities. The bigger gang leaders roam around with a battery security guards. 

One Bangalore citizen who called himself Murali asked on the non-profit, “How do we end the goonda raj of the water mafia in Bangalore?” The irony, he said, is that the mafia extracts underground water in the vicinity of apartments and residential areas and in turn sells them to residents at exorbitant prices. “Why doesn’t the government stop this loot?”

Two years ago, the newspapers were full of reports about a Kargil veteran fighting against the water mafia in Bangalore. The veteran’s wife and children were allegedly threatened by the mafia while the man took shelter within an army unit fearing for his life. The problem has exacerbated because of the lack of political will, explains Misra. The government has abdicated and crooks have stepped in, he says. 

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