Gurugram The water bottle you buy from a vendor on the highway on a hot day, or even the 20-litre bubble top used in homes and offices, might have found its way there after an alarming journey down Gurugram water mafia’s supply chain. The main source of raw material for many of these businesses is illegally extracted groundwater, which is sold off either in tankers (to larger organisations, such as RWAs and commercial complexes), or as misbranded water bottles, which one might unthinkingly purchase from a general store. The origin of these seemingly innocuous purchases is what keeps the city police force, food safety department, GMDA, hydrology department and various other civic agencies on their toes. It is also puts extreme pressure on Gurugram’s fast depleting groundwater reserves, with several thousands of litres being extracted illegally every day. Numerous people engaged in this practice have come under the police scanner in the recent years. In June 2017, the Gurugram police arrested three persons identified as directors of an enterprise, an illegal packaged water supplier operating from the Pataudi Road area, for supplying misbranded packaged water. More recently, in March, two men from Bhondsi—identified as Dharmender alias Bittu, 35, and Sunil Kumar, 42, of Nayagaon, who have previously been booked for assault, threat to life, and excise fraud—were arrested for digging illegal borewells.The enthusiastic and the educatedBefore setting up their own business, they all learnt the trade by working with fellow operators in Delhi and Gurugram. “I had bought two mini trucks for delivering water and I earn around Rs 1 lakh a month,” said Sunny Yadav, a resident of Gadoli village. He also helped his friend start a water purification plant in Samastpur village of Gurugram district, after which he became the prime accused in a spurious water supply case, and was jailed. He is currently out on bail and continues with his old line of business as the case against him drags on in court. “I have sold drinking water at the cost of branded packaged water and the margin is more than double. Customers don’t check manufacturing or expiry dates. But the brand name and stickers should be pasted well. They are easily fooled,” Yadav said.Between 2016 and 2017, the Gurugram crime investigation agencies (CIA) sealed six water supply plants in villages Badshahpur, Sohna, Pataudi and Wazirabad in the district.Besides the enthusiastic, the police said that those running the business also hire professionals with experience who have worked with popular water brands in Delhi-NCR and have complete know-how on how to set up the plant and establish a supply chain. “To turn a profit, the mafia has also been threatening retailers to purchase packaged water from them and not from branded distributors,” assistant commissioner of police (crime) Shamsher Singh said, adding that such water is bottled in highly unhygienic conditions, with no health or safety oversight. Plants mushroom According to the people involved in the business, hundreds of illegal water manufacturing units have come up in city in the last 10 years because of the increasing demand for packed drinking water from residents across the city. “Initially there was one group, who made their friends join the same business and divided the supply areas,” said Virender Singh, another supplier who has been jailed four times in the last four years for his alleged involvement in the spurious water supply chain. “This is the best business one can think of these days; hardly any investment is required. We started with Rs 5,000 to buy stickers, bottles and containers. In the first month we earned Rs 2.5 lakh. Since then we have not switched our business and have established seven plants in the district, mostly in the city’s outskirts,” he said. Singh said the business requires delivery vehicles and manpower. The people involved in this trade said they mostly supply to the condominiums, shops in residential areas, shops located near transport hubs, such as Iffco Chowk, Rajeev Chowk and the railway station.Though the police have busted many gangs in the past, they have failed to curb this menace.Police commissioner Muhammad Akil said, “Our teams have arrested more than 10 gangs involved in spurious water trade, and are keeping check on the illegal bottling plants. We will take prompt action if anyone is found involved in any illegal water trade.”ConsequencesThis illegal extraction of water, officials and activists said, is putting immense strain on the city’s groundwater reserves, which depleted by almost three metres between 2014 to 2018, with an over-extraction rate of 308%, according to data obtained from the agriculture department’s hydrology cell. For comparison, the over-extraction rate for the entire district was 226%, while for Faridabad it was 75%, Palwal 80% and Mewat 85%. “This clearly indicates clearly that Gurugram city is one of the worst-affected areas in the region when it comes to groundwater exploitation. Rapid urban growth and the rising demand for water is to be blamed,” district hydrologist VS Lambha said. According to one estimate by Dr Sultan Singh, head of the Geographic Information System (GIS) at the GMDA and a senior scientist at the Haryana Space Applications Centre (Harsac), a few lakh litres of groundwater is extracted by the private tanker mafia every day. No data, no answersHowever, no survey has been conducted so far by any agency to ascertain the number of borewells in the city or how much groundwater is pumped out by the mafia daily, officials from GMDA and hydrology department said. In 1974, before the city began developing, the water table stood at just 6.6 metres below the ground, indicating an overall decline of more than 82% since. “Over 45 years, Gurugram has seen a steady loss of 0.5 metres of groundwater annually,” Lambha said, emphasizing on the role of human activity. “Urbanisation, development, industries… these things require water, and we are taking it out of the ground,” he said.According to Shashank Shekhar, an assistant professor of geology at the Delhi University, water is one of the first casualties of rapid urban development. “In Gurugram, particularly, real estate development and condominiums continue to be a big drain on this natural resource, using both legal and illegal borewells to feed the lifestyle of a growing population,” he said, adding that the situation is particularly bad in Gurugram as it does not have a major source of surface water, such as a river, so one has to extract it from the earth.A 2011 study by the Centre for Science and Energy stated that there were as many as 30,000 illegal borewells in the city. Subsequently, in 2013, Gurugram was labelled a ‘dark zone’ by the Central Ground Water Authority, prompting the district administration to create a vigilance team of 22 people, which sealed at least 2,423 tube wells in the city between 2013 and 2017. Noting that the conservation of groundwater in Gurugram district was an important issue, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, in an order dated April 9, 2019, directed the district authorities to file a fresh status report on the matter within four weeks. The court gave the directive with reference to a 2008 public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Sunil Singh against the Ministry of Environment and Forests and others on illegal extraction of groundwater through borewells.“Allegations are that on account of illegally dug borewells and use of groundwater, its level has become dangerously low. The day is not far when there would no water available in the ground,” the court order read.