HT Investigation: Pune’s water mafia exposed in a Rs 100 crore a year thriving racket
Why are thousands of residents suffering exploitation from the water mafia for their basic right to water? What are the politicians and IAS bureaucrats doing about this? Hindustan Times investigates.Updated: May 19, 2018 14:11 IST
Hindustan Times, Pune
Without any meaningful supervision and control from the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) or the state government in Maharashtra, Pune’s water tanker mafia has been running an unhindered annual business of estimated Rs 100 crore plus.
Unmetered supply by the PMC to water tankers, daily theft of thousands of litres of filtered drinking water from the 10 municipal filling stations and other public sources, cartelisation of water supply rates, harassment of housing societies which try to fight exploitation by water tanker operators, destruction of CCTV cameras at water-filling stations and refusal to allow GPS/GPRS (general packet radio service) systems to track the movement of water tankers are the ways in which the business has acquired the dimensions of a mafia operation.
Such is the firm grip of the water mafia over the city that water tankers have been found to divert supply to bottled water units. Processed municipal water is being used to package 20 litre jars of ‘mineral water’ and sold to commercial establishments and homes at Rs 50-60 each.
Added to this is the ever-expanding dependence on water tankers as newer housing colonies get occupancy certificates every year without municipal water supply. Since 2001, the civic administration has virtually abdicated its responsibility of providing water to housing societies in fringe areas by entering into ‘water affidavit’ agreements with builders. As per these affidavits, the responsibility of supplying water rests with builders who fulfill this by passing on the business to water tankers.
In June 2017, a divisional bench of Bombay high court chief justice Manjula Chellur and justice Nitin Jamdar imposed temporary restrictions on the PMC from sanctioning new projects in the Baner-Balewadi areas or granting occupancy certificates for completed buildings till the water problem was addressed.
“You keep on granting occupation certificates and new people come to reside in these areas, but without proper water supply, and the problem (of water scarcity) keeps escalating,” the judges said.
Their order was in response to a public interest litigation filed by a 28-year-old resident of Balewadi, who took up the cause of acute water shortage in the area.
Now a BJP corporator from Balewadi, Amol Balwadkar said, “Housing societies in Baner-Balewadi alone were spending between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore on water tankers and 20 litre jars of bottled water. At the root of this problem was the undertaking (water affidavit) sought by the PMC from builders that the latter will be responsible for water supply.”
In interviews to HT, well-informed sources, including civic officials and citizen-activists such as SCN Jatar, Vijay Kumbhar, Vivek Velankar and Vishwas Sahastrabuddhe, were unanimous in their view that none of this would have been possible without a nexus between the water tanker operators, builders, politicians and the civic staff.
With each tanker carrying an average of 10,000 litres, VG Kulkarni, head of PMC water supply department, told HT that the number of water tanker trips per year had risen by almost 60,000 over the last five years. From 1.42 lakh trips in 2012-13 to 1.98 lakh trips in 2017-18.
The figure is bound to shoot up with the merging of 34 villages in PMC jurisdiction and the daily requirement for tanker supply from densely populated areas like Ahmednagar road, Kharadi, Vimannagar, Kondhwa, Undri, Hinjewadi and Wakad among others.
While the PMC water supply department has roughly estimated that about 700 water tankers were plying in the city, Kumbhar suggested that the number in Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad could be as high as 3,000. The others did not have an estimate in the absence of real data.
While representatives of the loosely formed association of private water tankers declined to comment, the regional transport office (RTO) said a total of 4,992 tankers of all kinds were registered in Pune (3,407) and Pimpri-Chinchwad (1,585). The RTO, however, did not have the number of water tankers plying in the city.
Tanker loads of water in capacities ranging from 8,000 litres to 12,000 litres are being sold at rates ranging from Rs 1,200 (housing colonies) to Rs 2,500 (builders and industry). Non-potable water drawn from private wells and borewells sells for about Rs 800 per tanker. This water is either being purchased from municipal sources at Rs 300-400, private wells and borewells (Rs 150) or tapped illegally from civic water supply points.
In the absence of data and estimates with the PMC, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the water mafia runs an annual business of Rs 100 crore and more.
Over the past many years, IAS officials heading the Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporations, Pune divisional commissionerate and bodies such as the Pune metropolitan regional development authority (PMRDA) have failed to take decisive action or introduce foolproof systems to rein in the water tanker mafia and prevent the exploitation of the residents of Pune.
In July 2014, the PMC withdrew its order for mandatory installation of GPS/GPRS system in water tankers in the city after stiff opposition from tanker operators in the city. City engineer Prashant Waghmare had then said, “The PMC does not want to create any inconvenience to citizens during this hour of crisis. We have decided to give more time to tanker owners to install tracking system in tankers.”
About this episode, Kumbhar said, “This was a very strange spectacle wherein political representatives in the civic body failed to act decisively against the water tanker mafia.”
After two failed attempts in the past, PMC’s newly appointed municipal commissioner Saurabh Rao announced last month that 100 water tankers would be brought under the GPRS system by the PMC IT department.
The fact is that the big tanker operators in the city already have sophisticated GPRS tracking systems installed in their fleets to enable the owners to monitor their movement. They, however, do not want to extend this to the PMC and bring in transparency.
“Housing societies in Baner-Balewadi alone were spending between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore on water tankers and 20 litre jars of bottled water. At the root of this problem was the undertaking (water affidavit) sought by the PMC from builders that the latter will be responsible for water supply.”
- Amol Balwadkar, who filed a PIL against the PMC on the water issue
Water tankers: Booming business
The number of water tanker trips per year had risen by almost 60,000 over the last five years. From 1.42 lakh trips in 2012-13 to 1.98 lakh trips in 2017-18.
- VG Kulkarni, head, water supply department, Pune Municipal Corporation
PMC’s collusion with builders led to inequitable water distribution
Noted water expert Madhav Chitale recently observed that Pune’s per capita consumption of water per day stood at 200-250 litres which is almost twice the national norm for urban residents at 100-135 litres. Why then are people thirsting for water in many localities? The problem lies in poor planning by the Pune Municipal Corporation which allowed rapid urbanisation in the fringe areas of the city in collusion with builders without providing basic infrastructure such as water supply.
TOMORROW: What’s going on at PMC’s water tanker filling stations?
First Published: May 19, 2018 14:09 IST