Tanker Mafias Exploit Water Scarcity

In Rajasthan’s Balotra, about 40 kilometres away from the Balotra district headquarters, lies the village of Khardi. The Union government claims on its Jal Shakti ministry’s website that under the Jal Jeevan Mission, every single house in India’s village has access to tap water. 

However, the reality is far from the  government’s claim. Jor Singh, a 28-year-old man  who lives at the far end of the village, complains that he does not receive any water through his connection. 

“Even if the water supply is available for 30 minutes, the figure dips in some houses to just 10 minutes. The pressure is also very low. We don’t depend on tap water and call tankers to meet our daily water requirements,” Singh told Down to Earth (DTE)

Supplying water to far-flung parched villages of Rajasthan has been an ambitious project for successive governments that ruled the state in recent decades. 

The water to Singh’s village is supplied through the offshoot drains of the Indira Gandhi Canal — India’s biggest canal. But there are huge gaps when it comes to providing water to the rural areas by this canal. 

“We require two to three tankers per month, filled from the nearby Chidiyara Talab or private reservoirs. We are paying private reservoir owners almost Rs 500- Rs. 1,000 per tanker,” the 28-year-old told DTE.

Dilip Bidawat, a social activist based in Balotra,  pointed out that influential villagers have installed large motors on the pipeline.This has created bigger holes in it than what is officially allowed.

“The powerful motors drain all the water. Also, since the supply of water is contractual, no action is ever taken against these violators,” Bidawat told DTE.

In Rajasthan, stories similar to Khardi abound across the entire state. 

A chronic water scarcity and the parallel arrangement of tanker mafias is a double whammy for the public in almost every district. The crisis also fuels seasonal migration. In eastern Rajasthan’s Dholpur and Karauli districts, residents of drought-prone areas often migrate to the Chambal riverbank.

Polls took media attention away from water issue

This year, since the summer coincided with the elections in the state and Centre, media coverage of water shortages did not receive as much priority as it typically does on an annual basis. 

Despite the state water resources department spending Rs 70 crore to construct 1,500 tube wells across the state, people still find themselves compelled to purchase water from tanker mafias at unaffordable prices.

In Jaisalmer, potable water from the Indira Gandhi Canal reaches only up to Nachna block. Even here, the quantity and timing of water supply are uncertain. Consequently, people are forced to spend at least Rs 1,000 for a tanker carrying 5,000 litres of water. 

If the village is located 10-15 kilometres away from the water source, this cost can escalate to Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000

When DTE toured the rural pockets of Barmer district, we found that water tankers mostly source water from wells or old reservoirs near the canal. 

Despite most ponds being public or under Panchayats in western Rajasthan, the tanker owners sell the water harvested from the pond, raking in profits. 

People rely on these tankers not only for themselves but also to keep their livestock alive, as there is no separate provision of drinking water for them. Interestingly, as per the 20th Livestock Census which was released in 2019, Rajasthan has the second highest livestock population in the country with a population of 56.8 million animals — next only to Uttar Pradesh’s 67.8 million population.

Nobody to regulate tanker owners

In state capital Jaipur’s Sumer Nagar, DTE spoke with Kailash Mali, who supplies water through tankers. He said he has been in the tanker water supply business for nearly a decade and has been using borewells installed at his home. 

Mali owns two tankers with a capacity of 5,000 litres each.

“If the water tanker is ordered from within Sumer Nagar, I charge between Rs 400-500. If the demand is from outside of my locality, the price can go up to Rs 700-Rs 1,000.  I don’t hold any licence and I haven’t sought any permission from any government department,” he said.

When DTE sought an official response from Rakesh Luhadia, chief engineer (urban) of the PHED department in Jaipur, he informed that there is no legal framework under which private tanker suppliers operate. “There is no authority that grants them permission to sell water,”Luhadia said.

DTE also contacted Seema Gupta, chief chemist of the PHED department. 

She mentioned that the department takes samples periodically upon receiving prior complaints. However, upon investigation, it was found that the department takes more samples from those suppliers who have government contracts for water supply.

This again raises questions about the issue of private tanker suppliers. DTE reached out to the state ground water department for an answer.

As per MS Rathore, regional director of Central Ground Water Board’s western region, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) issues no objection certificates (NOCs) to bulk water suppliers. Guidelines have also been issued by the authority. However, while the authority has urged the state government to formulate its own guidelines, there are currently no guidelines for bulk water suppliers or tanker suppliers in Rajasthan.

This reporter found that none of the tanker operators adhere to the CGWA guidelines. In Jaipur city alone, thousands of tanker operators draw water from hundreds of borewells and sell it. They neither have any NOC nor any system to measure the purity of this water.

According to the guidelines, structures should be equipped with tamper-proof digital flow metres with telemetry. Flow metres should be calibrated once a year by an authorised agency. Water should only be used for drinking/domestic purposes. Additionally, the area where the borewell is installed should be at least 200 square metres. Furthermore, the tanker operator must possess a groundwater quality certificate.

Contrary to these guidelines, tanker operators supply this water to factories as well. They do not own any land and do not have any arrangements to measure water purity.

Only 38 of 299 blocks have secure groundwater levels

Due to excessive groundwater extraction, the groundwater crisis in Rajasthan has reached a critical state. Of the state’s 299 blocks, only 30 (12 per cent) remain safe. The rest 88 per cent of the blocks are categorised as critical, semi-critical, or over-exploited. 

Also, over the past three decades, groundwater extraction has increased by up to 114 per cent. In 2023, Rajasthan witnessed a groundwater extraction rate of 149 per cent, significantly higher than the 35 per cent recorded in 1984. Subsequent years saw further increases: 58 per  cent in 1995, 125 per cent in 2004, 139 per cent in 2013, and 150 per cent in 2020.

The major reasons for the depletion of groundwater include inadequate conservation of rainwater and parallel illegal arrangements for water supply such as the tanker mafia.

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