NEW DELHI— On a recent afternoon, as an intense stench rose from a carcass dump, a group of women pushed, shoved, and threw expletives at each other outside a temple in Sangam Vihar on the southern edge of Delhi. The women, carrying a few plastic buckets and empty jerry cans, were fighting to get a place in a line for the water pump inside the temple.
Sangam Vihar is a crowded maze of modest single and double-storied brick homes housing about a million people, mostly workers in the unorganized economy. It is the largest unauthorized urban settlement in Asia.
“Everyday 500 people line up to fill water from this tap. On some days close to a 1,000 people line up,” said Nandini Tiwari, the temple priest’s wife. “Women have cracked each other’s skulls over water outside the temple.”
Women in the line for water outside the temple complained that the water taps in their houses run dry for weeks at times.
Delhi gets water from the Ganges, from the rivers and dams in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. “Its gets more water per capita than Paris and Geneva. It has a good network of ranney wells that use its shrinking yet rich supply of ground water. It has decent rainfall and rich water bodies,” said Himanshu Thakkar, a water expert with the advocacy group, South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Delhi has a population of 17 million and requires 1.025 billion gallons of water a day, according to Delhi government statistics. Six water treatment plants run by the government produce 818 million gallons of water a day. These official estimates suggest that Delhi faces a shortage of 207 million gallons of water a day.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the official auditor of India’s public sector describing the water supply to various neighborhoods in Delhi shows how a neighborhood’s location on the pyramid of wealth and influence decides its access to water.
A water plant in southwestern Delhi’s Nangloi Jat area produces 40 million gallons of water a day and serves 2.5 million people in western and southwestern areas of Delhi. The report calculated that every person in the area served would get 77 liters of water a day, but its report found out that 1.5 million people in the area served by the Nangloi water plant got less than 50 liters of water a day.
The auditor’s report shows that the Nangloi Jat area got 225 liters per person every day, while people in poorer villages without political power and wealth, a few miles from Nangloi Jat, got a meager 3.36 liters of water per person a day. It is not a coincidence, since 14 out of the 70 lawmakers in Delhi state assembly come from the influential landed Jat community, which dominates the Nangloi Jat area.
“The Delhi Jal Board neither has a proper measurement system to measure water supplied to different areas nor reliable data about the population in different areas to ensure equitable supply of water,” the April report noted.
The Delhi government does not provide piped water in most of the unauthorized urban settlements like Sangam Vihar. Instead, the government has dug 118 borewells in Sangam Vihar from where the residents have to draw water. Many have dried out due to over-exploitation over the years.
Workers of various political parties double up as contractors and lay water pipes connecting the borewell to people’s houses throughout Sangam Vihar. They charge between 50 rupees ($0.79) to 500 rupees ($7.9) from each household for the service.
“We get water once in 15 days,” said Gurmeet Kaur, a housewife in the area. She raised a steel trapdoor beneath her kitchen floor to reveal a 4000-liter underground tank. When the water runs out, Mrs. Kaur and her neighbors depend on private suppliers, who deliver water in truck-sized tankers, which cost 1,500 rupees ($23.71) in winter and 3,000 rupees ($47.41) in summer.
“Every family here has been given a voter identity card by the government,” said Anuj Porwal, a student-activist in Sangam Vihar. “But no one has been given water supply.”
Activists like Mr. Porwal allege that businessmen working with the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party [B.J.P.] run the private water supply operations through tankers.
“Out of the one million people here, 70 percent live in an area of three square kilometers. The ground water level has fallen drastically because of overuse and it is not possible to provide tube well water for everyone,” said S.C.L. Gupta, the current lawmaker from Sangam Vihar, who is from the B.J.P.
Mr. Gupta denies his party workers being part of a “water tanker mafia.”
“I formed eleven committees of around two to three people each. They go to every house and collect 50 rupees for ensuring water is supplied to them,” Mr. Gupta said. “I know this is not perfectly legal.”
The comptroller’s report estimated around 4 million people in Delhi do not have piped water supply and rely on tanker water. The Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi government body overseeing the distribution of water in the city, runs 250 water tankers itself and has partially outsourced the supply of water through tankers to three private corporations.
According to the government rules, if a citizen without access to water calls an emergency number of the Delhi Jal Board, it is mandatory for the water board to send a tanker in response within three hours. The phone lines for water tanker supply at the board are eternally clogged and it has created a lucrative business of illegally supplying water to Delhi. An operation of hundreds of unauthorized water tankers serving the city has resulted in it being labeled as the “tankermafia.”
Ramanand Sharma is arguably one of the “tanker kings” of New Delhi. Mr. Sharma, who runs a private water supply company, Keshav Water Suppliers, out of Kotla Mubarakpur area in south Delhi, serves the posh neighborhoods of the city. He refused to divulge the scale of his operations because his work is unauthorized.
Mr. Sharma entered the business in 2011 and was pleasantly surprised to find it very lucrative. He charges 3,000 rupees ($47.41) for a 5,000-liter tanker in upper middle-class areas, whose residents are willing to pay higher prices for urgent delivery.
“We draw water from outside Delhi, mostly farmhouses in Mehrauli, Najafgarh and Faridabad,” said Mr. Sharma. “The police often intercept my tankers. I settle the matter by paying them between 10,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees. The risks are there. But a business is a business, whatever it takes to run it.”
The business of unauthorized supply of water through private tankers in Delhi is worth millions of dollars. “These tankers exploit 300 to 500 million gallons a day (MGD) of water from private tube wells in the city. Since no one has done a systemic study on this network and the Delhi Jal Board is unaccountable to the people, the mafia works unhindered,” said Mr. Thakkar, the activist.
The Delhi government pumps out 818 million gallons of water a day. According to the Indian government auditor, the Delhi Jal Board has installed water meters, which record water usage and bill the customers, only for 37 percent of the water pumped into the city’s water pipes.
Nobody knows who uses the remaining 63 percent of Delhi’s water. According to the comptroller’s office, the failure to record and bill almost two-third of Delhi’s portable, treated water causes annual losses of about $330 million. Between 2009 and 2012, the auditor calculated the losses to be 4,000 rupee crores or roughly $1 billion.
Even if the tanker mafia diverts a fraction of this unrecorded, unbilled water into their business, the black market for water in Delhi would amount to millions of dollars annually.
The tanker mafia succeeds because it fills the vacuum created by the Delhi government’s inability to provide an essential resource to its citizens.
“This tanker mafia is running right under the nose of the Congress government,” said Vijay Goel, the Delhi president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “We have raised these issues time and again but nothing changes.”