At the Mercy of the Water Mafia


Pumping wells in the dark of night, criminal bosses rule the liquid economy in one of the world’s busiest cities. Can anyone stop them?

By Aman Sethi

Down by the sandy banks of the Yamuna River, the men must work quickly. At a little past 12 a.m. one humid night in May, they pull back the black plastic tarp covering three boreholes sunk deep in the ground along the waterway that traces Delhi’s eastern edge. From a shack a few feet away, they then drag thick hoses toward a queue of 20-odd tanker trucks idling quietly with their headlights turned off. The men work in a team: While one man fits a hose’s mouth over a borehole, another clambers atop a truck at the front of the line and shoves the tube’s opposite end into the empty steel cistern attached to the vehicle’s creaky frame.

“On kar!” someone shouts in Hinglish into the darkness; almost instantly, his orders to “switch it on” are obeyed. Diesel generators, housed in nearby sheds, begin to thrum. Submersible pumps, installed in the borehole’s shafts, drone as they disgorge thousands of gallons of groundwater from deep in the earth. The liquid gushes through the hoses and into the trucks’ tanks.

Within 15 minutes, the 2,642-gallon (10,000-liter) containers on the first three rigs are full. The pumps are switched off briefly as drivers move their now-heavy trucks forward and another trio takes their place. The routine is repeated again and again through the night until every tanker is brimming with water.

The full trucks don’t wait around. As the hose team continues its work, drivers nose down a rutted dirt path until they reach a nearby highway. There, they turn on their lights and pick up speed, rushing to sell their bounty. They go to factories and hospitals, malls and hotels, apartments and hutments across this city of 25 million.

Everything about this business is illegal: the boreholes dug without permission, the trucks operating without permits, the water sold without testing or treatment. “Water work is night work,” says a middle-aged neighbor who rents a house near the covert pumping station and requested anonymity. “Bosses arrange buyers, labor fills tankers, the police look the other way, and the muscle makes sure that no one says nothing to nobody.” Tonight, that muscle—burly, bearded, and in tight-fitting T-shirts—has little to do: Sitting near the trucks, the men are absorbed in a game of cards. At dawn, the crew switches off the generators, stows the hoses in the shack from which they came, and places the tarp back over the boreholes. Few traces of the night’s frenetic activity remain.

Teams like this one are ubiquitous in Delhi, where the official water supply falls short of the city’s needs by at least 207 million gallons each day, according to a 2013 audit by the office of the Indian comptroller and auditor general. A quarter of Delhi’s households live without a piped-water connection; most of the rest receive water for only a few hours each day. So residents have come to rely on private truck owners—the most visible strands of a dispersed web of city councilors, farmers, real estate agents, and fixers who source millions of gallons of water each day from illicit boreholes, as well as the city’s leaky pipe network, and sell the liquid for profit.

A man fills a tanker while another drills a borehole at an illegal water-filling point in Delhi.

The entrenched system has a local moniker: the water-tanker mafia. Although the exact number of boreholes created by this network is unknown, in 2001 the figure in Delhi stood at roughly 200,000, according to a government report, while the 2013 audit found that the city loses 60 percent of its water supply to leakages, theft, and a failure to collect revenue. The mafia defends its work as a community service, but there is a much darker picture of Delhi’s subversive water industry: one of a thriving black market populated by small-time freelance agents who are exploiting a fast-depleting common resource and in turn threatening India’s long-term water security.

Groundwater accounts for 85 percent of India’s drinking-water supply, according to a 2010 World Bank report. The country continues to urbanize, however, and a little more than half its territory is now severely water-stressed; more than 100 million Indians live in places with critically polluted water sources, according to India Water Tool 2.0, a local mapping platform. The tanker mafia is only worsening this problem. In 2014, the government reported that nearly three-fourths of Delhi’s underground aquifers were “over-exploited.” This means that boreholes must go deeper and deeper to find water, making it increasingly likely that hoses are sucking up liquid laced with dangerous contaminants. In 2012, the country’s Water Resources Ministry found excess fluoride, iron, and even arsenic in groundwater pockets.

Yet the mafia continues to thrive as the local demand balloons. When boreholes dry up and more drilling leads to nothing, pumping crews just look farther afield, toward or even past Delhi’s borders. This has created a vast extraction zone, where the thirsty metropolis gives way to a parched hinterland. And recognizing a business model that works, the mafia is putting down roots or spawning copycats in other cities and towns.

The government has made some efforts to stop illegal water pumping and sales, but to no avail. Despite what its name suggests, the mafia is not a unified, organized syndicate and thus cannot be eliminated by catching and punishing a few big players. Rather, it is loose, nimble, and adaptable; it routinely outsmarts the authorities whom it isn’t already bribing to allow it to do its work.

The real answer to the tanker mafia is better infrastructure: a correction to several decades’ worth of inequitable development in which public utilities were built for the benefit of the elite, leaving millions of poor to fend for themselves. But the city’s long-neglected and corrupted water system, managed by an agency known as the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), is near the point of collapse. Projections for needed improvements indicate a dauntingly long and expensive process.

It may be too late to cut the mafia off at the knees, much less provide millions of residents with the water they need to survive. Delhi thus offers a painful warning to other countries where water mafias have sprouted up: Bangladesh, Honduras, and Ecuador, to name just a few. “More than anyone else, the DJB and the Delhi government [have been] responsible for the rise of the water mafia,” says Dinesh Mohaniya, a member of the Delhi Legislative Assembly who represents Sangam Vihar, one of Delhi’s poorest neighborhoods, that is a hub for water tankers. “If they had supplied piped water to everyone, why would anyone pay the mafia?”

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