As the market becomes competitive, the price of water goes up and there is an outcry to control what is labelled as the ‘water tanker mafia,' writes water expert S. Vishwanath

Come summertime and faced with water shortage, citizens have to depend on water tankers for their needs as borewells dry up and pipeline service becomes erratic. As the market becomes competitive, the price of water goes up and there is an outcry to control the ‘water tanker mafia.' The groundwater bill recently passed in Karnataka also seeks to register all borewells and to charge Rs.5 per kilo-litre for what is called commercial use.

In the small town of Vijayapura not far from Bangalore, the entire population of 35,000 is dependent on 18 borewells. The depths of the borewells have reached 1000 ft. In summer, water supply is erratic and not enough for the demand. The municipality struggles to supply water.

In the same town is a small farmer whose land is now slowly being surrounded by the city. He too has a borewell and is making best use of it by supplying water in the informal market to cater to the city's needs. He has invested around Rs. 7 lakh in the borewell and a storage structure, has a regular electricity connection and pays Rs. 2,000 a month as electricity bill.

Flourishing system

He is happy to retail water, from a small pot to tankers driven by tractors. From 10 litres to 4,000 litres, tankers come and fill themselves up at the borewell. A flourishing system has been created for retailing water to willing consumers in the town. People have rigged up four pots around a bicycle to collect water and sell it to homes, bullock carts have drums rigged to them, tillers have 2,000-litre tankers attached to them which pick up water and, finally, tractors have 4,000-litre tankers which too pick up water from the borewell and give it to consumers.

The market has determined a price which is affordable and there does not seem to be usurious profit. The price for water varies from Rs. 1 per pot to Rs. 25 for a 2,000-litre tank. The people who distribute the water make around Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 3,000 a month.

The informal sector has become very much a part of the solution for water in Vijayapura. It is true that sometimes associations are formed and prices of water raised by the tanker operators but it is equally true that the small-scale informal sector operating on thin margins provides water to people when the State cannot.

As regulations kick in, people will be seen as villains and treated with the iron hand of the State. The challenge is to factor the informal sector into the water solution, protect its rights, and protect consumer rights at the same time. This calls for nuanced regulations.

Our urban drinking water policy must include the informal sector water providers; only then will we find enough and sustainable water for our people at affordable prices. That is water wisdom.

(The author can be reached at zenrainman@gmail.com; www.rainwaterclub.org; Ph: 23641690)

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