It is that time of the year again when taps run dry and water tankers become omnipresent. This year has been all the more promising, what with back-to-back droughts crippling the State and reservoir levels plummeting.
But from where do private tankers get water? It turns out that some of them are tapping into groundwater from borewells drilled illegally in public places, including footpaths and parks.
This was the revelation the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) woke up to recently, prompting Commissioner N. Manjunath Prasad to issue an internal circular telling zonal officials to keep an eye out for such activities. In the circular, a copy of which is with The Hindu , he has directed officials concerned to submit daily reports to their higher-ups and initiate criminal cases for violations.
‘No commercial borewells’
Interestingly, an RTI query revealed that the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) had not given permission for drilling any commercial borewell. “In that case, every borewell not being used for domestic purposes is illegal,” pointed out social entrepreneur Anil Shetty, adding that the BWSSB has 69 water tankers. “The remaining 3,000 to 4,000 water tankers, with an annual turnover of around ₹1,000 crore, are illegal,” he argues.
Mr. Shetty mentioned that while the BWSSB had categorically said the BBMP is the authority issuing trade licences to water tankers, the palike is yet to reply to an RTI query on the number of such licenses issued in a few wards.
According to the BBMP, core city zones — East, West and South — are covered by the BWSSB network. Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bommanahalli, Dasarahalli and Yelahanka zones are catered to by the BWSSB and the BBMP, which also supplies water to the newly added 100 villages.
Complaints to BBMP
The menace of water tankers making a profit - financially or otherwise - using groundwater from public places was brought to the notice of the BBMP by numerous sources, including councillors, citizens and civic groups. “Borewells are being drilled in public spaces, including footpaths and near parks, and the water is being sold,” said a BBMP official.
The circular mentions that the water is being used for construction of roads, drains, grade separators, flyovers and underpasses, which civic officials have been directed to inspect.
However, long-time observers pointed out that water tankers have always been a highly unregulated business. “What the BBMP is talking about is common practice. Borewells are dug up near lakes and parks. Only now, the State is being forced to look at this practice more closely. The question is why does the government need a crisis or a court order (like in the case of Bellandur lake) to enforce basic norms,” said Kshitij Urs from the People's Campaign for Right to Water.
The fact that the State is inching closer to the Assembly elections is being touted as a factor for the number of water tankers shooting up, as ‘free water supply’ is used as a bait to appease prospective voters.
But social entrepreneur Anil Shetty said it is the job of elected representatives to ensure supply of water, but not free water supply . “Another question is, where are they getting water from if the BWSSB does not have enough?”
An unregulated business
As the BBMP took a step towards tackling one part of the problem - water tankers stealing public water to make a profit - the BWSSB said it could only act against private tankers stealing from its borewells.
“If tankers are taking water from a public place, I don’t think people will remain quiet. But if they are taking water from our borewells, our officers can file cases. But monitoring private tankers is not under our jurisdiction,” said Kemparamaiah, Engineer-In-Chief, BWSSB.
Incidentally, the Karnataka Groundwater Act, 2011, which enabled the establishment of a Groundwater Authority, mentions the Chief Engineer of BWSSB as a member.
Apart from the need to regulate the water tanker business, Kshitij Urs from the People's Campaign for Right to Water also raised the long pending question of the quality of water supplied by private tankers. “There is a question of ethics, administration and public health here. There is absolutely no way of testing the quality of water,” he said.