Exploiting Delhi’s mega water crisis and endangering public health, rackets are running illegal borewells and bottling plants at full blast.
Young men haul pipes onto cartloads of bubbletop jars lining alleys of South Delhi’s Jamia Nagar. The snaking tubes have their ends attached to submersible pumps.
The water that the machines suck from borewells, passes through random filter machines. Welcome to the illegal water plants of the national capital.
With the sun at its peak, the heat blazing and utility taps running dry, a well-oiled mafia steals the resource deep from the ground and sells it across the parched city in spurious packages, an India Today TV investigation has found.
Official data suggest that Delhi is facing a crippling shortage of 300 MGD (million gallons a day) of drinking water this summer. This is because the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is supplying 900 MGD of water, against a peak demand of 1,200 MGD, resulting in a massive shortage and a widespread public outcry.
Those lucky to get some water in this scorching heat complain of sewage in the taps. DJB’s tanker supplies are falling hopelessly short, triggering clashes and allowing the water mafia to thrive even more. In the congested enclaves of Jamia Nagar, syndicates are bridging the gap through withdrawals of depleting groundwater.
Delhi has tens of thousands of borewells, mostly illegal, run by the water mafia. Authorities have failed to take effective action against those running them, despite repeated court orders. Borewells have pushed groundwater levels to dangerous depths. Delhi is the third most overexploited groundwater state in India after Punjab and Rajasthan, the Centre has informed Parliament.
It said that 56 per cent of Delhi’s aquifers were overexploited. Levels at some places in south and south-west Delhi have gone 20 to 30 metres below the ground level, according to the Aaam Aadmi Party government’s economic survey. The water is not fit for human consumption, the survey also said. NITI Aayog has also said that 21 cities including Delhi will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.
Worse, the treatment is substandard, with no safety certifications for water-filtering equipment, India Today TV’s probe found. DJB’s supplies come mostly from canals carrying river waters. The rest of the supplies come from ranney wells and tubewells. But this water is properly purified, not in the case of the illegal business.
While plastic containers are sent and taken back by water companies, ‘water gangs’ access these at several points in the supply and distribution chain, sometimes in connivance with staffers of bottled water companies. Some also buy used jars of trusted brands from scrap dealers for Rs 8-10 a piece.
These are then cleaned, refilled with untreated water, affixed with fake labels, seals, caps and thereafter put back in the market – to be sold for as much as Rs 70 a jar at weddings, seminars, offices, houses, hotels, restaurants and parties.
Drinking such water causes gastrointestinal ailments such as anemia, diarrhoea and viral hepatitis. “We see a lot of cases with patients complaining worm infestation which are caused only by polluted water,” said Manish Nigam, a senior doctor with RML Hospital.
Enormous quantities go waste, but the business is profitable, India Today TV’s investigation found. Altamas, owner of an illegal plant in Jamia Nagar, explained the low-cost model. He spent Rs 1.8 lakh in all to set up the unit.
“What is the capacity? How much does it deliver?” the reporter asked. “The output is 1,000 litres of water in an hour,” Altamas replied. He confessed that the illegal unit like his steals electricity to cut down on operational costs.
“If you run it legally, the power bill goes up to Rs 20,000 a month,” he said. “But we just pay Rs 1,000-1,500 to whosoever supplies the stolen electricity (in the area),” Altamas admitted.
In another lane of Jamia Nagar, workers were found digging borewells in a brazen defiance of restrictions on groundwater extraction.
Lalit, who manages a team of diggers, claimed that he’d pay Rs 2,000-3,000 per borewell in bribes to authorities to look the other way.
A UBS Group AG report, citing information from the World Resources Institute, put the Indian capital on the list of cities vulnerable to a similar water crisis after South Africa’s Cape Town came within 90 days of Day Zero in 2018, when the local government would have turned off the taps.
The Capetonian phenomenon, the analysts said, should serve as a warning to New Delhi, Hyderabad, Beijing, Jakarta, Singapore, Sydney, Brussels, Rome, San Francisco and the Manhattan area in the US
The South African coastal metropolis narrowly evaded Day Zero through a combination of water conservation measures and seasonal rains.
Water was one of the issues that helped Aam Aadmi Party sweep the Assembly elections in 2015. So there is also an intense blame-game politics over the issue.