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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Water commerce ~ who owns and who trades : Marthwada crisis


Sure you have read my earlier post on Tukaram Kolekar  who accomplished a feat the state government could not imagine - provide water to 900 people in his village Shrungarwadi.  At a time when the rest of Marathwada is facing severe water crisis leading to exodus from villages, Shrungarwadi residents are getting potable water at their doorstep, free of cost.

Factually, over  3,900 villages in the state of Maharashtra  have been declared drought-hit . The worst affected districts are Nashik, Solapur and those in Marathwada and western Vidarbha, which saw less than 10% of the expected rainfall last year.  Sad is the report that thousands of villagers  from drought-hit villages are making a beeline towards  Mumbai and its extended suburbs; they sleep on street corners, take a bath under the cover of darkness and take turns to cook.  Back home, more than five lakh residents in Jalna district in Marathwada are living a "curse" that threatens to worsen as the mercury soars. A failed monsoon has wreaked havoc not only on the lives of farmers, but also for ordinary citizens who have been deprived of services such as healthcare due to the water crisis.  The situation is grim and similar in over 12,000 villages in 16 districts of Maharashtra are in severe grip of water scarcity and that includes the whole of Marathwada region. Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed and Osmanabad are facing the worst crisis.

While an ordinary man played good Samaritan, most others are making the crisis a business for making money is the sad part of the story.  When the town is in dumps, the water markets (!) are booming.  A report in The Hindu states that in the town of Jalna alone, tanker owners transact between Rs.6 million and Rs.7.5 million in water sales each day. Thirst is Marathwada’s greatest crop this season. Forget sugarcane. Thirst, human and industrial, eclipses anything else. Those harvesting it reap tens of millions of rupees each day across the region. The van loads of dried-out cane you see on the roads could end up at cattle camps as fodder. The countless “tankers” you see on the same roads are making it to the towns, villages and industries for profit. Water markets are the biggest things around. Tankers are their symbol.

Thousands of them criss-cross Marathwada daily, collecting, transporting and selling water. Those contracted by the government are a minority and some of them exist only on paper. It’s the privately-operated ones that are crucial to rapidly expanding water markets. MLAs and Corporators-turned-contractors and contractors-turned-Corporators and MLAs are vital to the tanker economy. Bureaucrats, too. Many own tankers directly or benami.

Water commerce : So what is a tanker? Really, just sheets of mild steel plate rolled into big drums. A 10,000-litre water tanker consists of three sheets of 5 ft x 18 ft, each weighing 198 kilograms. The rolled drums are welded together. These can be carried by trucks, lorries and other large vehicles, mounted on them in different ways. Smaller carriers transport cylinders of lower capacity. A 5,000 litre container can go onto the trailer of a big van. It comes all the way down to 1,000 and 500-litre drums that move on mini-tractors, opened-up auto rickshaws and bullock carts.

As the water crisis deepens, hundreds of these are fabricated across the State each day. In Jalna town of Jalna district, there are about 1,200 tankers, trucks, tractors, auto rickshaws flitting about with containers of different sizes. They shuttle between their water sources and desperate sections of the public. The drivers bargain with clients on cell phones. However, the largest amount of water goes to industries that buy in bulk. “The tanker owners transact between Rs.6 million to Rs.7.5 million in saleseach day,” says Laxman Raut of the Marathi daily Loksatta. “That’s what this single sector of the water market is worth — in this single town.” Raut and his fellow reporters have tracked this region’s commerce in water for years.

Tanker technology : Container sizes vary. But in this town “their average capacity works out to around 5,000 litres. Each of these 1,200 does at least three trips a day. So they carry in all some 18 million litres of water in 24 hours. At the going rate of Rs.350 per thousand litres, that works out to over Rs.6 million a day. The costs can go up depending on whether the use is domestic, or for livestock, or industry.”

Scarcity drives the tanker economy. Tankers are being made, repaired, rented, sold and bought. One busy spot we hit en route to Jalna is Rahuri in neighbouring Ahmednagar district. It costs roughly Rs.30,000 to make a 10,000-litre tanker body here. It sells for twice that sum. In Rahuri Factory, a small industries area, we get a crash course in tanker tech. “Each 5 ft x 18 ft sheet of MS Plate is 3.5 mm thick (called Gauge 10),” explains Shrikant Melawane who owns a fabricating unit. He shows us the “rolling machine” on which each plate has to be manually rolled.

So where’s the water coming from? From rampant groundwater exploitation. From private borewells — some newly drilled just to exploit the scarcity. These could run out as the groundwater crisis worsens. Speculators have purchased existing dug wells that do have water in order to cash in. Some bottled water plants in Jalna town bring it all the way from Buldhana (in Vidarbha) — itself a high water-stress district. So the scarcity should spread to other regions fairly soon. Some are looting water from public sources, tanks and reservoirs.

The tanker owner buys 10,000 litres for between Rs.1,000 and Rs.1,500. He sells that quantity at Rs.3,500 — pulling in up to Rs.2,500 on the deal. If he has a captive source like a working borewell or a dug well with water, then his costs are even less. And close to nil if he is looting public water sources.

“More than 50,000 (medium and big) tankers have been made across the State this year,” says former Member of Parliament (and ex-MLA) Prasad Tanpure. “And don’t forget the existing thousands from previous years. So it’s anyone’s guess how many are in action now.” Tanpure, a political veteran here, knows the water scene well. Other estimates place the new tanker numbers at one lakh. Even 50,000 new tankers would mean that fabricators in the State have done close to Rs.2 billion worth of business over the past few months. Of course, some have taken a hit on other fronts as “construction work stands suspended. No grills, beams, nothing else,” says Melawane. But there are also those jumping into this lucrative market.

Things are awful but not at their worst. Not yet. Many in Jalna have lived off tankers for years now. Only the dimensions of the crisis and the numbers of tankers have exploded. The worst is a long way off yet and it isn’t just about rainfall. Except for some. As one political leader puts it cynically: “If I owned ten tankers, I’d have to pray for drought this year, too.”

Really a thought-provoking article by P Sainath, titled ‘Tankers and the economy of thirst’ that appeared in The Hindu on 27th March 2013. [source : http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/tankers-and-the-economy-of-thirst/article4551597.ece]

Read this alongside the earlier post on "Tukaram Kolekar” – one would be pained to understand the reality…. How we use the water is as important as how much we have.  Who owns or controls that water provides the answer to most issues” – but are those ruling the Country really care about all these

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
31st  March 2013.

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