An Indian man tosses water up into the air, from a glass bottle.
Image credit: Photo by Amaan Ali on Unsplash

What does California have in common with Maharashtra—a western Indian state located halfway across the globe? Besides being home to two of the most prolific movie industries in the world, both states are also experiencing climate change in the extreme, their plight exacerbated by water theft. 

While California was ravaged by wildfires and droughts in recent years, Maharashtra has experienced droughts and successive heat waves for over a decade. India has already witnessed four heat waves so far this year, with temperatures soaring over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in many parts of the country. To make it all worse, millions of gallons of water have been pillaged illegally in both of these increasingly vulnerable places.

In 2021, it was revealed that as much as 1.8 billion gallons of water had been stolen in California since 2013 by illegal cannabis growers among other thieves, by breaking into secure water stations, drilling into water lines, and tapping into fire hydrants, among other methods. All this water theft had an adverse impact not only on local agriculture but also on the lives and livelihoods of local communities.

While California was ravaged by wildfires and droughts in recent years, Maharashtra has experienced droughts and successive heat waves for over a decade.

In early 2022, California’s Central Valley water district experienced theft by its own former general manager. Over the course of 23 years, former general manager Dennis Falaschi stole $25 million worth of water. Aside from the widespread corruption and misuse of public funds, the Central Valley is one of the most water-strapped areas in the country. A similar operation involving water operators was brought to light by an activist in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and the capital city of Maharashtra.

India’s Water Theft Issue

Activist Sureshkumar Dhoka undertook a painstaking investigation, filing over one hundred applications under India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, demanding information from public servants and government authorities about the groundwater in Mumbai. In the end, Dhoka found that over $9 million worth of water was extracted illegally from two wells located on the premises of just one decrepit building in South Mumbai. 

The theft had taken place over 11 years, between 2006 and 2017. And even after police filed charges and arrested the accused in one case, water tankers continued drawing water from private borewells in and around the same neighborhood—and still do even today. This water theft is exacerbating the region’s water crisis, enabling the tanker operators to continue to profit from a situation they helped exacerbate.

Dhoka found that over $9 million worth of water was extracted illegally from two wells located on the premises of just one decrepit building in South Mumbai.According to the World Bank, “Come summer, and water becomes a commodity as precious as gold in India. The country has 18 percent of the world’s population, but only 4 percent of its water resources, making it among the most water-stressed in the world.”

The World Bank has helped to fund several water-related projects in India, the most recent being one worth $363 million, which will help provide water to two million rural households in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The UN World Water Development Report 2023 paints a grim picture of the Global South, particularly India.

“The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to increase from 933 million (one third of global urban population) in 2016 to 1.7–2.4 billion people (one third to nearly half of global urban population) in 2050, with India projected to be the most severely affected,” the report states.

If over $9 million worth of water can be extracted illegally from just two wells in one city, one can only imagine the nationwide figures. 

Mumbai: Where Water Is a Privilege

Mumbai gets its water from nearby lakes such as Upper and Middle Vaitarna, Modak Sagar, Tansa, Bhatsa, Vihar, and Tulsi. But in the wake of successive heat waves, steadily diminishing water reserves, and the uncertainty of an adequate monsoon in an El Niño year, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has announced 10 percent water cuts starting July 1, 2023. 

Water shortages enable private tanker operators to cash in on the crisis. For one tanker with 10,000 liters of water, private operators usually charge upwards of 1,200 rupees (approximately $15). In summer months, or during heat waves, given the higher demand, prices have been known to double, even triple, making them unaffordable for low-income families, who struggle to make even $200 a month.

South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade area is where some of the city’s wealthiest people live. Yet just across the road are the low-income neighborhoods inhabited by their domestic staff, maids, drivers, nannies, and numerous others. The water shortage affected Cuffe Parade’s rich and poor differently. While the rich could still afford the services of water tanker operators, the poor have been left to the mercy of slumlords and their minions.

According to Manoj Podar, president of the Cuffe Parade Residents Association (CPRA) and long-time resident, water tankers come to supply water to buildings in the neighborhood year-round. These tankers supply non-potable water or water that cannot be used for drinking purposes. “Around seven to eight years ago, tanker operators charged as much as 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($182 to $243) per tanker (of 10,000 liters capacity),” recalls Podar, which is extremely overpriced compared to the regular rate of 800 to 1,200 rupees ($9 to $15). But the residential high-rise buildings have negotiated annual rates with operators now, which helps keep them in line. “They don’t engage in any mischief,” Podar says, “because then they will lose business.”

Podar says the focus should be on finding solutions instead of blaming the municipal corporation, who are “doing their best despite limited resources.” It was because of the persistent efforts of the CPRA that the crisis has been mitigated somewhat today. Some buildings have installed rainwater harvesting mechanisms, others have installed aerators in taps to reduce the amount of water coming out of faucets and limit water leakage and waste. “We do regular plumbing checks and also educate people, especially domestic staff, to not leave the taps running when they work, to ensure water wastage is minimized,” says Podar.

But the story is very different in the low-income shanty town located behind the World Trade Centre, where Kamala and Vimala (names changed on request) live. Both women work as maids in the homes of their ultra-rich neighbors, but neither can make do with the meager supply of water from the local municipality, forcing both to pay for extra water.

Kamala is a widow in her mid-forties and a mother of three. Her eldest, a son, recently turned 18 and helps supplement the household income with odd jobs. Their combined income rarely exceeds $350 a month and is just enough to keep the roof over their heads, the food on the table, and the younger children in school.

“We get water for an hour and a half each afternoon, but that is not sufficient. No tanker operator comes this deep inside the slums, so we pay 500 rupees (approximately $6) per family to this man who controls the taps,” says Kamala, referring to a “water supplier” whom she refuses to name, fearing retaliation. “He supplies six extra gallons (22 liters) of water every day.” 

Vimala is in her 50s and has a larger joint family of 13 people. She is one of the main sources of income for her family. “Because we have a larger family, we have to shell out 1,000 rupees (approximately $12) per month for 12 extra gallons of water per day,” she says. Vimala’s mother-in-law is old and ailing; her husband’s health is also declining. Her disabled brother-in-law also lives with them—and Vimala has five school-going grandchildren. None of them can work.

“My elder son and his wife run a small shop selling biscuits, soap, and a few other daily essentials. My younger son loads and unloads goods into and from trucks. I’m trying to get him a job as a driver. His wife also works as a maid,” she says, explaining how five people work together to feed 13. The family’s income varies from month to month.

Laws Bent and Broken 

As per official records, there are over 19,000 wells in Mumbai—more than 12,000 of which are borewells, wells dug deep into the ground to tap into water-bearing soil or aquifers. Borewell water can only be used for domestic non-potable purposes. To extract water for commercial purposes in Mumbai, borewell owners must seek prior permission from the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) and four different departments within the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). 

But as Sureshkumar Dhoka found, tanker operators and well owners often disregard all regulations. “Borewell owners often act in cahoots with water tanker operators, where they dig illegal wells and allow tanker operators to extract the water and sell it,” says Dhoka. “They don’t bother to take any permissions and operate like the mafia.” The 63-year-old single father of three became an activist out of desperation when his son, Ketan, caught dengue—a debilitating disease transmitted by mosquitoes—in 2016. Dhoka believes that the excessive mosquitos were exacerbated by the water tankers which would often leave still water for long periods of time which in turn would attract the insects. 

That same year, Dhoka filed a complaint with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), saying the dengue-causing mosquitoes were breeding on the premises of Pandya Mansion, where Dhoka was a tenant. He allegedly saw water tankers regularly filling water from two borewells there and even requested for the building’s managers to intervene, but his efforts fell on deaf ears.

“Building owners can only dig borewells and use the water from it for domestic purposes. If they sell this water to tanker operators, that makes it a commercial activity. I found that the [Pandya Mansion] building management had not obtained the requisite permissions for extraction of water for commercial purposes,” said Dhoka. 

The law is clear when it comes to licenses and permissions for water extraction and transportation. Water tanker operators need licenses to transport water. But water extraction permission must be sought by the people on whose property the borewells are located. This is a tedious process, and as per a report in The Times of India, 99 percent of well owners engage in the illegal extraction of groundwater.

“I found that they were using motor pumps to extract the groundwater, so I sought information on the electricity consumption of all meters installed on the premises and discovered that two of them recorded unusually high amounts of electricity consumption, which could not be the case if they were used for ordinary domestic consumption,” said Dhoka. “The charges for electricity consumption for commercial purposes is much higher than that for domestic purposes. Thus, they had been cheating the electricity provider as well.” 

In fact, based on information provided by Dhoka, the electricity provider fined 11 South Mumbai buildings 1,800,000 rupees (approximately $21,800) for illegally using domestic electricity meters instead of commercial meters to extract groundwater for selling to water tankers.

Law Enforcement Response

Dhoka findings led the Azad Maidan Police Station to file a First Information Report (FIR) against six accused persons for theft and wrongfully diverting water. The Economic Offenses Wing (EOW) of the Mumbai police conducted its own investigation and discovered that millions of dollars’ worth of water was pumped out over 11 years. 

When the EOW team reached Pandya Mansion, they found that the illegal wells had been covered, in line with an order from the National Green Tribunal. 

The chargesheet filed by the police stated that 761,856,600 rupees (approximately $9.2 million) worth of water was extracted by the accused. Six people were arrested. While five of them are out on bail now, one of the accused is now deceased. The trial has yet to begin.

An investigation of this magnitude requires coordination, not only between various branches of law enforcement agencies but also the cooperation of municipal authorities, other statutory bodies, and government authorities. At present, this proves to be a challenge, given the sheer size of the bureaucracy and the number of departments and officials involved. Both Dhoka and Nishith Mishra, Joint Commissioner of Police (EOW) agree that forming a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising police officers and officials from relevant agencies to specifically investigate the matter could help speed up the process of bringing the guilty to justice. 

Today, it appears that the illegal water extraction operation at Pandya Mansion stopped after the BMC canceled the long-term (999-year) lease to the alleged offenders in the case. In addition, the wells had been sealed shut, in compliance with an order from the NGT in response to Dhoka’s 2016 complaint.

There are many more such filling points across South Mumbai; their location is often given away by the ubiquitous green pipes that are tied up or pushed to one side of the road when not in use. Though some have requisite permissions, most don’t.

Water Tanker Operators Oppose New Guidelines

In the wake of Dhoka’s revelations about groundwater theft and the subsequent police investigation, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) issued guidelines for bulk water supply by water tanker operators. These guidelines were to be implemented by groundwater regulatory authorities in every state. In Maharashtra, the responsibility fell upon the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA).

The guidelines require tanker operators to obtain appropriate permissions and licenses and renew them regularly. There are also provisions for action if the guidelines are violated. 

The BMC started issuing notices to water tanker operators who were found to be disregarding these guidelines, and police started filing against them. 

But the MWRRA has been unable to fully implement the CGWA guidelines, in part because political parties seldom want to go up against water tanker operators, as any reduction in water supply to their constituents could affect their votes. The Mumbai Water Tanker Association (MWTA) went on strike in February this year and relented only after the deputy chief minister intervened, promising to seek to relax the guidelines.

Instances of water theft have been reported from many other parts of the world, including in the United States, but mainly in the Global South.

Water Theft and Management Globally 

Mumbai isn’t the only city grappling with a water crisis.

This summer has been particularly harsh in India’s capital city of New Delhi, where according to a report by India Today, major hospitals faced water shortages. Even the national Parliament, the residences of the president and the prime minister, the Supreme Court of India, and the Delhi High Court were not spared.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru (Bangalore), an investigation by The Hindu newspaper revealed that tanker operators were stealing water from nearby villages like Ramagodanahalli to supply wealthy residents of Whitefield. These water supply agents had dug 25 to 30 borewells in the village, from which as many as 120 to 130 water tankers drew water every day, causing the water table to drop significantly.

Water theft is often hard to detect and time consuming to investigate and prosecute. Like Mumbai’s ongoing case, California officials have been trying since 2015 to prosecute G. Scott Fahey, owner of Sugar Pine Spring Water, who was siphoning water from a small tributary that is connected to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir—where San Francisco gets most of its water—for close to a decade. Despite state governments like California’s clamping down on water usage and tightening regulations, water managers don’t have the resources to fully monitor all violations and enforce laws. Enforcement is limited and punishment does not fully deter violators. “Just like the IRS doesn’t audit every single taxpayer, we do not conduct a detailed enforcement investigation into tens of thousands of water rights,” said Ailene Voisin, a spokesperson for the state’s Water Resources Control Board, in an interview for Grist. 

Instances of water theft have been reported from many other parts of the world, including in the United States, but mainly in the Global South, including Mexico, Chile, Kenya, and Pakistan. According to UNESCO’s UN World Water Development Report 2023, some countries could lose as much as six percent of their GDP due to water scarcity. This could create greater turmoil in regions that bear an unequal burden of the impact of climate change, and spur migration and conflict far beyond their borders.

While instances of water theft in the United States are currently relatively rare, the problem—as with all climate issues—is ultimately global. As water becomes scarcer worldwide, we can learn from India and California as bellwethers and take preventive measures at home: we need more robust water management policies, including stringent legal provisions to prevent water theft and stronger political will to implement such laws. Otherwise, we face a future where only the rich or corrupt can afford access to water.