What do the new groundwater guidelines mean for tanker water supply in Mumbai?

Restrictions on tanker water supply in Mumbai have led to protests by tanker owners and operators. Here's a look at what is bothering them.

Tanker water supply, a crucial supplementary source of water for Mumbaikars, could soon become costlier with the implementation of new restrictions on groundwater abstraction.

Though the restrictions were introduced way back in September 2020, their implementation was delayed because of clout enjoyed by the water tanker lobby and the city’s heavy dependence on the tanker water supply. Now, tanker owners have to get permission for extracting groundwater for domestic and commercial use. If the rules are not complied with, penalties and police cases follow.

How did they go about implementing restrictions?

Earlier, in February 2022, officials of the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) held a meeting with members of the Mumbai Water Tankers Association (MWTA) at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to explain the new guidelines in question and convinced water tankers to adopt them. However, the tanker owners found the new norms for getting permissions too stringent and reached out to state environment minister Aaditya Thackeray to intervene and resolve the issue. 

The BMC’s Insecticides Department had ordered notices to well owners, warning them of consequences such as dismantling and seizures of pipes and motor pumps, as well as electrical disconnections, if they fail to take NOCs and permissions. 

When the tanker owners faltered in taking permissions, the insecticide department of the BMC sent notices with a detailed circular invoking various provisions of the BMC Act, 1888 to pressurise owners to get NOCs.

“Officially, the health department of the BMC is concerned only with granting permits to ensure that the well water is not breeding mosquitoes spreading vector-borne diseases. However, the provisions existing within the BMC Act, 1888 to use power water pumps (U/s 390), the licence to carry out a trade (U/s 381-A) as also the permit to provide non-potable water for domestic use (U/s 394) were invoked to prevent access to illegal water abstraction,” explained Rajan Naringrekar, insecticide officer (expert) from the public health department of the BMC.

The situation worsened when police complaints lodged against well owners for theft of water worth Rs 73 crores  through illegal extraction for over 11 years.

The MWTA also went on a strike from May 9th-13th demanding a more phased-out and ‘humane’ implementation of these new guidelines. This affected work at major infrastructure projects like the Coastal Road and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) Road, forcing the Maharashtra government to intervene and promise to take up their issue with the Centre.

The strike was then withdrawn and the tanker owners have now started applying for legal permission to extract water.

Why is tanker water supply so crucial for Mumbai?

Private water tanker businesses started in Mumbai around 1966 to cater to the industrial needs of budding textile mills and factories at the time. Since then, water tankers have played an important role in the city. They supplement the needs of residential societies by providing non-potable water. Additionally, they also provide water for various important agencies that keep the city going – the railways, airports and even docks, hotels, and hospitals. Tanker water supply is used for various infrastructure projects like metro construction, flyovers, Coastal Road and the MTHL. They also service the fire department during fires.

construction workers at work on a construction site by a fire station in mumbai
Tanker water supply reaches various areas in the city, including construction sites and fire emergencies. Pic credit – Gopal MS, Mumbai Paused

Approximately 1500 water tankers supply an estimated 7.5 crore litres of non-potable water for various residential and commercial purposes in the city at the rate of 10,000 litres of water per tanker, plying an average of five trips per day. 

Why are tanker owners upset with the new guidelines?

The guidelines demand that tanker owners must operate within the 200 sq metre periphery of a water source and own the water source and the area around it. This requisite has been a hindrance for tankers to get NOCs since most of the tanker operators source water from borewells owned by others.

“We are just the transporters of water, not the sellers of water. Most of the tankers purchase water from wells/borewells owned by others. Besides, with land being in such short supply in Mumbai, there are very few wells, with 200 sq metres around it being owned by the well owner. Most tankers either get filled in from pipes from the well with the tankers parked either on the roads or alongside them or having some such informal arrangement,“ says Jeetubhai Shah, vice-president of the MWTA. 

The moment well water exceeds extraction beyond the stipulated 15th tanker mark and starts filling the 16th tanker, an alert is sent to the CGWA office and a fine of over Rs one lakh is immediately levied on the well owner. If someone were to even start the pump by mistake, fines can be levied immediately, he adds.

Tanker owners are also upset at being asked to pay the annual water charges in advance, which they say is not fair. For one, the water demand fluctuates – high in summers and low in monsoons – and so it is difficult to calculate a flat rate for the entire year, according to the MWTA. “Let the government charge us based on the actual meter reading of the water extracted. There is no provision for explanation or discussion with the authorities. The entire process of procuring NOC is done online and the process does not move forward unless all the requisite documents are uploaded,” says Jeetubhai.

The owners and operators claim that the livelihoods of at least 2000 families depend on this and they may face an income crunch. 

Read more: BMC’s ‘Water For All’ policy promises greater access to water. Can it deliver?

The debate over supplying potable vs non-potable water

The CGWA has asked all water tanker owners to label their tankers as potable water suppliers, which they say is not justified, considering that they supply only non-potable water. Groundwater in Mumbai is not potable as it is vulnerable to contamination from sewage disposal and other human activities. 

Moreover, the BMC permits access to tankers from its 17 sources of potable water during exceptional circumstances like water supply distortion, shortage or some exigency, explains Rajan Naringrekar, insecticide officer (expert) from the public health department of the BMC. 

”The tankers are expected to supply clean water and non-saline water and hence the insistence on the term potable,” says S.D. Waghmare, a scientist with CGWA’s Pune unit. He explains that the term potable defined in this case is not necessarily equated with drinking water but with clean water.

Urban vs rural guidelines? 

Most of these provisions seem pliable only for the rural sector, where water tankers are primarily sourced for domestic consumption. However, in urban areas, tankers are sourced for an array of tasks, both commercial and industrial, besides non-potable uses like gardening and washing cars. Hence, insisting on the label of potable water suppliers may not be fair on water tankers, according to Naringrekar. He adds that the provision of a 200 sq metre periphery of well sources may be relevant in rural settings, where wells are located in wide fields, but may not be practical in urban cities with space crunch being a real issue.

The reality of Mumbai’s water woes

Mumbai is already short of drinking water; the city manages to supply only 3850 million litres/day of the estimated demand of 4505 MLD of potable water in the city, as per Mumbai’s Environment Status Report, 2020-21. Though the BMC’s tap water is purified and meant for drinking, it is found to be used for various domestic purposes like gardening and washing cars. However, now the BMC is trying to avoid wastage of drinking water for non-potable uses by introducing various restrictions.

Officials told Citizen Matters that the BMC has asked builders to strictly use only tanker or borewell water and to avoid using BMC’s tap water for construction purposes because of the acute shortage of potable water. It is also trying to treat sewage water and recycle sea water for domestic use.

Tanker water supply is here to stay. Mumbai’s requirements of it are vast. At the same time, salvaging the groundwater table is crucial for long-term effects. Governments and people will both have a challenging time ahead balancing existing water supply infrastructure and serious environmental implications.

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