Bangalore's water mafia explained!

Private lorry tankers getting their fill
Private lorry tankers getting their fill

Water tankers are a common sight in most Indian cities and so are tanker businesses that extract and deliver groundwater via trucks or tractors to hundreds of residential neighbourhoods at a negotiated price. Most of these are informal or unauthorised.

Who are the water mafia and how do they operate?

The paper titled 'Mafias' in the waterscape: Urban informality and everyday public authority in Bangalore' published in the journal Water Alternatives, dwells on the concept of a recently coined term 'Water mafia', one which it argues Bangaloreʼs residents recognise all too well.

It informs that in many parts of Bangalore where government water supply has failed, or where scarcity has been deliberately created, a coalition of thugs, local politicians, and even some Water Department employees run a parallel and private water supply network. This network is controlled by water tanker operators backed by the local corporators, the legislators, or even powerful politicians in some cases.

The article aims to explore what exactly the water mafia is and attempts to understand the phenomenon of, and mythology surrounding, water mafias in Bangalore and how they influence the urban water political scenario in the city. It attempts to do so by trying to understand their workings within wider debates on urban informality, state formation, infrastructure and space in the post-colonial city through ethnographic investigation.

Data for this study has been gathered through open-ended and semi-structured interviews with tanker business owners, tanker drivers, valve men (the 'last mile' providers in the service delivery chain who physically enable and shut off access to households), local and state level politicians, municipal administrators, and residents in two peripheral zones of Bangalore.

Impact on the urban water scenario

The paper argues that rather than seeing the mafias as filling a gap where government water supply has failed, they must be seen as formative of the post-colonial state, rather than existing apart from it, which is by its very nature deeply fractured, heterogeneous and disaggregated.

The mafias blur the boundaries between state and society, formal and informal, and public and private as they strategically try to negotiate between these boundaries. The actions of mafias must be understood beyond the profit and rent seeking behaviours normally associated with private tanker operators. Rather, social protection, the provision of welfare, electoral lobbying, and the facilitation of unauthorised land sales to lower middle class buyers are all part of the mafias' political activities.

Although many mafia strategies are illegible and tend to be portrayed as extortionist or corrupt by mainstream media and urban policy experts, mafia members also deploy surprisingly legible and civilised means to encounter and discipline corrupt or predatory municipal officials at times. Mafias thus blur state-society and civil society-political society divisions and provide a valuable lens into understanding the variable nature of public authority in the post-colonial city.

The mafias are successful because they often control both water and land regimes. For example, since the early 1990s in Bangalore, the deregulation of land has encouraged crony capitalism in the real estate sector, and this has provided ample opportunity for exploitative land deals, often supported by state institutions and the land development mafia. This has further upheld the authority of the water mafias. We must, therefore, develop a fuller appreciation of how informal land politics intersect with informal water politics if we need to understand the power dynamics that determine access to and exclusion from water.

The varied nature of water delivery and implications for water governance

The article argues that the analysis also sheds light on the dominant characterisations of informal water supply as the so-called 'other' private sector, which is described as an independent, entrepreneurial, small-scale private water sector, can be clearly distinguished from the large-scale private or public utility sector.

However, a close look at the workings of water mafias reveals that they do not comprise only independent, small-scale entrepreneurs operating outside of the state, but also includes large-scale (public and private) utility companies, which too operate through the water mafia and mafia-like strategies.

From a policy perspective too, it is thus crucial to avoid compartmentalising water delivery into stand-alone 'sectors' and understand that in fact there are many practices that enliven water delivery across typologies, sectors, and technologies used. It is thus important to adopt a politicised and relational view of water governance.

Please download a copy of the paper below.