A tanker from the Delhi Jal Board, the capital's water authority, distributes water to residents of Kusumpur Pahari, a slum in south New Delhi. Photo courtesy of Colombia Water Center.
On paper, New Delhi doesn't have a water problem. It receives sufficient amounts of water per capita - even more than the city of Paris. Yet many of its residents get so little water that they are forced to buy it from what they call the "water tanker mafia".
Before it arrives in New Delhi residents' homes, at least 40 percent of the city's water supply vanishes. The government blames leaks; many activists, meanwhile, believe mismanagement is the likelier culprit. Sanjay Dimpy, the research head of the organization Citizens’ Front for Water Democracy, puts it this way: "If that much water leaked into the ground, New Delhi would look a lot more like Venice."
On top of this, water is not distributed equally among Delhi’s residents. Large swaths of the Indian capital were built illegally over the past few decades, and therefore were not hooked up to the city’s infrastructure system. While these unauthorised colonies include some middle-class and even wealthy neighbourhoods, they are largely poor. In recent years, the local authorities have dug bore wells from which they pipe water to most of these rapidly-growing colonies' residents, for a fee, but in insufficient amounts.
If thirsty residents call a government hotline, a tanker operated by the city's water authorities is supposed to reach them within three hours. But in practice, these calls are rarely answered. Thus a network of increasingly powerful private water companies has emerged to fill the void, and residents have little choice but to buy their water.
These companies operate illegally. Some of their owners even publicly admit to paying bribes to the police. However, they appear to be largely tolerated. According to local media reports, Delhi's water authorities have even referred clients to them. Private tanker operators say they buy their water from farmhouses outside Delhi, farms that dig deep wells that environmentalists fear are destroying the groundwater table. But these companies have also been accused of illegally extracting water from the ground, as well as getting it from municipal stocks through corruption of city officials – claims that city authorities deny.
Corruption is a major concern in India, and has led to massive protests over the past few years. India is ranked 94th of 176 countries in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index.
Residents of Sangam Vihar collecting rainwater. The colony gets insufficient water from bore wells, forcing them to buy water from private companies - or, when the weather allows it, to collect rainwater. Video published on the AAP Sangam Vihar's YouTube channel. 

"Can you imagine, hundreds of your neighbours fighting each other for water?"

Anuj Porwal lives in Sangam Vihar, the biggest of Delhi's unauthorised colonies, as well as the largest urban slum in all of Asia. A recent university graduate, he works for a realty group. He also volunteers for his local branch of the Aam Aadmi Party, a new political party campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.
I live in a household with three other people - my mother, father, and elder brother. In Sangam Vihar, getting enough water to survive on isn't an easy task. The pipeline that runs from the nearest bore well to our home only gives us 3-4 hours per week of water. Some houses get even less, depending on where they are located. Sometimes, it runs during the daytime; sometimes at night.
This pipeline system is controlled by local politicians, who send their people from door to door to collect fees. We pay between 100-500 rupees [about 1.20 euros to 6 euros] per month for this service. We try to save and recycle as much water as we can. Still, it isn't enough to last us the whole week.
So about once a week, we have to buy about 1,000 liters from a private water tanker. This is how it works: we get together with several other families and each puts in some money, equivalent to the amount of water they want to buy. Then we call up a private water tanker company. They have terrible service; we usually need to call them several times, and pretty much have to throw tantrums before they finally agree to come. After maybe 5 or 6 hours of waiting, a tanker will arrive. One thousand litres costs us between 1,500 and 2,000 rupees [about 18 to 24 euros]. They're taking advantage of us, but what other choice do we have?
Private tankers like this one openly advertise their services online.
"This is a heavy burden - in terms of time, money, and probably our health, too"
In my neighborhood, we used to call the authorities over and over again to try to get their tankers to come out here to give us free water, but they almost never answered, so we gave up. They just don't listen to us. Now, they only come once in a while, when there's a problem with the bore well pipelines and local politicians expressly asks them to come. When they do, people literally fight, since there isn't nearly enough for everyone. Can you imagine, hundreds of your neighbours fighting each other to get water from a single tanker? [Editor’s Note: Every day, several hundred of Sangam Vihar’s poorest residents who are not hooked up to the bore wells queue up to get water from a local temple’s pump; there, fights reportedly break out regularly.]
With rising population numbers, wells drying up, and what looks like more and more corruption, it's becoming increasingly difficult for Sangam Vihar residents to get access to water. This is a heavy burden - in terms of time, money, and probably our health, too. Surveys have shown that the water we get piped in from the bore wells is not safe to drink! [Editor’s Note: Two people died and 50 were taken ill in a suspected water contamination in Delhi’s NCERT colony just last June].
There is perhaps a ray of hope: Delhi state’s governor has promised that following the next elections, many of the capital’s unauthorized colonies would be granted legal status, which could pave the way for construction of better infrastructure. However, activists are waiting to see if this is not just an election-year promise. India’s next general election will be held in the spring.