In an Andhra Pradesh village in drought-prone Prakasam, 62-year-old Vara Prasada Rao gave up farming and converted his ploughing tractor into a water tanker truck. He has one borewell from which water "trickles" into his water tanker and he makes five trips for the state government delivering water to nearby villages. There is good money here for him: With each trip he earns Rs 300 and gives Rs 100 to the government contractor who has subcontracted the water delivery work to him.
But Prasada Rao also sells the water to rich farmers and hotels for Rs 500 per tanker with a 4,000-litre capacity -- as part of a growing water black market in the district and state.
"I used to farm on my 5-acre land but there is not enough water from the bore so I now sell whatever water is available," said Prasada Rao.
In the district, the little water that is left has created a black market for water. Though the state government has taken preventive measures -- such as fitting GPS trackers on the trucks and taking photographs of the water-filled trucks before delivery -- there is no real mechanism in place to check the illicit system.
A senior official in the watershed division under the Rural Department told TNM, "We do have geotagging of these trucks but they are useful in only knowing how many trips have been completed. We make the truckers take picture of the empty tanker, while it's being filled, after it gets full and during delivery. The truckers have to send these pictures to us only after this the bill is processed," he said.
But the system is far from foolproof. "The pictures could be staged and so there is no mechanism to ensure that the water is not sold in the black market, to hotel owners and rich farmers for their lands and cattle," he added.
Prakasam is one among the nine out of 13 drought-affected districts in Andhra Pradesh, as all surface water sources at Yerragondapalem and surrounding mandals have dried up. The only source of water is borewells, a vast majority of which are already defunct. The watershed division at Yerragondapalem mandal is relying on a few private and agricultural borewells to feed 132 of the 265 habitats under their jurisdiction.
The water truck delivery in these drought-prone areas of the state is funded through World Bank funds, say officials. Each trucker is paid Rs 300 per trip less than 5 km, Rs 400 per trip up to 12 km and Rs 650 per trip above 12 km. The truckers are demanding these rates to be hiked by 20 % but that call has to be made by the district collector in cognisance with the state government.
The frequency of delivery of water depends on the population of the village or hamlet. While some villages get a steady supply perhaps three times a week, some villages that are difficult to access get water just once a week.
At Muraripalle village under Yerragondapalem, every household has kept empty 30-litre drums and pots outside their homes and wait for the water tankers to arrive. "The water gets over in a couple of days. We have to wash clothes, dishes, take a bath. The water being provided is just not enough," said 52-year-old Venka Narasamma, who has a family of 10 members. "We don't have any other alternate source," she added.
For drinking water, the villagers have to rely on water tankers that provide drinking water in 5-litre bottles for Rs 10. Many in the village can't afford this private service and end up drinking the fluoride-contaminated water sourced from borewells.
"There are two working borewells in the village but both are privately owned and they don't share the water. The villagers are divided along party lines and there is no unity, so there is no collective bargaining power for the village to make demands to the local MLA or the MP," said Laksmhiminarayana, a 22-year-old resident of Muraripalli, "If you notice, water is not even an election topic in the district or even in the state. Everyone is busy abusing each other and no one is talking about the real issues on ground," he added.
Alok* is a local reporter associated with a cable TV news channel servicing only a few mandals in Prakasam district said, "I did a story on people fighting over water two weeks back. The watershed officials called up the local MLA and made him call my channel owner. I had to take the story down and my owner was paid some money for it. Any story about the water shortage in the local media is getting suppressed. Thus it never becomes an election issue here, though water is on everyone's mind," he added.
On April 8, a group of villagers from Nadigadda village at Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh wait before the watershed divisionâ€™s office for the officials to grant them a few more water tankers. The village, with a little over 2,000 members, presently has 15 water tankers delivering water every week and need two more just to get by.
"A lot of people who had migrated have returned back. The 15 water tankers are not enough to cater to everyone's needs, we need two more services to the area in a week," said V Prabhakar, the village pastor who was leading the delegation. As the officials were busy with election work, the villagersâ€™ request went unheard and they left the premises hoping to register their demand at a later time.
Villagers seeking more trucks to service their locality is common, but it often ends up in arguments of unfair water allocation by the officials. "We do get frequent requests to increase water supply but it's just not possible to service every village or hamlet. If we divert a truck from one place then another place will face a shortage and the people there get angry," said the official, who admitted that the practice of water delivery sourced from a few borewells is unsustainable in the long run. "The present borewells that provide water to the people at Yerragondapalem mandal will last only till June or July if it does not rain this year. There is no other source of water here. The situation here at Prakasam is about to go from worse to worst in the coming months.â€ť