Sakharam Misal is frank. Water, he says, is big business.
In Jalna district, which has run out of water, the man in his late 50s is among the most sought after. He runs a water tanker business and sells water to the thirsty millions.
Misal’s cellphone keeps ringing with desperate calls for water. His tankers are booked in advance and the waiting list stretches over a week. Drought, real or rigged, drives the water trade.
Almost everybody in Jalna city and district is buying water to drink and for everyday chores. Anybody who has water is selling it; few believe in the duty to share it. Faced with a drought of unprecedented severity and scale, Jalna is buying water worth crores.
Those with water in their tube wells are selling it at Rs 2 per 10-litre can. Those who can afford it are buying bottled water: by one estimate, 10,000 jars of 20-litre each are being sold in the town every day. At Rs 30 a jar, that’s water worth Rs 3 lakh. Then there are the water pouches.
But most people in the district depend on the private tankers. Misal owns five 20,000-litre tankers that make two trips each every day.
He says he makes a profit of Rs 1,500 from each tanker per trip, so his daily profit comes to Rs 15,000. This, after paying the water and transport costs and staff wages. His investment on each tanker was Rs 15 lakh.
A quick calculation by the veteran water trader reveals that Jalna buys tanker water worth Rs 60-70 lakh every day. The municipality stopped supplying water almost a decade ago because of shortage. Government-sponsored tankers are too few to meet the daily needs of a city of four lakh.
An estimated 1,200 private tankers (average 5,000 litres each) make three trips every day. There are smaller tankers too with capacities of 500 to 1,000 litres but Misal ignores them in his calculations.
The 1,200 bigger tankers sell about 18-20 million litres every day. At the going rate of Rs 350 per thousand litres, Jalna residents roughly shell out Rs 60-70 lakh to buy water from private tankers. Jalna requires 45 million litres of water a day.
This is just one town. Across drought-hit Maharashtra — 14 districts and 200-plus tehsils — water tankers are an inescapable symbol of scarcity. Business is roaring and many politicians own tankers.
“It’s turning into the biggest private-sector drinking water supply scheme,” quips a senior IAS officer at the state secretariat in Mumbai who is involved in drought relief. “It is decentralised and unregulated.”
The government-run water tankers — roughly 2,000 for the 14 drought-hit districts — don’t even meet the needs of a small fraction of the 20 million clamouring for water. Then there are the cattle and the industrial units, small and big. That explains why private tankers are in such huge demand.
Misal brings water from wherever he can. “Right now, my source is 30km away from the city (Jalna),” he says. “If it dries up, we’ll go farther.”
Tanker owners like Misal, who alone sells around 2 lakh litres each day, tie up with people whose tube wells or wells have water.
The smaller reservoirs surrounding Jalna town are dry. So is Jayakwadi dam, a big project on the Godavari in neighbouring Aurangabad district. Jalna is among five central Maharashtra districts that depend on the dam.
Former chairman of the Jalna Municipal Council, Bhaskar Ambekar, says: “Our water supply project has been on for almost two decades now.”
Even if it is completed, there will be no distribution network.
Jalna’s chronic scarcity has been aggravated by poor rain for two consecutive years and overuse of the groundwater by steel rolling mills and the seed industry, the mainstays of the local economy.
A tanker-free Maharashtra was an election promise way back in 1995 when the Shiv Sena-BJP rode to power. It has been a promise repeated by almost every political party in every election since.
But as you travel from Dhule in the north to Sangli in the south, criss-crossing some 14 drought-hit districts, a water-tank atop a truck is the most enduring sight.
Tank-manufacturing too has become a teeming business, an opportunity for some to thrive on the drought.
In Rahuri, a small town in Ahmednagar district, tank-manufacturing units are doing brisk business. There are four fabrication shops within a radius of 1km, more than 15 in Ahmednagar town, and hundreds across the drought-hit districts.
Shrikant Melawane, 32, is the proprietor of Shri Engineering Works in “Rahuri Factory”, a small-industrial cluster in a sugarcane-rich area 45km from Ahmednagar town.
The small shop, with an adjoining workshop and a large open space where tanks are made, was started 25-30 years ago by Shrikant’s father Sanjay, a trader at the Rahuri co-operative sugar factory. But it’s only in the recent past, Shrikant says, that the unit’s clientele has expanded to faraway places in western and central Maharashtra.
“We usually manufacture one big tank a day with a capacity of 10,000 litres,” says Shrikant, who took over the unit after doing his MA. But in the last three or four months, his unit churned out no less than 150 big-size tanks — an average of almost two each day.
This, Shrikant admits, is unprecedented. “Usually tanks are in demand for four months in the summer but in the past year, we have been flooded with orders all the time.”
Several parts of the state stayed drought-hit throughout this period, including the monsoon months.
Shrikant sells a 10,000-litre tank (which has to be mounted on a truck) for Rs 55,000, pocketing a profit of Rs 20,000. The tanks come in other sizes too, from 1,000 litres to 20,000 litres. A 1,000-litre tank can be mounted on a bullock cart or a rickshaw to water orchards.
“Small farmers buy tanks of that size. It helps them water their horticulture crops manually even if they have no electricity or pump,” he says.
Prasad Tanpure, an NCP leader from Rahuri and a former MLA who heads the Rahuri Truck Owners’ Co-operative Society, estimates that more than 50,000 small and big tanks have been made across the state so far this season in addition to the thousands in previous years.
Suresh Pawar in Jalna mainly sold tractors and trailers but switched to manufacturing tanks six months ago. Sales of tractors and agricultural implements have virtually reached zero because most farmers, facing massive losses, are not investing anything this year.
But Pawar’s tank-making unit has kept him going. He makes 5,000-litre tanks, like most of the 100-odd fabrication units in Jalna town do.
“Those who never made tanks are doing so because the demand for all other things has collapsed. Construction has stopped because there is no water; so there’s no demand for grilles and other items,” says Pawar.
But for the growing demand for tanks and tankers, he would have shut shop by now.