19th May 2017
India’s Silicon Valley Is Dying of Thirst. Your City May Be Next
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Bangalore one morning last summer, a sullen young man named Manjunath stood high atop a cocoa-colored 1,850-gallon tanker truck, waiting for its belly to fill with water. The source of the liquid was a bore well, a cylindrical metal shaft puncturing hundreds of feet down into the earth. An electric pump pulled the water up from the depths and into a concrete cistern; from there, a hose snaked across the mud and weeds and plugged into Manjunath’s truck. As the water gushed into the tanker, a muffled sound emerged, like rain on a tin-sheet roof.
Once the tank was full, Manjunath disconnected the hose, climbed down, and settled into the truck’s cab. Then he drove out through a web of newly tarred back streets in the suburb of Whitefield. He passed rows of half-finished buildings, still gray from raw cement, and he honked often so that motorcycles and pedestrians could scurry out of the way. Whitefield’s roadways are almost always coagulated with traffic. Over the past two decades, the area has become home to major outposts of Oracle, Dell, IBM, and GE, as well as countless IT parks—proud, gleaming edifices that Uber drivers here recognize as major landmarks. When people describe Bangalore as India’s Silicon Valley, they’re really talking about Whitefield. From the altitude of the truck’s cab, though, Whitefield looked somewhat less impressive—smaller and flimsier, even more starved for space than it already was.
After a quarter of an hour, Manjunath turned through a back gate of the campus belonging to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications firm known for its sleek, inexpensive smartphones. He made his way to a corner of the parking lot. By the wall, under some plants, he found a metal water pipe that poked up out of the soil. A length of rubber tubing had been affixed shoddily to the pipe’s inlet valve, and Manjunath spent a few minutes using a handy rock to hammer the tubing tight over the valve’s mouth. Then he fastened the other end of the tube over his tanker’s outlet, turned on the spigot, and sat down near his truck to pick his teeth as his cargo unloaded.
BANGALORE HAS A PROBLEM: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Bangalore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, “the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.”
very year since 2012, Bangalore has been hit by drought; last year Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, received its lowest rainfall level in four decades. But the changing climate is not exclusively to blame for Bangalore’s water problems. The city’s growth, hustled along by its tech sector, made it ripe for crisis. Echoing urban patterns around the world, Bangalore’s population nearly doubled from 5.7 million in 2001 to 10.5 million today. By 2020 more than 2 million IT professionals are expected to live here.
Through the 2000s, Bangalore’s urban landscape expanded so quickly that the city had no time to extend its subcutaneous network of water pipes into the fastest-growing areas, like Whitefield. Layers of concrete and tarmac crept out across the city, stopping water from seeping into the ground. Bangalore, once famous for its hundreds of lakes, now has only 81. The rest have been filled and paved over. Of the 81 remaining, more than half are contaminated with sewage.
Not only has the municipal water system been slow to branch out, it also leaks like cheesecloth. In the established neighborhoods that enjoy the relative reliability of a municipal hookup, 44 percent of the city’s water supply either seeps out through aging pipes or gets siphoned away by thieves. Summers bring shortages, even for those served by the city’s plumbing. Everywhere, the steep ascent of demand has caused a run on groundwater. Well owners drill deeper and deeper, chasing the water table downward as they all keep draining it further. The groundwater level has sunk from a depth of 150 or 200 feet to 1,000 feet or more in many places.
The job of distributing water from an ever-shifting array of dying wells has been taken up, in large part, by informal armadas of private tanker trucks like the one Manjunath drives. There are between 1,000 and 3,000 of these trucks, according to varying estimates, hauling tens of millions of gallons per day through Bangalore. By many accounts, the tanker barons of Bangalore—the men who own and direct these trucks—now control the supply of water so thoroughly that they can form cartels, bend prices, and otherwise abuse their power. Public officials are fond of calling the tanker owners a “water mafia.”
That term, water mafia, conjures an image straight out of Mad Max—gangs of small-time Immortan Joes running squadrons of belching tankers, turning a city’s water on and off at will. When I first started to hear about Bangalore’s crisis, that lurid image was hard to square with the cosmopolitan city I knew from a lifetime of frequent visits. The prospect of Bangalore’s imminent collapse from dehydration, and its apparently anarchic response to the threat, seemed to offer a discomfiting preview of a more general urban future. As Earth warms, as cities swell, as resources become more scarce and vexing to distribute, the world’s urban centers will start to hit up against hard limits.
In the moment, though—well before the apocalypse—there was Manjunath. When his tanker had emptied itself, he chucked away his toothpick, climbed back into the cab, and set off once more for the bore well. Huawei’s reservoir would swallow many more loads before it was full.
I WAS FIRST told about Thayappa, the water baron of Iblur, by one of his clients. Iblur is an area on Bangalore’s southeastern periphery, about 9 miles from Whitefield. Fifteen years ago, it was a village; now Iblur is a suburban enclave, full of condominiums with names like Suncity Apartments and Sobha Hibiscus, which sprang up to supply homes to some of the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded into Bangalore to staff its tech firms. Thayappa’s client was a woman who lived in one of these vast complexes, a thicket of residential towers with tennis courts, genteel ornamental ponds, and 1,500 apartments.
As a member of the apartments residents’ association, the woman’s duty was to deal with tanker truck owners, and she’d invited me over to hear her tales of battle. But while I sat in a little room off the lobby waiting for her, I could see her, just outside the glass door, arguing with another association member. Heads shook furiously. Hands cut through the air. When they joined me, the man—a former local Yahoo employee—insisted that the tanker owners behaved perfectly. Every time the woman started a story, he cut her off. They had no complaints, he said obstinately, none at all.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said when I called her later that day. “He was afraid that if our names appear in a magazine, the tanker owners will cut off our water. We have no choice, we’re dependent on them.”
Thayappa is one of six Iblur tanker operators who keep the taps running at this apartment complex; the residents rely entirely on them. For convenience, the six operators divvy up the apartments into six rough clusters—a cluster each—but there’s no doubt that Thayappa is the ringmaster of this cartel, the woman said. Every time she has tried to haggle with the supplier of her own cluster, he has said “Thayappa won’t agree.”
The woman’s cluster alone buys more than 42,000 gallons of water daily—25 tankers’ worth, all drawn from bore wells within driving distance of Iblur. In January 2015 she and her tanker operator had informally settled on a price of $7.50 a tanker, but six months later the cartel had—at Thayappa’s urging—unilaterally jacked up the rate to $8.25. Over a year, that works out to an addition of more than $6,800 to the cluster’s water bill. One of the smaller apartment clusters was being forced to pay for a minimum number of daily tanker-loads, even though it didn’t require that much water. If the apartments had been hooked up to the heavily subsidized civic system, a tanker’s worth of water would cost them as little as 70 cents.
In an attempt to source its own water, the complex had dug 22 bore wells of its own, but they rarely work; even though they reach 900 feet or more into the ground, they return only air. In 2015, out of desperation, the woman worked the phones to find suppliers further afield. One operator agreed to a rate of $6.75 per tanker but then backed out, wary of another cartel’s turf. “He called and said he couldn’t take the job. He said, ‘You didn’t tell me your apartment lies in Iblur.’”
Sometimes the stories are bloodier and grimier. In 2011, in a different neighborhood, a man identified only as Kabeer had his ribs broken for calling out an alleged boss of the local water mafia. Some municipal councilmembers and local politicians own tanker fleets themselves or allow these illegal businesses to operate in return for kickbacks. In a block of apartments in Bommanahalli, not far from Iblur, water board officials kept shutting off the piped supply altogether, insisting that their connection had been illegally installed. Weary of paying nearly $1,250 in monthly tanker dues, the residents, in 2011, decided to dig a new bore well. Just as work commenced, their tanker operator arrived with two colleagues—“just regular-looking guys,” says Padma Ravi, a filmmaker who lived in the building at the time, “except that they had really big machete-type things. They said, ‘You can’t dig.’” The excavation had to be finished under police supervision.
Shortly after I learned his name, I rang Thayappa and asked to meet him. The first time he stood me up, I waited for four hours. “Stay at the main intersection and I’ll come get you,” he had told me on the phone, sounding bored and drowsy. So I occupied a stone bench between a fish stall and a tea shop, on a corner where two slender roads crossed. To pass the time, I counted the tanker trucks that rolled by. On occasion, a tanker nozzle’s cap was loose, and water lapped out and slid down the truck’s torso. If the trucks were empty, they gave out hollow rumbles as they headed back through Iblur for a refill. By the time I gave up, having grown tired of calling Thayappa’s number and receiving no response, I had counted 57 tankers.
WHEN TITANS OF the tech industry like IBM and Sun Microsystems began drifting into Bangalore in the mid-1990s, the city’s geography had been part of the allure. Sitting atop a series of ridges, Bangalore lies more than 3,000 feet above sea level—an elevation that affords the city month after month of moderate temperatures, nippy evenings, and clement afternoons. But this topography also permits Bangalore’s 33 inches of annual rain to flow instantly downhill. Hauling water from the nearest major river—the Cauvery, 53 miles to the south—is a formidable and inefficient affair.
For generations Bangalore stood out for its foresight in devising ways to manage its water. The founder of the city, a 16th-century chieftain named Kempe Gowda, dug the first of the city’s lakes, to trap and hold rainwater. Subsequent kings and then the British dug more, so that a census in 1986 counted 389 lakes, spread like pock marks across the face of Bangalore. As early as 1895, Bangalore deployed steam engines to pull water from its reservoirs; a decade later, it became the first Indian city to use electric pumps. In the 1930s, the first water meters in India were installed here.