It’s 5 on a Wednesday morning and Jagannath Rupanwar, 50, has risen much before the sun. Driver of a tanker that supplies water to villages in Mokhada, a tehsil in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, he washes the vehicle, fixes two 40-foot-long pipes on top of the tanker, recites a quick prayer, and by 5.45 am, has hit the road for his first trip of the day — a 40-km journey to Dhamodi village from the Mokhada junction, where Rupanwar has spent the night, stretched out on a thin mattress on the roof of the driver’s cabin of the truck.
Rupanwar says it will take him about two hours to get to Dhamodi, a village on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. “The area is hilly and wooded, roads are narrow and difficult to navigate. I usually drive at around 20-30 kmph, especially when the tanker is full,” he says. The tanker holds 12,000 litres of water that Rupanwar had filled the previous night and, as the water hits the sides of the truck, it makes a soft, splashing sound.
Maharashtra is reeling under one of its worst water emergencies in years. With a large part of the state’s rural population grappling with an acute water shortage, tankers such as Rupanwar’s are a lifeline for these parched regions. The government has deployed 6,597 tankers to supply water to 5,243 villages and 11,293 hamlets across 29 districts, making this the highest ever deployment of such vehicles in the state. Around this time last year, only 1,777 tankers were in operation in rural Maharashtra.
Mokhada, an impoverished tribal tehsil in Palghar district located about 135 km from Mumbai, has been particularly hard hit since January, depending almost entirely on water tankers. At present, 34 tankers of 12,000 litres each, supply water to 46,650 residents across 28 villages and 77 hamlets in the region.
The Upper Vaitarna dam is barely 35 km from Mokhada, but supplies a substantial portion of its water to Mumbai. About 28 per cent of Mumbai’s daily water supply — 1,000 million litres out of 3,600 — is met through supplies from the Upper and Lower Vaitarna dams. While the Wagh river also snakes through the region, villagers say that in the absence of measures to tap its water, much of it goes wasted.
It’s now 7 am and the morning sun softly touches the truck’s dashboard. As the vehicle lumbers along, past large tracts of dry earth, Rupanwar keeps his eye on the road ahead. Two men walking down the road wave at Rupanwar. He nods and smiles in acknowledgment. “This place has become my second home. People here are very kind, but I feel sorry for them. Look at this heat. And to top it, there is no water. This year has been particularly bad. Water sources in almost all the villages have dried up. Usually, tankers run between March and June. This year, we’ve been deployed since January,” he says.
A truck driver since 1994, Rupanwar — his friends call him “Jagu anna” — has been supplying water to villages in Mokhada taluka for the past seven years. He is usually not at the wheel around the close of the year — Rupanwar is also a grape cultivator and is back at his three-acre farm in Agalgaon, his village in Sangli district, about 600 km away.
Until 2004, when the commissioning of a much-delayed irrigation project made farming a sustainable activity, his native tehsil, Kavathe Mahankal, suffered from a chronic water scarcity. “It’s only now that there is some money from farming. I had been driving to earn a living much before that. Besides, grape cultivation takes place only between October and February and there isn’t much to do thereafter. So I drive this truck and live here,” he says, tapping his steering wheel. On the dashboard in front are fragments of this life on the move — a couple of steel plates, a kitchen knife, pictures of gods and a black cap. On his right is a pair of aviator glasses, hanging from a toothbrush holder.
Rupanwar does not own the truck, but claims even the owner — who pays him
Rs 15,000 a month — “does not touch the vehicle without asking me”. “This truck and I make a good team. We were first paired up about two decades ago. Since then, we haven’t had a single accident,” he says, adding that when he bought a new Hero Honda motorcycle some years ago, he paid extra to ensure the two-wheeler had the same number plate as his truck.
After navigating three difficult bends along a slope, the truck finally hits a dirt track. “Almost there. We should reach in 10 minutes,” claims Rupanwar. It is 7.30 am when the truck reaches Dhamodi village, the first halt of the day.
Rupanwar parks his truck next to the village well, and climbs up to hurl down the pipes. He attaches one end of a pipe to the tank’s tap and directs the other end to the well. Just as the water comes gushing out, two women rush towards the tanker carrying plastic pots tied at the neck with ropes. Their homes are the nearest to the well and they had heard the truck as it entered the village. Minutes later, other women and children come running towards the well, vessels in hand. “It should take about 20 minutes to empty 12,000 litres into the well,” Rupanwar says.
Sailee Vaze, 41, climbs on to the raised wall of the 40-foot-deep well and suspends her plastic pot. Guniben Vaze, 62, does the same. In no time, others do the same, their pots rappelling down the well. “This tanker comes every alternate day. So I will have to stock up for tomorrow,” says Sailee, adding that she will have to draw about 10 pots of water to see her family through the next couple of days. As Guniben dangerously bends over the wall of the well, now peering into the inky black water, she brusquely dismisses those who ask her to step back.
Dhamodi, a village of 452 people, depends almost entirely on the well for its water. With little water and no means of irrigation, villagers only do subsistence farming, growing ragi and rice when there’s some water.
“Our women have to walk long distances to fetch water. This summer has been the worst. The water in the well dried up in January. The tanker has been our only hope since then,” says Ramesh Vaze, 39, a villager. He is among the few young men in the village — most of them are away in cities such as Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Bhiwandi and Wapi (in Gujarat), where they work at construction sites, coming back only during the monsoons.
By now, all 12,000 litres have been emptied into the well. As squabbles break out near the well and pots clash angrily, Ramesh says the well will go dry within two hours.
Rupanwar’s next destination is the water filling station — a percolation tank located 42 km from Dhamodi. The station is one of the three filling points in the tehsil identified by the government to fill water tankers. For seven days of the week, Rupanwar’s routine involves filling up water from this tank, heading out to a village, emptying water, and then coming back for a refill. Some days, he covers three villages, four on others, covering an average of 150 km a day.
An hour and a half later, around 9.40 am, on his way to the filling station, the truck halts near Mokhada’s main junction, at a tea stall that is a popular stopover for tanker drivers. It is time for some chai-naasta. “As we run on tight schedules, there is no time for a lunch break. So we eat a quick, small breakfast,” he says, ordering chai and bhaji. As he greets some of the other tanker drivers, he says, “Most of the tanker drivers in Mokhada are from Sangli. We have been employed by the same contractor. We are like family.” Soon, the contractor, Vijay Shinde, 47, and his associate, Kakasaheb Patil, 49, both from Sangli, join in.
Over tea, Shinde complains about the state of the water business. “It isn’t as good as it used to be. The rent we get from the government has gone up, but our margins have dropped,” he claims. Patil admits that in the past contractors could inflate bills, “but since 2015, there are GPS devices on each truck. Tankers are tracked on a real-time basis”.
Shinde has a fleet of 44 trucks, of which 34 run in Mokhada and the others in neighbouring tehsils. Of the 34 trucks, Shinde himself owns seven and has hired the rest from other tanker owners for a fee. At Rs 158 per 1,000 litre, Shinde gets a rent of Rs 1,896 per tanker per day from the government. Along with the Rs 24 that they get for every kilometre travelled, contractors such as Shinde make about Rs 5,500 per tanker per day. “But we pay for everything else — the diesel, drivers’ salaries, rents for the trucks on hire, and vehicle maintenance,” he says.
Over the years, the local administration has found it difficult to get contractors to work in this backward region. This year, bids had to be floated six times before the administration signed up Shinde — his firm was the only one that applied. “These areas are challenging. Villages are spread out and the water has to be carried over longer distances. Many roads aren’t motorable. Besides, there is no petrol pump or garage in the entire tehsil. So if your vehicle breaks down in this heat, you have to travel at least 30 km to another tehsil to get a mechanic to fix the truck,” says Shinde.
Two years ago, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had set 2019 as the year to make Maharashtra “tanker-free”, vouching for the water conservation and drought-proofing works carried out under the government’s flagship Jalyukt Shivar initiative. With the target falling short, the Opposition has been raising questions over the implementation of the programme. Refuting the allegations, Fadnavis has contended that it was the erratic monsoon this year that led to the water shortage. Three of the last five monsoons have been deficient and while the weathermen have predicted a normal monsoon this year, it is already late.
Dilip Sonar, 50, a mechanic with the state’s Water Supply Department, turns up at the tea stall. Sonar has overseen tanker water supplies in the tehsil for over a decade and he is the man locals often turn to if there is any disruption in supplies. “The water shortage is acute, but we have put adequate measures to ensure villagers get water till the monsoon arrives,” he says, stopping to ask Patil to direct all the stationary tankers to the filling station, 5 km away.
At some distance from the filling point, the tankers line up, Rupanwar’s truck leading the queue of eight trucks.
Patil and Sonar carefully inspect the dirt road, walking for about a kilometre to make sure the road — the soil still soft from the overnight rains – can take the weight of the trucks. Patil then signals Rupanwar to bring in his truck to the filling station.
At the filling station, Rupanwar stations his truck next to a generator. A site assistant attaches a pipe from the tanker to the generator, which sucks water out of the reservoir and drops it inside the tanker. Once the tanker is filled, Rupanwar adds chlorine to it. Later, Sonar performs a test to assess the water’s potability.
It is past noon. The refilled tanker is now headed to Kundachapada, about 22 km away. “We are behind schedule. Let’s move,” directs Sonar, who is still in Rupanwar’s truck. A Nashik resident, Sonar’s daily routine involves catching a 5.15 am bus to come to Mokhada, 62 km from his home. Once here, he goes to the filling station, ensures the tankers are filled, checks the water quality, coordinates with tanker drivers and the contractor, and visits some villages for “surprise inspections”. “During these summer months, I usually wrap up work only after 9.15 pm and reach home after 11.30 pm,” he says. Rupanwar drops Sonar off at a nearby junction, where some villagers are waiting to meet him.
“We’ll take an hour and a half to reach our destination,” says Rupanwar as the truck now hurtles down another dirt track on its way to Kundachapada.
It’s around 2 pm when the truck reaches Kundachapada village. Rupanwar parks the truck under the shade of a mango tree. Again, the hose from atop the tanker rolls down and Rupanwar connects it to a long pipe that the gram panchayat has installed at the well. There is chaos as soon as the water starts gushing out. Schoolchildren, still in their uniforms, clamber on to well with their pots. Villagers push and shove, elbowing each other and knocking pots around. Since the bottom of the well is muddy, most people rush to collect water directly, at the point where it enters the well. “We have been waiting since 8 am for the truck to arrive,” says Vanita Jadhav, 27, angrily.
With a population of around 700, Kundachapada is served by two tankers every day. But with the overnight rain causing a hold-up at the filling station, the tanker that was to deliver water in the morning, has not yet arrived, while Rupanwar himself is running a couple of hours behind schedule.
Dharti Digha, 32, balances four pots on her head and walks home briskly. “I cannot speak. I have to make multiple trips for water. It will take me at least three hours,” she says. The tank now empty, Rupanwar leaves the villagers squabbling around the well and heads out. He will have to refill the tank again, before moving to the next destination — Hattichapada.
As he drives to the filling station, eyes firmly on the road ahead, Rupanwar recalls how, growing up in Sangli, he had to cycle several kilometres to fetch water. As the truck passes a village, a man waves the vehicle down and hands over a tiffin to Rupanwar. “He is the local schoolmaster. He often cooks for me… a kind man.”
Around 4 pm, as the truck leaves the filling point for a second time in the day, it is cloudy. Hattichapada is about 12 km away and Rupanwar drives urgently. It starts to rain just as the truck is about to reach the village and Rupanwar slows down, reaching the site around 4.40 pm. There’s no one at the village well. The rains have forced the locals indoors.
As Rupanwar starts emptying the water into the well, Ramdas Nadge, 37, walks up to him and pats him on the back. “You are a good man. You are our lifeline.” His wife, Thekki, pleads, “Please do something to get us a water supply connection.”
This is the last trip of the day and Rupanwar is visibly tired, his right hand on the steering wheel and the left slumped on the gear stick. He turns on the music system — Yuhi chala chal rahi, it plays. Rupanwar turns on the volume knob and hums along.
Around 6.15 pm, he parks his truck near the Mokhada intersection; there are other water tankers here before him. “We cook in the truck and sometimes eat together. After dinner, all of us sleep in our vehicles itself. It’s a hard life, but at least we are doing our bit to help people,” says Rupanwar. Once the monsoon arrives, and reservoirs fill up, he knows he will be back home.
Around 8.30 pm, the drivers are all back in their trucks. As he hops into the driver’s seat, Rupanwar turns on the ignition key, looks at the odometer and smiles: “Look, we rode 148 km today.”