Profiteering in water

Insight

Inexpensive water from RO kiosks in Bengaluru is being used to make easy money

Realizing the need for potable water, political parties in Bengaluru have made arrangements along with the Karnataka government to provide clean water at subsidised rates.

These kiosks, funded by MLAs or (in some cases) the state government, have been set up in almost all BBMP wards. Sporting huge pictures of the local MP and MLA, these reverse osmosis (RO) water kiosks dispense water cheap. A litre costs Re 1, while 20 litres is priced at Rs 5.

 

OFFICIAL RATES

                             Price (Rupees)            Corresponding litres of water
OneOne
TwoTwo
FiveTwenty

 

The supply of inexpensive and clean drinking water is a big help to people who would otherwise have relied on unreliable sources, making them vulnerable to water-borne diseases. But there is a flip side: Some people profiteer from the facility, negating the idea of setting up RO plants to supply inexpensive water.

People and shopkeepers close to these kiosks collect water, package it, and resell it commercially. They are helped by the lack of a cap on the amount of water that can be collected by a single person. They collect water in huge jars that have labels of well-known brands. But for the cap that lacks a proper plastic seal, it looks like “branded water”.

The water is sold in 20-litre jars or in smaller quantities – even in half-litre bottles, for Rs 7. It’s an astronomical profit for a person who buys 20 litres for Rs 5.

Manjesh, a private water distributor who operates from a small cellar in the Jnana Bharathi area, refused to reveal where he gets the water. But he claimed it is purified. “A jar of 20 litres will cost you Rs 25, Sir. Plus, Rs 100 as a refundable deposit for the jar.”

He usually sells these jars for Rs 30, he said, but reduced the price by Rs 5 when Insight said they were required in bulk for a school programme.

When Insight enquired about the brand, he stated: “Royal Aqua, Sir. You need not worry, fresh and clean water.” He supplies water to shops in the area. He has a shamiana in which he stores water jars.

The price Manjesh quoted for a 20-litre jar was half of renowned brands, making his “Royal Aqua” claim difficult to believe.

The jars Manjesh sells only have an easily removable cap; there is no plastic wrapper over it.

BIG DISCREPANCIES

                                Price (Rupees)                  At different places
5At water kiosks
2520-litre jar sold at Manjesh’s shamiana
3020-litre jar sold at his ‘company’ cellar
5020-litre jar of Bisleri and other brands

 

The kiosks dispense RO-treated water that is safe for consumption. Each kiosk has a glass enclosure that has a small apparatus to treat water. After treatment, water is channelized to an outlet. People can buy water by depositing coins into machines on the exterior. No currency notes are accepted.

Each kiosk has one person employed to monitor the collection of water.

Yellamma, who was filling a jar, told Insight: “This is one of the most remarkable measures by our MLAs. Nowhere will we get water this cheap. We had to earlier wait in queues to get water from water tankers or cement tanks. That was not very clean, but now we get this very cheap.”

Shantinagar MLA N.A. Haris claims to have spent a chunk of his funds on setting up RO plants in his constituency.

Haris’ personal assistant Murthy explained: “All the 22 RO plants under the Shantinagar constituency are funded under the MLA LAD scheme. We channelize MLA funds in order to help the public.”

However, “not all are funded by MLAs; there are some that are funded by the government of Karnataka”.

When Insight informed him about the profiteering in water, he said: “We install these plants for the benefit of all the people. Once we install these plants, we cannot keep track of who is doing what with the water they buy. People who purchase jars for Rs 40 should be aware about the RO plants and the rates they charge.”

When asked about the racket, K. Venkataswamappa, PA to Karnataka home minister R. Ramalinga Reddy replied: “No such cases have been brought to our notice.”

About the cost, he said: “There is an initial outlay of around Rs 8-10 lakh to set up a plant. There is no significant cost after that. The amount collected from these plants is used to take care of maintenance charges, if any.”

Asked about the source of water, Venkataswamappa said: “These plants get water from borewells.”

When Insight approached Ramalinganna, the caretaker of an RO plant in Jnana Bharathi, with a “bulk order”, he said: “We are not allowed to collected and sell water. I am just the caretaker of this plant. You can get your jars and collect as much water as you want.”

“You can take jars on rent from shops nearby and ask them if they can help you out with your bulk order. They usually reduce rates in case of bulk orders.”

Some residents don’t know there are RO plants near them. Like Nishita Challa, a resident of SG Palya. “I have college and assignments throughout the day. My apartment security guard knows some shopkeepers nearby. He delivers jars at home, and we pay him Rs 80.” When Insight informed her about a kiosk 600 meters from her dwelling, she said she was not aware of it. She was surprised to learn that water costs far less at the kiosk than what she pays.

A lot of water is wasted while filling containers at kiosks, and pumping water to overhead tanks. For instance, at an unmanned kiosk in Uttarahalli, the pump is switched on and forgotten. Once the overhead tank is filled, water overflows at 20 litres in a minute.

Ramesh Shivaram, secretary of the Forward Foundation, said: “The only solution to reduce profiteering racket is to not provide subsidized resources. Let the people earn what they want to use. Once you start a freebie or a subsidized product or service, there is no stopping that because people get used to subsidized rates.”

He alleged that the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewage Board (BWSSB) chlorinates water only in a selected few areas. “The BWSSB’s chlorination scheme is a scam. If water is not treated, then people do not have access to potable water.”

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