A curious sight greets visitors arriving at Kambi village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district: a large number of pipes, both rubber and plastic, stretching into the distance, their ends suspended over a dry canal bed. What is their purpose? Once every two months, for a week, the Jayakwadi dam on the Godavari river releases water into the canal for supply to Nanded town, 135 km away. "This canal was made purely to provide water for Nanded," says R.H. Nawale, former Deputy Planning Officer, Ahmednagar. But a good deal of the water is diverted by farmers in the villages en route for their own fields using these pipes. "It is illegal, but no one does anything about it," adds Nawale. "The villagers, too, have no choice as there is no other water source in their region."
Illegal tapping of both surface and ground water is rampant throughout the country. "Water loss due to leakage and theft is as high as 90 per cent in some areas," says Rudresh Kumar Sugam, researcher with the Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). "On average, across 28 cities, it has been estimated at 39 per cent." A good deal of the water used by smaller players in the Rs 6,000-crore packaged water business is illegally procured. Restrictions on drawing of groundwater have been imposed in numerous areas to prevent further depletion of the water table, but it has made little difference.
In a drought situation, as currently prevailing in Maharashtra's Marathwada region, the temptation - and indeed in many cases, the compulsion - to procure water by means fair or foul, increases manifold. In Beed, for instance, one of the worst affected areas, the maximum depth permitted for a borewell is 200 feet. Yet, along the highway from Beed to Kaij 60 km away, those drilling for water freely admit that they will continue to dig till they achieve their objective. "The soil is so hard, we stopped drilling at 100 feet, but we have been told to continue till we reach 300 feet below," says Kishore, a worker at one of the borewell drilling rigs. Others have delved even further. "The situation is so bad, we sometimes don't find water even 800 feet below," says B.N. Chalak, a resident of Lahuri village, 10 km short of Kaij.