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STAR-CROSSED IN SILICON CITY

Migrant workers who fled droughts and floods in their villages, bear an unequal burden in Bengaluru's intense water crisis

April 5, 2024

Amoolya Rajappa

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Girls and boys of all groups eagerly gather around the BWSSB water tanker in Jakkur, Bengaluru, seizing the opportunity to fill as many pots as possible. Amoolya Rajappa/ The Migration Story

Bengaluru, Karnataka: It is the holy time of Ramadan and the six members of Abdullah’s family are struggling to maintain the basic hygiene required to observe Roza and offer Namaz, amid rising heat and an unprecedented water crisis in Bengaluru.

A sense of dusty despair surrounds their home, a tin-roofed shed in the migrant shanties near Kariyammana Agrahara, situated in East Bengaluru’s Bellandur, right behind a plush apartment complex. 

In the scorching summer heat, the only source of water for migrant families living here is a water tanker the landlord provides once a week. It fills up the three blue plastic drums (of about 200 litre capacity), lined up outside every house in Abdullah’s neighbourhood. 

“We need them to provide us with water at least twice a week. Each family needs at least six drums a week, but now we barely manage with two or three drums to meet the entire family’s needs including bathing, washing and cooking,” 36-year-old Abdullah, who wished to be identified by only his first name, told The Migration Story

Bengaluru, India’s third-largest metropolis, draws in thousands of migrant workers from across the country, who are compelled to relocate owing to declining farm yields due to floods and prolonged droughts, low wages, and limited livelihood opportunities in their places of origin.

Free water reads the notice on the white tank stationed outside migrant sheds in Jakkur, Bengaluru. Amoolya Rajappa/ The Migration Story

They are amongst the worst hit in the sprawling city’s water crisis.

Employed across diverse service sectors including construction, retail garments, hospitality, and manufacturing, these workers drive the thriving IT industry in the city and propel its booming real estate market. Yet, they find themselves battling an escalating water crisis on an unequal footing with local residents, who enjoy greater access to water at lower costs.

Abdullah migrated from Karimganj district in Assam, over seven years ago and now works as a housekeeping staff in Bengaluru.

 

However, this summer they face the harsh consequences of a searing water crisis in the city, exacerbated due to severe drought, depleted ground water resources and limited access to piped water supply.

After leading a review meeting regarding the drinking water shortage in the city last month, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah stated that Bengaluru is experiencing a shortfall of 500 million litres per day (MLD) water every day. 

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Abdullah poses for a picture next to the ubiquitous blue drums, a familiar sight outside migrant households in Kariyammana Agrahara in Bengaluru. Vikrant Anand/ The Migration Story

Mounting water woes  

The acute water shortage in the migrant homes in Kariyammana Agrahara has pushed many workers to use drinking water for daily chores such as bathing and cleaning utensils. Sourced through the nearest water kiosk located half a mile away, they purchase potable water in smaller cans of 25 litres capacity. 

“It costs us Rs 30-40 per can depending on availability. We are now spending around Rs 100-120 to get drinking water every day,” said Abdullah’s cousin Sahil, who earns Rs 15,000 a month running a grocery store that is frequented by migrant workers in Kariyammana Agrahara. 

“The most important thing during Roza is cleanliness. We are expected to wash ourselves before offering Namaz every time. But we barely have water to wash our face, forget having a bath,” he said.

The crisis is set to worsen with owners warning about a rise in house rents to offset expenses incurred for water tankers. At present, both Abdullah and Sahil pay up to Rs 4000 each in rent every month. 

Just a few meters away, four men from Assam, who reside in a shed close to three functional borewells, watch water constantly being pumped onto water tankers headed to parched city neighbourhoods, including high-rise apartments.

“Despite having a tap connection, we get water supply for just a few hours every second or third day,” said a 28-year-old male worker from Barpeta district in Assam.

Employed as a security guard at a private IT company, he requested to remain anonymous due to recurring linguistic tensions between migrant workers from the North-East and local Kannada groups in the city. 

“Back home, repeated floods have rendered our scanty agricultural lands infertile. So, we are forced to move out into cities that promise continuous employment and a fixed salary,” he added.

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A young girl ferries water in plastic pots in Doddakannelli, Bengaluru. Vikrant Anand/The Migration Story

Living on the margins   

This year, the residents of Bengaluru complained of unusually hot and dry summer months as early as February. However, the fact that the IT city’s taps have run dry this summer is no surprise.

An assessment in 2018 had listed Bengaluru to be among the top ten metropolitan cities of the world that are on the verge of an imminent water crisis. The city is among six other global megacities, including Los Angeles, Moscow, Lahore, Delhi, and Beijing, that are located in regions with perennial water scarcity.

Bengaluru imports piped water from the Cauvery River, pumping it uphill from a reservoir situated 90 kms south of the city. Though procured at staggering pumping costs every day, this accounts for just half of the city’s needs. 

The other half comes from groundwater resources, the recharge rates of which are significantly lower than extraction rates, as the city is situated on a fractured hard rock aquifer in the semi-arid rain shadow of the Western Ghats.

Last year, Bengaluru experienced its highest rainfall deficit in over 40 years.

An academic case study on urban climate justice of migrant populations in Bengaluru noted that existing inequalities, compounded by the effects of climate change, worsen the exclusion of migrants from participating in public life, further increasing the risks they face.

Kariyammana Agrahara was one of the 110 villages on the outskirts of Bengaluru that got subsumed by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) during its expansive growth in 2007, but still don’t have piped household water supply.

The state government has said that starting in May, as part of a plan to supply drinking water to more than 5 million people, these villages will also receive drinking water sourced from the Cauvery River.

However, activists advocating for migrant rights express concerns that despite its scale, this initiative may not adequately address the needs of the numerous informal migrant settlements on the outskirts of Bengaluru.

“In one of our studies, we found that 76% of the 986 migrant households surveyed lacked access to water facilities for both drinking purposes and other essential uses,” said Bharath Nataraj, Program Lead of Community Climate Action Collective at Migrants Resilience Collaborative in Bengaluru.

“The current water crisis has made things worse… We hear migrants complaining of having to queue up at water kiosks for more than two hours to access drinking water. This is further affecting their working hours, wages and caregiving activities,” he said.

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A migrant worker in Kariyammana Agrahara in Bengaluru carries potable water bought from the nearest water kiosk. Vikrant Anand/ The Migration Story

Demand exceeds supply 

In her decade-long stay in Bengaluru, Manthamma (40) describes this as the worst summer she has witnessed.

She lives with her seven-member-family, including her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and their three children, in a one-room shed in Jakkur, North Bengaluru, which lacks both a tap water connection and an attached toilet.

They rely on two piped connections provided by the City Municipal Council for their water supply, which also cater to the needs of 20 other migrant shanties nearby.

“Unlike last year, this year the water is supplied only once in two days for just about half an hour to one hour. We queue up to collect at least four pots per household even with the thin flow of water. But sometimes, there are power cuts and overcrowding,” said Manthamma, who works as a domestic help.

In an attempt to make up for the shortages, a temporary white tank with a notice that reads ‘free water’ is stationed at the entrance of their shanties by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). 

However, the tank outside Manthamma’s house has been refilled just thrice in the last two weeks, and never lasted more than a day. Every time the water tanker visits, collecting and storing water becomes a family affair, with girls and boys of all ages huddling around swiftly to fill as many pots as possible. 

On the opposite side of the city, in Doddakannelli in south-east Bengaluru, Nagaraj (29) pays Rs 4 for a small plastic pot of water and Rs 6 for every bucket, exactly double the amount he paid for the same quantities last year. “I spend over Rs 700 a month just on water these days,” shared Nagaraj.

Since migrant workers buy water on a per-unit basis, they end up paying much more than other residents who typically purchase entire tankers. 

Manthamma and Nagaraj’s families are among scores of people who migrated from the arid regions of north Karnataka to Bengaluru, to escape agrarian crisis marred with land degradation and frequent droughts. 

“Of late there is no severe water shortage, but back home jobs do not pay as much. I earn Rs 1100/day for my construction job here as compared to Rs 700 in my district. So, migration is the only way to earn some savings and send remittances back home,” Nagaraj said. 

Rapid urbanization  

The sharp growth in its metropolitan population over the last few years has posed new challenges in urban planning and infrastructure development for Bengaluru. A recent study found that from 1973 to 2022, Bengaluru saw a 51.86% increase in built-up areas alongside a 26.28% decrease in green cover.

“The city has been so concretized that we have lost most of our lakes, wetlands and interlinked drainage networks that acted as sinks and sponges allowing rain water to percolate and recharge groundwater levels,” said Harini Nagendra, professor of ecology at Azim Premji University, who has written extensively on impacts of urbanization on ecosystems.

“The city was never meant to expand and sustain as many people as it does today,” she added.

Globally, the number of people living in such cities and experiencing water scarcity is expected to rise significantly, crossing two billion by 2050, the differential impact of which will be borne by vulnerable populations such as migrant workers.

But for cousin brothers Abdullah and Sahil, leaving Bengaluru is not an option.

“Back home, there is water but no jobs and, in the city, it is just the opposite,” said Abdullah. The constant worry about water has dampened the usual festive spirit of the families as the month of fasting heads to a close, giving way to Eid celebrations.

“Water is essential for life, what can one do without it?” remarked Sahil. 

 

Edited by Anuradha Nagaraj

Amoolya Rajappa is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and reports on labour, internal migration, climate change and displacement in India.

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