Climate of Change: Water ATMs make a splash as taps run dry in Bengaluru

BENGALURU • They are called water ATMs and they have sprung up across Bengaluru and other Indian cities as a vital lifeline of cheap and clean drinking water for those who cannot get enough of it through their taps.

While not like your traditional bank ATMs, the water ATMs can dispense up to 20 litres of water for as little as five rupees (10 Singapore cents). For those in need of less water, a single rupee will get them a litre at some ATMs, but they will have to take along their own bottles.

Some of the water ATMs operate for fixed hours every day, with an operator collecting money from consumers and turning on the taps. But others have been automated and are capable of running 24/7, requiring the user to drop a coin into a slot for the water to begin gushing.

While some of the water ATMs set up across the country have been established by non-profit groups, many of the dispensers in Bengaluru are operated by organisations looking to make money.

Even more have been established with the backing of local politicians seeking to placate voters unhappy with infrequent supply from the civic water authority.

For Mr N.A. Haris, a member of the Karnataka State Legislative Assembly from the ruling Congress Party serving the Shanti Nagar constituency of the city - which includes some of the most upmarket areas like MG Road and Brigade Road - the dozens of water ATMs he has set up are a way of keeping his constituents healthy.

"Healthy, good, potable water to keep human beings healthy is my aim," said the 52-year-old.

For Mr Vishwanath V., 31, the Youth Congress president for Jakkur Ward-5 in the city, the rationale for setting up the ATM stemmed from his desire to provide a service to the people of the locality.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE

Water ATMs reflect the scarcity of water and it is good that people feel that scarcity. The water ATMs are, by and large, state-supported and run by non-profits. So they are not making money, and selling water at a subsidised rate.

DR SHARACHCHANDRA LELE, a distinguished fellow from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru.

"We were born and brought up in this area. In a small way, we are doing political work," he said, proudly pointing out that the 24/7 water ATM was set up entirely with his own investment of 700,000 rupees.

Demand for water from these ATMs is high. Staff at some of the water ATMs The Sunday Times visited said more than 200 people come to the outlets on days when there is a problem with the water supply.

While the politicians ascribe noble motives to their efforts to set up water ATMs, experts and activists point out that the authorities are not addressing the root causes that drive people to these ATMs.

Dr Sharachchandra Lele, 56, a distinguished fellow from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru, noted that people do not seem to appreciate how precious a resource like water is until they are forced to pay for it.

"To that extent, water ATMs reflect the scarcity of water and it is good that people feel that scarcity. The water ATMs are, by and large, state-supported and run by non-profits. So they are not making money, and selling water at a subsidised rate," he said.

"But the moment you have such scarcity, you are going to have entrepreneurs who try to exploit that scarcity to make money. And this is where the role of the state really comes in, to say what is its position regarding the supply of water. And is it fair to let somebody make money from groundwater? That's a question the state is not willing to answer."

Arvind Jayaram

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 28, 2018, with the headline 'Water ATMs make a splash among thirsty residents'. Print Edition | Subscribe