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Police escorts, curfews and long lines: What it takes to get water in west India

As two dozen policemen looked on, 25 giant tanker trucks were loaded up with water from a small reservoir in rural western India.

Escorted by police vehicles, the tankers filed down the dusty road about 12 miles to deliver the water to Latur, a city of 500,000 people whose municipal water facilities long ago ran dry.

The high security seen here on a scorching day recently was one of the clearest signs of the severity of the water crisis unfolding in drought-stricken western India.

With water taps running dry in Latur, 250 miles east of Mumbai, city authorities have had to enlist tankers to deliver water to residents for the last month and a half. The tankers have sourced water from surrounding areas, including Dongargaon, prompting opposition from residents of rural communities who say they too are suffering from scarcity and should not be giving their water to others.

When tankers first came to fill up at Dongargaon, residents attacked the trucks, prompting Latur officials to deploy police to secure the water delivery. After brawls also broke out at water distribution points elsewhere in Maharashtra state, authorities in Latur this month took the rare step of imposing a curfew barring people from gathering around water collection sites in the city.

Latur is in the middle of a parched farming region known as Marathwada that has been reeling under a four-year drought so severe that hundreds of farmers have committed suicide just in the last few months. Officials say about 30 people have died in the region this year trying to collect water, including two girls who drowned in wells.

Last month, residents in Latur swarmed an incoming water tanker. Umesh Gaikwad, 39, who had been appointed by city administrators to help manage the water delivery, suffered cardiac arrest while trying to pacify the mob. Five days later, he died at a hospital.

"Poor water management took his life," Gaikwad's brother told reporters.

A few days later, a 55-year-old woman collapsed while standing in line to fill her water jug.

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Ravindra Jagtap, a local journalist, said the scarcity of water and mismanagement by local officials have triggered fights between residents of different towns and villages.

"The immature manner in which the water crisis is dealt with makes clashes inevitable," Jagtap said.

India, where almost 76 million people lack safe drinking water, has long seen such fights. Latur has received piped water only once a month for the last few months. In February, the city's main public hospital had to stop performing surgeries for three days because of the lack of water.

At one distribution point in Latur, residents from children to the elderly lined up for more than five hours one day recently to collect water. Some sat in motorized rickshaws they rented to ferry water jugs as their children slept in the vehicles.

Some people cut the line, others pushed and shoved. Fights broke out, residents cursing one another.

"My life has been consumed by water," said Sorna Mali, a middle-aged woman, waiting in the line. "We have to think twice before taking a sip of water even in this scorching heat."

When the tanker finally arrived, people pounced, some climbing atop the truck.

Initially water was supplied every eight to 10 days, but in the last two weeks the water distribution has become even less frequent as nearby reservoirs have run dry. In February, people briefly held two local officials hostage over water disputes. About 600 businesses have closed operations in the city because of the lack of water.

Some better-off residents have begun to purchase water directly from private suppliers. Pramod Mundada, the owner of Sunrich Aqua, the largest bottled water plant in the area, said many private suppliers peddle untreated water that could make people sick.

"Helpless people end up buying adulterated water," Mundada said.

The situation is likely to worsen as India heads toward the summer, experts said.

"It would not be surprising if the civil strife intensifies over the next two months," Jagtap said.

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 28, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Brawling over water in west India - Towns and individuals battle over the precious resource in the drought- stricken region." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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