New Delhi: As the mercury rises this summer, long multi-coloured bucket lines will begin to appear at community taps in cities and villages across the country. Tempers will fray as formerly amicable neighbours fight bitterly for their share of the precious commodity. Meanwhile, in affluent neighbourhoods, state-subsidized water will be used to wash cars and water gardens. As water tables sink and frustration increases, Mint looks at the conflict and politics surrounding water in an election year.

Short supply: Empty water pots lined up as people wait for their turn in the Amruthhalli area of Bangalore. Cities do not view resource planning for water as part of the master plan, points out an expert. Hemant Mishra / Mint

Along the way, the water passes impoverished rural communities, where piped water is often an unheard of luxury and rivers are so polluted that no one would consider drinking their water.

Meanwhile, ageing infrastructure and mistargeted subsidies ensure that a lot of water is lost forever, dripping anonymously out of the system.

Call it India’s water paradox: The country’s teeming cities, forever swelling with migrants, are dipping farther and farther into the hinterland to source water for their residents, often drawing it from rural areas at the cost of the rural populace.

It wasn’t always like this. In a not-so-distant past, New Delhi used to get its water from wells in the Yamuna floodplains and step-wells in the Capital’s so-called Ridge, a wooded area.

Delhi’s water utility, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), is proposing to tap water from the Renuka dam in Himachal Pradesh. Chennai sources its drinking water from at least 235km away, Mumbai from 160km away and Aizawl from 1km down the valley, the equivalent of several hundred kilometres on the plains.

With nearly half the country’s population expected to be urban within the next four decades, cities will continue to cast their resource net way beyond their boundaries, escalating simmering tensions between urban and rural populations.

Traditionally, water bodies have been a source of conflict in the country, but the issue of cities tapping into reservoirs that supply water to farms is a sensitive one. “Now, when the farmer is deprived of water, he will put up his claim. In Mandya (a district in Karnataka), they (the government) wanted to implement a 40 million litres per day (mld) project, but farmers protested. Upstream people (those near the source of the water) are going to have a lot of say (in cities tapping water)," said M.N. Thippeswamy, ex-chief engineer, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board.

Already, water is proving to be an electoral issue in states. In Rajasthan, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which earlier had barely a toehold in this Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress dominated state, won three seats and considerably increased its vote share after it led a farmers’ agitation on the lack of irrigation networks.

And in the south, tensions between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are just one bad monsoon away.

DJB chief executive officer Ramesh Negi points to the inherent paradox in the water supply scenario in India, with rural areas, which are usually the most efficient water users, suffering because city dwellers get most of the government’s attention. “Water as a resource is still tied to geographical boundaries," he said.

Citing the example of Delhi and Haryana, which have bickered periodically about the amount of water that Delhi sucks up, Negi said: “The time has come for Delhi and Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to be on the same side. If there is an NCR (National Capital Region) concept in other areas, why shouldn’t there be an NCR perspective for water?"

Mandya is not the only instance of such water protests. Two years ago, six people were killed when the police fired on farmers in a village in Rajasthan.

The farmers were protesting against the state, which had rejected their request to route water from the nearby Bisalpur dam to their fields, because Jaipur (70km away) needed the water. The Hogenakkal drinking water project in Tamil Nadu is another instance where Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are currently contesting water sharing between the two states. Under the project, Tamil Nadu will source water from the Cauvery river, within Karnataka borders.

Thippeswamy said the major problem is that cities do not view resource planning for water as part of the master planning process. “The Bangalore master plan doesn’t say anything about water. How can you accept that plan then? Where is the water going to come from?"

Thus, even though experts agree that extending pipelines indefinitely is not the solution, most cities have plans to draw water from farther sources.

“There is no doubt about it, we are definitely at the point of crisis," said a senior official at the ministry of water resources, who did not want to be identified.

But the official doesn’t have a solution. Most villages and satellite towns of big cities, he says, “make do with less".

That’s not an optimal solution because the real problem isn’t availability of water.

In Delhi, for instance, DJB supplies around 3,375mld of water, with the average of 240 litres per capita per day being the highest in the country.

“Industrial, agricultural and domestic uses are competing against each other. Under domestic use, there are urban areas, which are water guzzlers, and rural areas, which have water but are not able to access it," said Richard Mahapatra, national coordinator, WaterAid India, the local arm of an international organization that works in the area of drinking water and sanitation.

Agriculture alone uses at least 80% of the water utilized in India. “But 90% of agricultural usage is met through groundwater, which is also critical for rural drinking purposes; more than 85% of rural drinking supply is met through groundwater. That immediately puts agriculture in competition with drinking water," Mahapatra added.

Increasing the length of pipes doesn’t only mean invading new territories for water. It also means escalation in production cost of infrastructure and the continuous pumping of water from far-flung areas, as well as more losses from leakage.

Delhi, for instance, has the highest leakage loss—a whopping 47%. Mumbai has 30% and Bangalore, 39%. “Look at the kind of leakage utilities have; imagine a pipeline that long and its maintenance and monitoring," said Mahapatra.

Add to this the associated increase in costs of production. Aizawl, which has to pump water from a valley just a kilometre away, spends Rs53.93 per kilolitre (kl). Delhi, which fortunately doesn’t have an incline to contend with, has a production cost of Rs11.33/kl and Mumbai, Rs9.27/kl.

None of the parameters are projected to change in the future. By 2021, according to the economic survey 2007-08, Delhi will have to contend with a deficit of at least 1,000mld for a population in excess of 22 million.

“The benchmark of drinking water per person is 3 litres per day. For a family of five, it is 15 litres. If you can’t provide that, you are fighting the hardest for the least amount. That shows how acute the situation is," said Mahapatra.

Next: The equity of water distribution.