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If you live in one of India’s big cities, you share the road with water tankers. They thunder down the streets, delivering water to houses and apartment complexes, often spilling through some invisible leak. Tucked away on side streets, locals throng them with buckets. Tankers are part of an economic ecosystem that are inseparable from a country whose cities teem with millions of people, but whose public utility companies often don’t have enough water to go around.

Bangalore, India’s “BPO” and information technology capital, is full of them because of the city’s population growth in the past 25 years 1.5 million people in 1971, 9.5 million in 2011, according to census data.

The ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’ cannot satisfy the demand for water. Nor can it always handle routine problems and maintenance. A recent decision by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) to do some major work on the pumps at the Cauvery river, which delivers much of the water supply from nearly 100 kilometres away, shut down service to large parts of the city for two days.

Enter the water tankers, privately owned. The tanks should be coated in EPI (Ethoxylated polyethyiemine) to prevent hazardous chemical reactions between the tank’s metal and the salts that are dissolved in the water it carries. The supplier also must purify the water so that it is safe for washing clothes, bathing, cooking and drinking. Often, it is not.

Tanker drivers told me that the coating was painted on the tank’s exterior, refreshed to make the trucks look nice. This duty they obeyed as if it were regulated, even if the truck was old and coughed up clouds of soot.