Deep in the maze of the narrow lanes of Bhuleshwar in south Mumbai, Manzur Alam Shaikh wakes up by 5 a.m. every day and gets to work. Lanky, and often clad in a checked lungi , he pushes his rented 550-litre metal cart towards Cowasji Patel Tank to fill it up with water. The area is about a kilometre from where he lives – out in the open, at the corner of a public toilet in Dudh Bazar, near Mirza Ghalib Market. He returns to Dudh Bazar with his cart, picks a spot to park it, and starts delivering water to his customers in shops and households nearby.
Manzur, 50, is one of the last remaining
, who earn a livelihood doing this work. He’s been supplying water, for drinking, cleaning and washing, to residents in this part of Mumbai's historical inner city for about three decades. Until the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the
’ occupation, Manzur was among the few
in Bhuleshwar who carted water in a
(also spelled as ‘
’), a leather bag designed to carry about 30 litres of water.
But the tradition of supplying water from a mashak “is dead now”, says Manzur, who switched to plastic buckets in 2021. “Older bhistis will have to go back to their villages, and the younger ones will have to find new jobs,” he says. The bhistis ’ work is a remnant of the traditional occupation of the Bhisti, a Muslim community in north India. The word ‘ bhisti ’ is of Persian origin and means ‘water carrier’. The community is also known by the name Saqqa, an Arabic word for ‘water carrier’ or ‘cup bearer’. The Bhisti are categorised as Other Backward Class (OBC) in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat (where the community is known as Pakhaali).
“Bhistis ruled the water supply business. They had these metal water carts at various spots in Mumbai,” says Manzur. “About 8 to 12 persons were employed at every cart to deliver the water.” When the once prosperous business of the Bhistis began to decline in old Mumbai, they started looking for other opportunities, he adds. In Bhuleshwar, labourers migrating from rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar slowly replaced them.
Manzur arrived in Mumbai in the 1980s from Gachh Rasulpur, his village in Bihar’s Katihar district. He sold
for the first couple of months before entering this line of work. Though not Bhisti by birth, he took up the job of supplying water in Dongri and Bhendi Bazar localities of Bhuleshwar.
“I was hired and trained by Mumtaz, a Bhisti from Rajasthan,” says Manzur. “He owned four water carts at the time. Each cart was stationed in a different
[neighbourhood], from where 7-8 persons would deliver water in
After working with Mumtaz for about five years, Manzur set out on his own and began to rent a water cart. “We had a lot of work 20 years ago, but only a quarter of it is left now. Our business was badly hit after water started getting sold in plastic bottles,” says Manzur. The rapid rise of the bottled water industry after liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991 dealt a serious blow to the bhistis in Bhuleshwar. The total bottled water consumption in India tripled between 1999 and 2004; the estimated turnover of the bottled water industry was Rs. 1,000 crores in 2002.
Liberalisation changed many things – malls replaced small shops, tall buildings took over the
s, and tankers started supplying water with motorised pipes. Demand for water from residential buildings steadily declined, and only the small commercial establishments such as shops and workshops were left dependent on the
. “Those living in buildings started ordering water from tankers. People also installed pipelines for water. And now, offering bottled water has become the practice at weddings, but we used to supply the water before,” says Manzur.
Before the pandemic, Manzur earned Rs. 15 for every bag of
(about 30 litres). Now, he earns Rs. 10 for delivering a 15-litre bucket of water. He pays Rs. 170 per month to rent the water cart now, and spends between Rs. 50 and Rs. 80 a day, depending on the source of water, to fill it. Temples and schools that have wells in the area sell water to the
. “Earlier we used to save at least 10,000-15,000 rupees every month, but now we are hardly left with 4,000-5,000,” Manzur says, comparing the time his business thrived and now.
His business partner, 50-year-old Alam (who only uses his first name), is also from his village in Bihar. Alam and Manzur take turns working 3-6 months in Mumbai and spending the rest in the village with their families. At home, they take care of their farms or work as farm labourers.
During the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, which extended till June 2020, the
had only a few customers left in Bhuleshwar – the support staff of small business establishments in the area, who worked during the day and slept on the pavement at night. But many shops had been shut and their workers had returned home. So Manzur, who had to feed his five children at home, couldn’t earn enough to send money to his family. He started assisting a mason at a building reconstruction site in the city’s Haji Ali area in early 2021, earning Rs. 600 a day.
In March 2021, Manzur left for Gachh Rasulpur, his village, where he worked as a farm labourer for Rs. 200 a day. With the money he earned, he repaired his house. Four months later, he returned to Mumbai and resumed work as a
, in the Null Bazar locality this time. But his leather bag required repair – a
needs mending every two months. So Manzur went looking for Yunus Shaikh to repair it.
Yunus, who is in his 60s, earned a living crafting and mending
in Bhendi Bazar. Four months after the March 2020 lockdown, Yunus went back home, to Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh. While he did return to Mumbai in December that year, he didn’t have much work. Only 10
or so operate in the area, and after the Covid-19 lockdowns, they started paying less for his service. Without much hope, Yunus returned to Bahraich in early 2021, never to return. He said he had lost the strength to mend
For 35-year-old Babu Nayyar, it spelled the end of his
-carrying days. “I have thrown it away as it is unrepairable.” He uses a plastic can now to supply water to shops around the Nawab Ayaz Masjid in Bhendi Bazar. “Until six months ago, there were 5-6 people who were using
. All have shifted to buckets or
[aluminum pot] now,” Babu said after Yunus's departure.
Unable to find anyone to repair his leather bag, Manzur was also forced to switch to plastic buckets. “After Yunus, there is no one to repair the
Manzur confirms. He finds it difficult now to lift water in buckets and climb stairs. It was easier with a
, which was worn slung over the shoulder and could hold a larger quantity of water. “This is the final chapter of our
job,” predicts Babu. “There is no money in it. Motorised pipes have replaced our work.”