In the face of death threats, residents from 28 villages in water-scarce northern India are being forced to deliver 35 buckets of water a day to a gang of armed bandits.
Led by India’s "most wanted criminal," the horse-riding hoodlums residing in the state of Uttar Pradesh issued a “water tax” last week, demanding that supplies of water are hand-delivered to their remote hideouts if the villagers want peace in the area.
Parts of the state are experiencing drought conditions, with water sources drying up in the face of high temperatures and lower than average rainfall. In 2014, the annual monsoon only brought 26 days of rain — about half as much as expected.
With a $4,200 reward out for their feared leader Sudesh Kumar Patel, who goes by the alias Balkharia and has over 50 criminal cases outstanding against him, the bandits have been reluctant to leave the forests and mountains they call home in order to seek out their own water.
It has been challenging enough for residents to get enough water for their own needs, and villagers are now forced to trek more than two miles in order to collect and deliver the water to the gangs. Many of the towns have joined forces to supply the bandits.
"People are having a harrowing time in meeting the demand," Mayank Yadav, an activist in one of the water-taxed villages, told the Hindustan Times. "Water is scarce and supplying entails lot of trekking to places where bandits are putting up."
Despite the burden, villagers have reportedly been reluctant to go to the police because they fear the wrath of Balkharia’s notorious thugs.
Bandits, or dacoits as they are known in India, have plagued the country for approximately 800 years. But authorities have targeted dacoit gangs and their presence has been greatly diminished over the last few decades.
"A few bandits are still active in the ravines," local police officer Suresh Kumar Singh told the Associated Press. "They ask for water, food and shelter from the villages."
Balkharia’s particular gang showed up in the region over the last two years, after police proudly declared the area bandit-free in 2008.
According to the AP, the orders for water could help police track down Balkharia and his group of crooks.
"Secrecy is the mantra of any gang," Deputy Inspector General Amitabh Yash said. But he added that, "If the supply line is exposed, the gang can be finished any day."
In September, police in the region launched new efforts to combat the thugs. Authorities estimate that there are more than 20 bandits carrying guns, but nabbing them has proved difficult as they avoid cell phones and move around every few days.
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