LUCKNOW, India — Armed bandits in drought-stricken northern India are threatening to kill hundreds of villagers unless they deliver 35 buckets of water each day to the outlaws in their rural hideouts.
Since the threats were delivered last week, 28 villages have been obeying the order, taking turns handing over what the bandits are calling a daily "water tax," police said Monday.
"Water itself is very scarce in this region. Villagers can hardly meet their demand," officer Suresh Kumar Singh said by telephone from Banda, a city on the southern border of central Uttar Pradesh state and caught within what is known in India as bandit country.
Though the number of bandits has declined drastically in recent decades, they are still common in the hard-to-reach forests and mountains of the Bundelkhand region. Banditry dates back some 800 years in India to when emperors still ruled.
The area is cut off from supply lines, leaving the bandits reliant on surrounding villages. Since 2007, it has been starved for rain, with the yearly monsoon bringing only half the usual number of 52 rainy days a year.
"A few bandits are still active in the ravines," Singh said. "They ask for water, food and shelter from the villages."
But while the bandits were once admired as caste warlords with a touch of Robin Hood about them, as they fought to protest feudal orders or to avenge personal wrongs, today's bandits are considered mostly opportunistic thugs seeking personal wealth and power.
Last week, the bandits sent messengers to tell people in nearby villages they would be "shot dead" unless they provided the water, said Bagwat Prasad, from the local charity group that works on water and sanitation issues.
Small lakes and streams in the area have dried up, and the bandits are reluctant to risk running into police by leaving the area to fetch water supplies. India has set a $4,200 reward for information leading to the gang leader's arrest on charges of murder, looting and kidnapping.
Afraid of the bandits, who are from the Balkhariya gang, villagers last Wednesday began hauling water — sometimes 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) — into the unruly region where the gang is believed to have hideouts, Prasad said.
"Any request from Balkhariya gang members is an order," Prasad said. "No one can dare to say no."
Police said the water supply scheme could give them an opportunity to hunt down the bandits.
"Secrecy is the mantra of any gang," Deputy Inspector General Amitabh Yash said. But "if the supply line is exposed, the gang can be finished any day."