Monday was quieter than most days in South Chennai. Amid the usual din of bustling traffic, the rumble of water lorries ploughing through its roads could not be heard. The South Chennai Private Water Lorry Owners Association, which has some 1,200 tankers that are a lifeline to large parts of the city, was on strike.

For the next three days, localities here, including the many information technology firms that dot the Old Mahabalipuram Road stretch, did not receive their regular water supply. Some residents even contemplated moving out of their homes, reported The New Indian Express. This part of Chennai has been dependent on water supply from tankers since its development over the past two decades.

The strike is the result of an old dispute between private tanker owners and the district administration. It flared up last week after revenue officials in neighbouring Kancheepuram district seized five lorries for extracting water illegally from agricultural wells.

The dispute was resolved on Wednesday night at a meeting between the administration and the association, but it may just have been the first warning sign of a particularly dry summer with recurring fights over water.

Summer is yet to truly set in but, clearly, Chennai’s water crisis has already begun.

A running dispute

The administration – which fined the owners of the five lorries Rs 2,000 each last week – said that tankers frequently draw water without the required permission.

“We repeatedly get complaints that water is being extracted from wells from agricultural land, using free power supply meant for farmers for commercial purposes,” said VP Jeyaseelan, the sub-collector of Chengalpet division in Kancheepuram.

Tanker owners need clearance from the groundwater department to extract groundwater, and the permission of the rural development department to dig new borewells, he said. “They didn’t adhere to these rules, so we had to take action,” he added.

Over the years, rapidly depleting groundwater levels within the city have pushed the private tanker owners to travel into interior villages in search of wells. They pay villagers between Rs 100 and Rs 150 for a tanker full of water, which is around 12,000 litres. They then sell this water to residents in the city for Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per tanker.

The result is an internal conflict in the villages between those who sell the water to the tanker owners and farmers.

Tankers draw groundwater using pipes. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Tankers draw groundwater using pipes. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Two years ago, some villagers from Kancheepuram filed a petition in the Madras High Court against the extraction of water from their wells. The court ruled in their favour, asking the administration to ensure that the tankers did not obtain the water illegally. Jeyseelan said that last year too, some tankers were seized but let off when the president of the association promised to secure legal permits.

This time round, though, the association protested the seizure of its lorries, calling it arbitrary.

“Till now, we have been extracting water and supply[ing] to many households without permission,” said N Nijalingam, the president of the association. “The government had assured us that they wouldn’t stop us. Now suddenly they are seizing our tankers.”

Before the resolution, Nijalingam said that until the government gave the tankers legal permits to operate without disruption, the lorry owners would remain on strike.

Double-edged sword

This would have been disastrous for residents of South Chennai. By Wednesday, the IT companies were already on the verge of shutting down – implying crores of losses for each day. At the intervention of the National Association of Software and Services Companies, and pressure from residents, a meeting was convened between the district administration and the association. At this meeting, the administration agreed to give the lorry owners a month to procure the required permits for extracting water.

Chengalpet sub-collector Jeyaseelan said the tankers had been let off for now so that the public did not have to suffer, adding that the lorry owners often took recourse to such disruptions to protect themselves. “We are in the position [where] if you are taking stringent action, the public is getting affected,” he said. “So we have to act soft on this issue. Unlike illegal sand or mineral mining, this is a double-edged sword.”

But the administration plans to regulate groundwater resources and is working on bringing in new rules over the next few months. These regulations would be crucial to managing any impending water crisis during the summer months.

And the chances of further disputes arising are high. Groundwater levels across Tamil Nadu have plunged in the past months as a result of two consecutive monsoons of low rainfall. In such a scenario, more tankers may be required to meet Chennai’s water needs this summer.