Water scarcity

In Chennai, a tanker strike spells the beginning of a water crisis even before summer has set in

The strike ended on Wednesday with tankers allowed to extract groundwater illegally. But is legalising a necessary evil the answer?

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.