More than 200 km from Chennai, two farmers sat on a wall by a roadside tea shop in Karaimedu village of Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district, deep in conversation.

“In 30 days, our crop will be ready for harvest,” said M Anbazhagan, 55, looking out onto his five-acre land across the shop. “Why is Chennai Metro Water taking away our water at this stage?”

“Doesn’t Chennai have many rivers and tanks?” asked R Jayachandran, indignantly. “Why can’t they use their own water? Why are they drawing water from our lake?”

“Since people in Chennai do not have enough water to drink, we want to share our water out of human kindness,” said Anbazhagan. “But we ourselves do not have enough. And we are dependent on this for our livelihood.”

They aren’t alone. Conversations with dozens of farmers around Wallajah lake in Cuddalore make it clear that the villagers here are unhappy that water from their lake is being diverted to Chennai. The state is facing an acute water shortage, with reservoirs holding 81% less water than the 10-year average. This is because the 2016 Northeast monsoon, from which Tamil Nadu receives most of its rainfall, was the worst in 140 years. In parts of the state, residents barely have enough water to drink, let alone use for agriculture.

With water scarcity so acute, the residents of Cuddalore are angry that their supplies are being diverted to Chennai. On April 20, more than 500 farmers from 25 villages blocked the Chennai-Kumbakonam road in protest against the extraction of water from Wallajah lake. The villagers dispersed only after they were assured that a “peace meeting” would be held in a few days to resolve the dispute with the collector and officials of Chennai Metro Water, as locals know the public sector Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board.

That did not happen. “It has been a week and we have not got any word of a meeting,” said Anbazhagan.

Villagers of Karaimedu claim first rights over Cuddalore's lakes. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Favouring cities

On most days, Chennai is supplied 830 million litres of water a day by Chennai Metro Water. But that figure is now down to 550 milion litres, according to The New Indian Express. To make up the shortfall, Chennai Metro Water increased its tanker fleet by 250 tankers to 770 for drawing water from borewells and waterbodies on the outskirts of the city.

As the summer progressed, Chennai Metro Water turned its attention to smaller lakes and tanks in rural areas, much to the anger of residents. With their regular water sources fast being depleted, rural people have to bear the burden of the city’s growing thirst.

In Cuddalore district, water is being drawn from the Veeranam lake. The lake regularly supplied up to 77 cusecs of water to Chennai city, according to a Public Works Department official. It receives water from the Kollidam river, which in turn is fed by the Mettur dam. All these water bodies have now run dry.

As a result, Chennai Metro Water has turned to smaller lakes such as Wallajah and Perumal to meet the shortfall in supply to Chennai. These lakes are filled with groundwater extracted by the Neyveli Lignite Corporation while mining for lignite.“Suddenly they have begun sending water to Madras because of which drinking water is scarce in the villages,” said G Madhavan, Cuddalore district president of the All India Kisan Sabha.

Wallajah lake in Cuddalore district. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Sucking villages dry

Unlike in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the drought has not wrecked the crops of these villages in Cuddalore. Farmers of this low-lying area fear flooding caused by excess rainfall more than drought. With a regular supply of water from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation, which has also undertaken efforts to desilt canals and tanks, the farmers managed a fair harvest of the winter crop. They now have less than two months to harvest the navrai, the summer rice crop.

But over the past six weeks, farmers claim to have seen more than the usual number of pump stations along the lake. “Earlier there used to be two stations, but they have kept adding more,” said Anbazhagan. “There are also more borewells that have been dug by Chennai Metrowater in the area.”

Moreover, water levels in canals around the lake have been falling, leading the farmers to suspect that water was being sucked out by multiple pump stations.

The authorities, however, insisted that this was not a major issue because only a “small quantity” was being supplied to Chennai. “They were agitating for this small quantity of water,” said K Ethiraj , superintending engineer of the Public Works Department, Cuddalore. “Only a meagre quantity of 17 cusecs is being drawn by Chennai Metro Water. With that quantity, people won’t do any paddy cultivation. They are simply protesting against water going from Wallajah tank to Chennai.”

Ethiraj said Chennai Metrowater had secured permission to draw water from Wallajah over 10 years ago, so it was not a new development. He said farmers are facing a problem not because of the water being supplied to the city but because of scanty rainfall and falling groundwater levels across the state.

Chennai Metro Water has not replied to questions emailed by, asking if there was any change in their plans to draw water from Cuddalore’s lakes in the wake of protests by farmers.

Villagers of Kolakudi have to bear with severe water scarcity. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Stark inequality

At 11 am on Wednesday, M Rakshaganathan returned from taking a bath in a small puddle near a common borewell in Kalkunam village of Cuddalore. The was no water at home to drink, let alone bathe in.

Kalkunam is further down from the villages that are entirely dependent on water from Wallajah lake for agricultural and domestic use. The villagers scramble to collect a couple of buckets of water each from trickles from the borewell once a day – hardly enough to meet their needs. Fights among villagers over water are growing frequent.

“We cannot even bathe our newborn grandchild,” said Rakshagananthan. “The cattle in this village are also dying of thirst.”

Back in Karaimedu village, Anbazhagan and Jayachandran’s discussion over water in their lake continued.

“We have lived by this lake for decades,” said Anbazhagan, shaking his head. “We were not even consulted or informed about our water being directed to Chennai.”

“There will be more protests if water continues to be diverted to the city,” said Jayachandran. “Shouldn’t we have rights over our own water?”

Pipes taking water from a lake in Cuddalore. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan