An intense drought, such as the one prevailing over Tamil Nadu this year, has raised major concerns about the steady supply of drinking water among the rural and urban poor. But the more affluent households of Chennai rarely feel the impact, with a 20-litre plastic can of water delivered regularly to their doorstep.

The plastic container eliminates the need to stand for hours in line in front of a public tap with erratic water supply or an infrequent water tanker. Thousands of packaged water containers travel long distances from small villages in neighbouring districts all the way to Chennai, to quench the thirst of urban dwellers.

But a large scale strike by packaged drinking water manufacturing units around Chennai in the last week of May shook the water can consumers out of their complacency. On May 28, over 200 licensed packaged water manufacturing plants shut down in Chennai and Tiruvallur districts, and the next day, 100 more plants in Kancheepuram threatened to strike. Several residents heavily dependent on packaged water scrambled to stock up cans from distributors.

Though short-lived, the strike suggested that the regular supply of water cans could no longer be taken for granted.

Water strike

There were two reasons for the strike. The first was in protest against the new Goods and Services Tax rules that levy 18% tax on packaged water. The second, was drought. Citing plunging groundwater levels in various taluks of Thiruvallur district, local revenue officials issued notices to several water units to shut down and stop extracting water.

In a year where both the North East monsoon and the South West monsoon failed, Tamil Nadu is staring at a huge water crisis. “This is the worst drought of this century,” said Muruganandan, Tahsildar of Madhavaram district. “Local residents saw that water was dipping 4-5 metres below the usual level. After many resident welfare associations complained, we decided to send notices to many plants to shut down operations.”

In protest against this action by the authorities, the packaged water industry went on strike.

The Greater Tamil Nadu Packaged Drinking Water Association, which has 350 manufacturing plants in Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts as members, held talks with the Chief Minister Palanisamy demanding to be exempted from the Goods and Services Tax and allowed to operate by the revenue officials.

“We met the chief minister and the finance minister,” said V Murali, president of Greater Tamil Nadu Packaged Drinking Water Association. “They assured us that they would take up the matter about 18% taxation with the GST council.” With regard to the notices received from local officials to close down plants, Murali said that ministers assured them that they would “look into the matter and try to come to some amicable solution.”

Closure of plants

The issue is far from resolved. In Madhavaram taluk in Tiruvalur district, around 30 packaged water manufacturing plants had been shut down by the Tahsildar Muruganandan, who took it up as his mission to close plants that has not secured the required permissions from governmental authorities.

“These businessmen say they are licensed by showing Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and Indian Standard Institute certification,” said Muruganandan. “But they actually have to get consent from the Pollution Control Board for extracting water here.”

According to Muruganandan, Madhavaram was an area with plentiful groundwater until the population grew ten-fold over the following years, and with drinking water manufacturers taking advantage of the naturally occurring bountiful water levels.

“In most cases, the plants extract more water than they are supposed to in order to earn profits,” said a senior revenue official in Chennai who wished to remain anonymous.

One of the plants shut down was that of Vadivel Murugan’s, the owner of Yoga Packaged Drinking Water. Murugan ran a small scale plant for the past 15 years, employing around 20 people. He delivered around a 1000-2000 cans a day at an average a price of Rs 20 per can to suppliers or directly to households, hotels or companies.

“It is a very difficult business,” said Murugan. “People think it is very easy since ground water is free. But we have to pay almost one lakh a year for the certification by the Bureau of Indian Standards.”

High dependence

The bottled water industry began growing at a rapid pace almost two decades ago, and in an organised manner since 2002, said V Murali of the manufacturer’s association. On the outskirts of Chennai, several manufacturing units came up in strategically located areas with high water levels and numerous lakes. The whole industry also gives jobs to thousands of transporters, middlemen suppliers and door-to-door delivery.

“Almost everyone in the city now depends on packaged water for drinking,” said Murali. “Even the few people who depend on corporation water for drinking are moving towards packaged water for better quality.”

But it is undoubtedly plagued with problems as well. For one, the cost of securing the necessary licences is high. Second, dipping groundwater levels in times of drought also slow down business for these companies. But one of the biggest problems posed is frequent altercations with local residents and farmers using underground water for agriculture.

But the manufacturers argue that since they are providing an essential service for people, they should be allowed to use the groundwater. “We are using the water only to provide for drinking purposes,” said A Shakespeare of the manufacturer’s association. “If you don’t use it for drinking purposes, what else will you use it for? Lakhs of people depend on us for water.”