Outside Limra Mansion in Chennai’s crowded Triplicane neighbourhood, tenants’ motorcycles seem to have gobbled up all the space that pedestrians could otherwise have used. Inside, though, the manager of the guest house for young men complained that there were more empty rooms than he’d had for a while.

“We had 100 people in the mansion two months ago,” he said. But with Chennai reeling under its worst water shortage in decades, he has cut occupancy down to 40. For the past few weeks, Limra Mansion simply hasn’t been getting enough water to let it to take in more residents.

The neighbourhood of Tiruvallikeni, or Triplicane as it is popularly known, is a haven for young men looking for cheap accommodation in the city. The neighbourhood has between 300 to 350 affordable guest houses. Because they cater mainly to single men from other places working or looking for employment in Chennai, these establishments are known as “bachelors mansions” .

A basic room without an attached bathroom could cost as little as Rs 150 a day. But now, finding a room on a daily rent basis has become extremely difficult. Since the beginning of June, several bachelor mansions have shut down some rooms and have stopped taking in new clients. Many are only accepting clients willing to pay a monthly rent, which has been increased to compensate for the rising cost of water.

Walking around Triplicane, it is clear that the half-empty mansions are only one manifestation of the horrific crisis that Chennai is facing. On almost every street corner, women with plastic pots line up near the water tanks, waiting for tankers of the Chennai water board to come by.

Facing drought for the third consecutive year, Chennai has seen water levels in its main lakes plunge, along with supplies in its wells. Unable to cope, some schools have decided to work only half days, while several companies have asked employees to work from home. Even restaurants have limited their operating hours: if they stayed open longer, they wouldn’t have enough water to wash the dirty dishes.

Closing mansions

For Triplicane’s Limra Mansion, the trouble began in May when the Chennai Metro Water and Sewerage Board began cutting down water supply after reservoirs around the city dried up, the manager said.

Triplicane has three distinct sections. The part near Marina Beach has a large population of fisherfolk living in several hamlets. Just away from this is the Parthasarathy Temple dating back to the 8th century CE, around which is a predominantly Brahmin and upper-caste residential area, chock-a-block with apartment complexes. Further inside is a Muslim neighbourhood with the 18th century Wallajah Mosque as its central landmark.

All three sections are heavily congested. The roads and streets that connect the temple to the mosque form a commercial district. This is where thousands of shops and bachelors mansions are located and where the iconic Chepauk cricket stadium stands.

Once the municipal water supply was reduced, the manager of the Limra Mansion said, the dependence on the borewells that almost every building in Triplicane had dug following the drought years of 2001-2003 increased. Soon, these borewells ran out of water.

“The chaos set in after this,” he said.

Most bachelors mansions depend on water from tankers to fill their underground storage tanks. But with the water board sending its tankers to residential areas, the cost of water from private suppliers has more than doubled.

Shahul Hameed, manager of the Thayifa Guest House on Big Street, said that in February, the cost of a tanker with 12,000 litres of water was about Rs 2,500. “Now even if we are ready to pay Rs 7,000, there is no supply,” he complained.

At the same time, many of the area’s borewells dried up due to overuse. “What we are getting in the borewell now is only a trickle,” Hameed said.

This means the rooms in the bachelors mansions have become more expensive. Among those struggling to cope is S Manickam, who lives in a guest house on Triplicane High Road. Hailing from Ramanathapuram in South Tamil Nadu, 26-year-old Manickam works as a waiter in a restaurant in the area. He complained that he has been asked to pay Rs 750 more from June as rent for the room. “My restaurant owner refused to compensate me for this,” he said. “Imagine the burden this places on the working class.”

Manickam now hopes to convince the mansion owner to allow a third person in the room to soften the blow of the rent hike. He added that going home to Ramanathapuram wasn’t an option. “There is no farming in the village due to the scarcity,” he said. “What will I do for employment?”

Shahul Hameed, manager of a bachelors mansion on Big Street in Chennai's Triplicane area. Credit: Sruthisgar Yamaun

Severe water crisis

In recent weeks, traffic on Triplicane High Road has frequently been hampered by crowds of women, their pots around them, waiting for the water tanker. The lorries visit erratically and no one knows when they could turn up: it could be before sun rise or in the afternoon under the blazing sun. The wait is endless.

Among the women on the street on Wednesday was 68-year-old Sivagami. She said that the residents of three lanes with over 50 houses on them depend on one tanker, carrying a load of about 6,000 litres of water. “Each family gets four pots of water every evening,” she said. The families get this quantity irrespective of the number of people in each home.

“We are five members in the family,” said Sivagami. “How do we live with just four pots of water?”

Sivagami said that as a senior citizen who does not work, she is never the priority when it comes to actually using the water that she brings home after waiting for hours on the road. “My son works and my grandson studies,” she said. “So I take a bath only once in two days” – and then only if her son manages to bring home additional water from elsewhere.

Until a few weeks ago, Triplicane’s small lanes were the worst hit by the crisis because the large water lorries were unable to enter them. The Chennai water board has since deployed smaller vehicles with lower-capacity water tanks to reach these stretches.

A smaller water tanker supplying drinking water to residents in narrow lanes in Chennai. Credit: Sruthisagar Yamaun

In Chennai, during normal times, most residents draw municipal water from the pipes using hand pumps. But in recent weeks, even in places where water is still being supplied through the pipes once in two or three days, the pressure is so low that pumping has become difficult.

On Triplicane’s Sunguvar street, residents said the water supply lasts for exactly half hour. “It is a trickle so you have to constantly pump if you hope to sustain the meagre flow,” said R Vasugi, a home maker. The water that emerges is not completely clean either, forcing residents to filter it before use. For drinking, many of them have opted for mineral water that they buy in bubbletop cannister.

All this has forced residents who can afford the cost to dig new, deeper borewells. In most of Triplicane, the borewells now go as deep as 400 feet. Given the fact that the area is right next to the sea, borewell diggers said this is alarming: there is the definite risk of saline water seeping into the fresh water reserves.

The high demand for borewells has set digging costs soaring. According to one contractor, the current rate is Rs 400 per foot. Adding the cost of pipes and a motor pump, the total expenditure for a well could touch Rs 2.5 lakh.

The roar of machines excavating borewells has become so commonplace, the police have started receiving calls from residents disturbed by the noise. A police officer said they have asked the borewell contractors not to do the work in the night.

However, for many Chennai residents, a borewell is an unthinkable luxury. M Perumal, the owner of a small shop in Triplicane, said that the water crisis has brought the city’s wealth disparity to the fore. “For the poor and the middle class, water is currently more precious than gold,” he said.

A hand pump used by residents to draw municipal water in Chennai. Some residents claimed the water being supplied was not clean.