In the power structure of India, urban areas invariably come before the rural parts. Whenever there is an urban water crisis, ripples of consequences are felt by the rural populace. Sureli Kattakuppam, a village about 35 km south of urban Chennai, is a living testament to that.

Chennai, with a coastline of 26 km, was among the first Indian cities to use desalination for most of its water needs. In 2013, a desalination plant under the control of Chennai Metrowater was built on the shores of Sureli Kattakuppam, off Bay of Bengal, to satisfy the metropolis’ water needs.

For Chennai, the plant, with a capacity to treat 100 million litres of seawater a day, has served its purpose well. For Sureli Kattakuppam however, it has been a misfortune.

The Nemmeli desalination plant has an intimidating presence along the east coast road. Its construction has deprived Sureli Kattakuppam, a victim of the 2004 tsunami, of its basic connect with the ocean, a clean ocean they worship for survival and sanity.

The villagers were promised jobs at the plant and some did get to work there for a short time. But this was before they realised the ill effects of the reverse osmosis technique employed by the plant – the process sucks in saline water from the sea and pumps back toxic water, affecting the marine ecology around Sureli Kattakuppam and, in turn, the fishermen’s livelihoods.

Every few days, hazardous disc filters and ultrafiltration membranes used by the plant to remove suspended solids in the seawater are dumped behind the village on a piece of land that once served as a playfield. The plant’s activities have also contaminated the village’s groundwater, which was once fit for drinking. So today villagers buy drinking water in jerry cans, each at a cost of Rs 60.

Villagers protested against the plant, but in response, the authorities slapped “false cases” against some of them. The fight still rages on.

After three years, Sureli Kattakuppam is still waiting for their clean water.

The desalination plant brought relief to a parched Chennai. But at what cost?