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Stealing farmers' water to quench Chennai's big thirst

By R Srinivasan

A Rs 600-crore tanker industry is capitalising on Chennai's acute water scarcity. Over 13,000 tankers are mining the surrounding farmlands for water. With agriculture in crisis and groundwater levels insufficient for farming, farmers find it easier to live off the money they earn from private water operators

Severe water shortages are routine in Chennai every summer. The average person knows she’s got to sweat it out in the baking sun, waiting in an endless queue for water.  

This year the rains have cheated them again. Although the water rushing in from upper riparian states like Karnataka and Maharashtra has brought temporary relief, nobody believes the problem will ever be solved.

The Tamil Nadu government has no answer; it is busy ‘stealing’ water from its farmers to quench the thirst of Chennai’s population.

Water shortages are met by lifting water from neighbouring rural areas. Every month, an average of Rs 50 crores’ worth of water is brought into Chennai from the rural provinces. That amounts to a whopping Rs 600 crore, every year, for water.

Chennai Metrowater says the Upper Veeranam Project, meant to bring drinking water to Chennai, will result in savings of Rs 500 crore every year. Right now, however, water continues to be ‘stolen’ from rural areas around Chennai, destroying valuable farmland and creating a shortage in Veeranam itself. Nobody likes to talk about this.

“Government lorries have stopped plying water from the villages to the cities, but private lorries continue to do so,” says a Metrowater Board official. “We can fulfil only one-fourth of the needs of Chennai, the rest is met by private operators.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), on average a person needs 3 litres of water for drinking, 4 litres for cooking, 20 litres for bathing, 40 litres for sanitation, 25 litres to wash vessels and 23 litres for gardening. Chennai currently has a population of 50 lakh -- that means its total water requirement for the year is approximately 675 million litres.

‘Managing Water in Chennai’, a report brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment, predicts that by the year 2021, Chennai’s population will rise to 1 crore, and its water requirement will increase to 1,170 million litres annually. Of this, around 870 million litres will be required to meet residential needs; the rest will be for industrial purposes.

In 2004, the various sources of water supply to Chennai included:

  • Tanks and borewells operated by Chennai Metrowater: 120 million litres
  • Water recycling units: 3 million litres
  • Government and municipality wells: 15 million litres
  • Housing board wells/borewells: 400 million litres
  • Private water tankers: 50 million litres
  • Canal/sewage water recycling: 50 million litres
  • Veeranam Project: 40 million litres supplied through taps

Source: Chennai Metrowater

As Chennai (total area: 200 sq km) grows into yet another Asian megacity, it is busy drawing water from sources all around it. The water is being drawn from nearby towns like Mamandur, Palur, Karungizhi, Tiruporur, Puvirundavalli, Meenjur, Gummidipundi and Kanaigiper, using a fleet of over 13,000 water tankers. Private lorries collect water from farms and villages around Chennai; borewells are the main source.

This is water taken away not just from agriculture but also from the drinking water supplies of the villagers. Groundwater levels have dropped drastically in all these towns and villages as a result. A policy of enforcing compulsory rainwater harvesting, initiated by the Tamil Nadu government a few years ago, has made very little difference to the water situation in these rural areas. Even villages that do practise water conservation methods are facing a severe water crisis. Disputes over water are common.

“In our village, as per government instructions, we carried out rainwater harvesting with the help of district officials; we recovered lakes occupied by various vested interests. We deepened the lakes and de-silted them. But all these efforts have benefited only the private water suppliers,” says Neelavathi Venkatesan, president of the Vangaivasal village panchayat.

He says there were already two packaged water companies operating in his area. Now another has been given permission to set up shop. Apart from them, private lorries have also been regularly taking water from the lakes and wells in the village, to sell in Chennai.

In 1987, Venkatesan says, the Tamil Nadu government brought in a special Act to prevent instances of water theft from public sources. But, according to him, even if the culprits are caught and handed over to the police they are let off with only a light fine.
“We have carried out many agitations against these operators, but they are of little use. Now we have a water problem in our village,” says Venkatesan.

In Tiruvallur district, north of Chennai, groundwater along a stretch of around 13 km has been made unusable by the seepage of seawater inland by as much as 4 km.

“The government lorries may have stopped taking water to supply the residents of Chennai, but the situation here has not changed much. Every month the water dealers pay farmers an advance of Rs 50,000 plus Rs 15,000 for the rights to exploit water sources on their land. The water is pumped out using subsidised power provided by the government for agricultural purposes,” says Samuel Dharanipathy, vice-president of the Vengaivasal Ayacut Organisation (ayacuts are channels used to divide irrigation water among farmers; the organisation oversees this process to prevent disputes).

Dharanipathy says diesel engines are being used to draw out the water. Seven wells in his village are being exploited in this manner; most of them, around 30 feet deep, have already dried up. A perennial 110-acre lake in the village has also gone dry.
“This year we de-silted the lake and there is some water now but we are not sure if it will be enough for our cattle,” he adds.

It’s a similar story along the East Coast Road (ECR) that runs south of Chennai down the entire coast of Tamil Nadu. Here, because of the proximity to the sea, much of the groundwater has been contaminated by saltwater.

The private water operators are siphoning off whatever drinkable water is left in the villages, sparking off several agitations by local people. But little has been achieved. The indiscriminate pumping of water is further contaminating water sources.

In Selaiyur, villagers have to bear the consequences of the destruction of water sources both by local vested interests as well as private water operators. The Selaiyur lake (around 90 acres in size) that was being used to irrigate around 500 acres of farmland, and is also the source of drinking water, has almost been taken over by local bigwigs.

Although the villagers have been protesting the illegal takeover of the lake (they have even taken the matter to court), they have received no help from the government. Meanwhile, private water tankers continue to lift water from the lake.

“We don’t stop anyone from taking water to solve Chennai’s problems. But existing water sources should be protected and the requirements of the rural people should be safeguarded,” says C Loganathan, head of the Selaiyur farmers organisation.

In their defence, the private water dealers say they are not exploiting anyone, they are only meeting Chennai’s demand for water. “We serve the people. The government is not able to give water to everybody so we supply those who are willing to pay. We don’t pressurise anyone to buy from us. The state-owned Metrowater also charges money for water -- so why is it a crime if we also do so,” asks Ganesan, a water dealer.

He adds that by paying farmers for their water they are being given a new lease of life, as the agricultural situation is so bad. “We are giving farmers an income they never expected. We are not exploiting anyone. We have to pay for the maintenance of our lorries, diesel, rentals and many other things apart from providing employment to people,” says Ganesan.

K Veera Raghavan, a sharecropper in Vengaivasal, agrees that the farming situation is precarious. “We have to depend on electric pumps to irrigate our fields with the water remaining in our village pond. But there are too many power cuts and farming is no longer profitable.”  Veera Raghavan explains that the proximity of his village to Chennai also means that labour costs are high as many villagers migrate to the city in search of better jobs. The government, he says, is indifferent to agriculture, and the cost of private funds to pay for farming inputs is exorbitant.

“I have 3 acres of land, and spend around Rs 7,000 per acre. My entire family works on the farm for six months of the year, at the end of which I get a return of Rs 12,000 per acre. Most of this money goes towards paying interest on loans. My 200 sq ft well, from which I sell water, gives me more income than my farming does,” says Veera Raghavan. He spent Rs 5,000 on setting up a new borewell, and Rs 12,000 on a diesel engine. He sells a tanker-load of water for Rs 80, on which he makes a profit of Rs 60. The farmer says his family eats and lives better now.

Veera Raghavan admits, however, that the indiscriminate sale of water could lead to shortages in the future. But he believes there is no other way out for his own survival. “This is god’s will,” he says, lifting his hands to the sky.

A little investigation in the provinces around Chennai reveals that water is not the only thing being bought by private water operators. They are also buying up land from farmers in distress and debt. Drained of all its water resources, the land is being sold as real estate.

“After selling their land, most farmers move to Chennai in search of work and end up in the city’s slums,” says Venkatesan of the Tambaram taluka farmers association. The government must do something urgently to prevent the ruin of the state’s farming communities, he says.

“We used to have a beautiful life before. Agriculture used to be good enough to look after my entire family. But now there is no water in our wells anymore and we want to sell our land and move to Chennai,” says Perumal, a farmer in Payayaseivaram village, Balur taluka, holding back his tears.

Social activists in Chennai say it is possible to solve the city’s water problems, provided the government is able to frame the right policies and implement them properly. “The ponds around Chennai’s numerous temples need to be revived. This will automatically increase groundwater levels. The swamps around the city should be protected, as they guard against seawater contaminating groundwater sources. Some of these swamps are being used to dump garbage; this should stop immediately,” says V Srinivasan, an activist who has worked on projects to revive Chennai’s temple ponds.

“The state should not convert the neighbouring rural areas into a desert simply to supply water to Chennai,” says K Anbararan, a poet and writer based in the city. It is time, he says, that the government stopped looking at everything from the point of view of electoral politics, and did something to solve the real problems of ordinary people.

(R Srinivasan is a social activist working on livelihood issues among the urban poor in Chennai. He is currently engaged in rehabilitation work among tsunami-affected populations in coastal areas to the south of the city)

Delhi’s water mafia does brisk business

A Rs 400-crore water tanker industry thrives in the capital. The water mafia also connives to re-package Delhi Jal Board water and sell it privately

About 1,400 water tankers supply water in Delhi. Half of these are privately controlled, conniving with the local authorities to flout rules and pilfer water. To control this, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) recently announced that it would start monitoring the movement of its tankers via satellite. So far it’s failed to check the theft.

Perennial water crises in summer and the DJB’s failure to satisfy its consumers has spawned a water mafia in Delhi that does business to the tune of Rs 400 crore, largely from DJB water. Every summer, the demand for water in Delhi shoots up by 4.5 crore litres -- this is met by the water mafia that reportedly earns Rs 1.5-Rs 2 crore every day. Private water tankers play a major role, catering to the water needs of South Delhi and rural areas of East and West Delhi. These tankers mine groundwater free of cost and sell it at Rs 1,000-Rs 2,500 per tanker. Though it is clearly written on these tankers ‘This water is not potable water’ people are forced to drink it. Nothing else is available.

In East Delhi’s Jheel, Krishna Nagar and Geeta colonies, a number of units package water in plastic pouches, jugs, bottles and jars. In Rajgarh Colony, Raghuvarpura and Vishwas Nagar, DJB water is being filled in plastic packets under the names ‘Hero’, ‘Barfani’ and ‘VIP’, respectively. In the shops of Gandhi Nagar, Ram Nagar and Ashok Market, water jugs are being supplied at a rate of Rs 10 per litre. Okhla Industrial Area in South Delhi, and Uttam Nagar, Rajouri Garden and Tilak Nagar in West Delhi too have many plants filling water in jugs. Similar plants are openly re-packaging DJB water in jugs and plastic jars in Narela, Bakhtawarpur, Bawana and Najafgarh. In almost all of these cases, DJB water is being used. In a few instances, DJB water is being mixed with groundwater. The DJB is well aware of this and says if people cooperate with them the practice can be curbed.

While the water mafia is minting money from DJB water, the DJB itself closed down its only packaged water-bottling plant at Sadiq Nagar in May 2005. It discovered that the residual alumina content in the water had exceeded the set standards for bottled water.

-- Arun Kumar Singh

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005