Akila Kannadasan hitches a ride in a Metro water lorry and captures myriad moods as sleep-weary residents await the arrival of precious cargo!
“We drink only kinar thanni (well water) back home in Kallakurichi,” says Muniyavel, a cleaner in one of Chennai Corporation’s Metro water tankers. Seated on a wooden plank by the driver’s seat, the 19-year-old looks out the window in silence, probably lost in thought of the sweet water he doesn’t get to drink anymore. Driver Kannan, also from Kallakurichi, brags about how the women in his family do not wait in queues for water like some in Chennai. About 9,000 litres of water travel to their destination with us, unaware of the conversation directed at their reputation. The lorry pulls over at a lane off Anna Salai just then to fill street-side plastic tanks.
This is their morning routine. Kannan and Muniyavel’s lorry trundles over Gemini Flyover at around 10.30 a.m. every day. It squeezes its way into Patheri Road to supply Metro water to the residents.
The sun is scorching when Muniyavel jumps down and climbs up the lorry. He leads a python-like hose into each of the four tanks and waits for them to be filled. The task is done in less than 30 minutes and we drive back to the Valluvar Kottam filling station for a refill. The lorry heats up as the sun climbs higher. The cabin housing us and the engine is like a furnace; there’s not a drop of water inside to drink.
At the filling station, orange, yellow and blue-coloured lorries line up like school kids to get their tanks filled. The filling points tumble water into the openings on the tanks — the cleaner of the respective lorry climbs up now and then to check if it is full.
The water is pumped up from an underground sump near-by; the sump is filled with water from tanks from the Kilpauk Water Works. Each lorry heads to its destination as assigned by the blue-uniformed time-keepers. The 25 9,000 litre, eight 6,000 litre and eight 20,000 litre lorries do about 10 trips from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, supplying water to tanks and streets as far as Santhome and Choolaimedu.
The morning tank-supply trips generally go off without much ado. It’s at the evening street-supply that all the action happens.
It’s nearly 3 p.m. and the women of Pallavan Theru, R.A. Puram, have scrubbed their plastic pots clean. For some of them, it’s time for their afternoon nap. But they can’t afford to sleep, not when they are expecting precious cargo — drinking water.
Orange, yellow, and green pots peep from front doors waiting for the lorry to arrive. For the moment, they are the most valued objects in their houses. They will be carried in twos or even threes when they are empty; once they are full, they attain more worth. They will be firmly balanced on the hip of a woman; she will wrap her hand around their neck like a friend when she takes them home, one at a time.
As the lorry scrunches to a halt, there’s a surge of excitement in those narrow by-lanes. Saravanan, the driver honks thrice to announce the lorry’s arrival. His work ends here.
From then on, Valarmathi and Mariammal are the bosses. They have volunteered or rather, have appointed themselves to regulate the supply. They sit on short plastic stools on either sides of the lorry by the outlets, hold the rubber pipes, turn on the supply and nod. And then it begins.
Women, school, and college girls throng the lorry with their pots — some have already lined them up. “We generally divide the supply into six pots per family,” informs Valarmathi. This is her role: to see to it that there’s equal distribution. She is addressed as the “thanni uduravunga” — the one who supplies water. Without her and Mariammal, there would be chaos. “How else will we all get a fair amount?” asks Valarmathi. This understanding ensures that there are no tiffs; for there’s no fight as severe as the fight for water.
These centres of action are also centres of politics. In some areas, women who regulate the supply take money for more water than the decided amount. The price ranges from 50p a pot to Re.1 for three pots. Men keep away from these spots. That too, is an understanding that’s being kept up for years. “This way, we won’t have to deal with unpleasantness,” says Mariammal.
The 6,000 litres run out in about half hour. The women will use this water to drink, cook, and wash their hair on special occasions. The last pot has just been filled and Saravanan restarts the engine. The valve hasn’t been closed well enough. The lorry leaves a trail of water in its wake. On its rear, are the words ‘mazhai neer saemipeer’ — save rainwater.