The failure of both southwest monsoon and northeast monsoon in 2012,combined with the receipt of much less Cauvery water in the last one year, made things more difficult.

The initial spell of rain in Tamil Nadu in the beginning of June came as a huge relief to consumers who rely mostly on public water supply for domestic use.

The showers came at a time when the entire State, excluding Chennai, had been declared drought-hit. The failure of both southwest monsoon (June-September) and northeast monsoon (October-December) in 2012,combined with the receipt of much less Cauvery water in the last one year, made things more difficult. In Chennai too, there is a growing list of complaints of irregular water supply and reduction in quantity.

Thanks to the early rain, the pressure on everyone seems to have eased, though the chronic shortage persists in many parts of the State. Days before the downpour, a strike call given by an association of packaged drinking water manufacturers in Chennai turned the focus on the significance of the public supply system.

The institutional arrangement is that in all parts except Chennai, it is local bodies that supply water. In the city, Metrowater, which was created in 1978, is in charge.

Traditionally, in parts of the State other than Chennai, locally available surface or sub-surface sources have been utilised. For the past 15 years or so, combined water supply schemes have been executed to cater for more than one local body. Of late, water projects involving long-distance transfer are being taken up.

All these projects have been planned by the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage (TWAD) Board. Even after execution, the TWAD Board plays a role as it must operate and maintain them. Though the TWAD Board complements the water supply function of urban local bodies, the ties between the two are not always smooth.

As the local bodies have to bear the running cost of projects, there is some criticism against the Board that projects are imposed. This has to be avoided, says a former official, who had worked in the TWAD Board for a number of years. The relationship between the local bodies and the Board should be governed by larger political interest and the need to serve the people better.

As for tackling the current shortage problem, one official says that under the Integrated Urban Development Mission, a scheme conceived after the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government took charge in May 2011, particular attention is being devoted to water supply. There is a focus on maintenance of the distribution infrastructure. Of this year’s allocation of Rs. 750 crore, about 45 per cent is earmarked for water supply.

In Chennai, in the face of poor storage in reservoirs, two desalination plants of 100 million litres a day (MLD) each have come in handy. These plants were established after the city experienced a long water crisis during 2003-2004. Besides, pipelines, meant to carry water from the Veeranam tank in Cuddalore district across 225 km, are now used to transfer water from groundwater sources in the region. A Metrowater official says desalination plants and the groundwater sources are contributing significantly, and the city reservoirs are also tapped.

Flawed system

In terms of public accountability, the institutional arrangement at Metrowater suffers from fundamental flaws. Except for the fact that the Local Administration Minister is ex-officio chairman of the agency, there is virtually no way by which public representatives can hold Metrowater accountable. One may argue that questions about Metrowater can be raised at meetings of the Chennai Corporation Council or even in the Assembly; but despite the law that governs Metrowater providing for inclusion of non-official directors representing consumers on the Board of Directors, these posts have remained vacant for more than 20 years. When the city was in the grip of water scarcity in the 1980s, the induction of a non-official chairman led to positive results, says a former engineering director. Importantly, the agency has by design been allowed to collect water taxes as well as water charges.

Over the years, successive governments have spent several hundreds of crores of rupees on water projects. But, what can no longer be glossed over is the need for a credible and democratised system of accountability for the TWAD Board and Metrowater.