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Water hunt

`Innovative' options are being exercised to quench Chennai's thirst for water, says SOWMYA KERBART SIVAKUMAR, documenting the consequences of this `rapid grabbing of natural resources'.


Parched earth ... how much further?

LESS than an hour's journey from Chennai main railway terminus, Central station, is Minjur, your typical not-yet-urban, not-so-rural neighbour of the big-brother metropolis, "developing" because of the spread effects of urbanisation. What hits you the moment you step out of Minjur's little railway station is the unusual frenzy of lorry traffic on the small market road — something that you would more commonly expect on a national highway. The tankers are all of varied sizes, but the ones most seen are those that have cylindrical and hollow bodies with a storage capacity of 10,000 to 12,000 litres. These are water tankers, the lifeline of Chennai.

A kilometre down and you're at the Minjur Metrowater station. A dilapidated building greets you, with a big board that says it all, listing the "wells" owned by Metrowater, their location, depth and make of the pump. The wells are numbered and even have alphabetical suffixes — for instance `19D'. What about `19A', `B' and `C', one wonders. When `19' failed, they sunk a new `19A' near it and so on, you are told. One cannot help but notice the number of wells on that list which have been struck off — a thick layer of white paint run over, so you can barely read what's below it. "Closed", "Abandoned" and similar synonyms are offered in explanation. The Minjur well-field had 37 wells (excluding the suffixed ones); now only 10 are "running regularly" of which today, only six function.

The potential in Minjur

For readers who are wondering what all this fuss is about, Minjur is one of the identified areas (by a United Nations Development Programme study in 1969) as a potential source of groundwater for supply to Chennai city. In the absence of surface water sources of late, almost the entire requirement of Chennai city of around 1 tmc per month is being met through abstraction of ground water from six well-fields (Minjur, Panjetty, Tamaraipakkam, Poondi, Kannigaiper and Flood Plains) situated in the Araniar-Koratalaiyar (A-K) Basin. The "potential" in Minjur was so well utilised that by 1989, there was seawater intrusion up to two kilometres inland; today, this has gone up from 15 km to 17 km. Presently, of the eight million litres per day (mld) that is directly supplied from Minjur through Metrowater's pipelines, most of it is reserved for industrial use (the Ennore Thermal Plant, the Madras Refineries Limited, Manali, Southern Railway); about 2 mld goes for domestic supply, to the residents of Manali New Town. Besides such direct supply, "innovative" options have been exercised by Metrowater to quench Chennai's thirst.

A goldmine for well owners

Kammarpalayam is the village where Metrowater's borewell number `19D' is situated. The relentless whirr of the pumpset has lulled the keeper of the well into a blissful, unwinding sleep in the blazing afternoon heat. Barely 50 m away, though, a young farmer, Chandra (name changed), is wide awake. A tanker has just arrived and in the 20 minutes that ensue, water from his well will be transported to Patel Nagar, near the city.

At 12 to 13 trips a day at the rate of Rs. 40 a load, Chandra makes up to Rs. 520 a day or around Rs. 15,000 a month. All this, doing nothing. Even the electricity is free, although this activity wouldn't, by any stretch of imagination, qualify as "agricultural" in nature.

On the other hand, consider his gains by tilling his land and toiling all day on his four-acre plot. Yield from one acre is around 20 mootais (or sacks, consisting of 77 kg of rice each). A mootai fetched him Rs. 480 in the last season (a paltry Rs. 6.20 per kg) or Rs. 9,600 an acre. Ironically, this was in a drought year when those who had irrigated fields expected good rates, but for the grain from Nellore (Andhra Pradesh) which was offloaded in Tamil Nadu. Deducting costs of around Rs. 6,000 an acre, all this meant a net income per season of Rs. 14,400 from his four acres. Surely, in a drought year, it makes economic sense for him to sell water (without any effort) which is at a great premium, than toil growing paddy that would fetch him unremunerative prices!

Then came the inadvertent question: "Do you realise?... ."

"Of course I do," replies Chandra. "But this is a `competition'. If I don't do it, my neighbour will ... if he stops, I will. It is easy money, why should I miss out," he admits. The borewell in his field is 115 feet deep. Earlier, they could strike water at 90 to 100 feet.

The women in Kammarpalayam are visibly disturbed. The self-help groups in this village recently voiced their protest by squatting on the roads, refusing to let the tankers in. They were told that nothing could be done; these were the State government's orders. And then, there are concerns that only women think of. "Our children are in danger. The incessant traffic with tankers are a hazard for our children. We are worried for their safety," says Choodamani, a self-help group member.

Saline water

The drinking water in their village is turning saline. Although it is far better than what Chennai residents are used to finding in their own taps, Umadevi, a village resident insists that water quality has deteriorated in the last six months. So has the quantity — they get water for fewer hours than earlier, she says. Presently, they bring their drinking water from Minjur in pots, from Metrowater's supply lines. The official administration in Minjur confirms this (no one, of course, is willing to go on record). All 150 handpumps in the panchayat union have failed, and had to be replaced by 165 borewells sunk to a depth of 120 to 130 feet. Today, people in Minjur town don't have their own drinking water; they get their supply from Nallur.

Certain panchayats in the Minjur block get their supply from the neighbouring block of Cholavaram. As long as you keep up the grabbing from people whose voices are weaker than yours, who is to listen or pay heed to you?

Siruvakkam, a different story

Siruvakkam was a different story. More atrocious, more heart-breaking. The school boy on the cart which we took to this village, knew exactly where the "pumping" was happening. The stretches of lush green fields filled one's heart with an inexplicable peace; a camouflage to what lay ahead.

The agreement with Metrowater is in no vague terms. Four lakh litres a day, from each farmer; 30 farmers; 18 hours of pumping; Rs. 27 an hour. This is the situation in Siruvakkam, for the last three months. A similar number of farmers have entered into such contracts in neighbouring Gangaiadikuppam. In fact, the report (Second Chennai Water Supply Project: Reassessment of Groundwater Potential and Transferable Water Rights in the A-K Basin, Interim Report No:1 for Phase I Activities) prepared by Metrowater's consultants, Scott Wilson Piesold, speaks of a total of 208 farmers in the three main well-fields from whom Metrowater is currently purchasing water. Just focusing on Siruvakkam alone, if all 30 farmers stick to keep up their commitment, we're talking of a mind-boggling drawal rate of 12 mld; even if they pumped only half of that, it amounts to an extremely high six mld. To put this in perspective, six million litres is the quantity of water that 30,000 people put together could use in a day, at a comfortable water level usage of 200 litres per person per day for all purposes. All that water is sucked out from a tiny village, at one go, everyday.

We go over similar questions with the farmers here. Why did you decide to sell the water? Doesn't that affect your staple activity — agriculture? How long will you do this? Have you thought ahead?

Right there, in the midst of those lush fields, there is an outburst of emotion. One of the village residents is no longer able to contain his feelings. "The wells on the other side are drying up!" he alleges. Having said the unsaid, another farmer who is in the water selling group is noticeably upset.

He turns aggressive and a verbal duel follows, shattering any semblance of peace that remains. Finally, he breaks down, confessing: "When Metrowater came to us first, we refused to sell our water. You know what they said to us? If you don't sell water, we will dig our own borewells near your fields and draw water. Our pumps are 45 HP, yours are 10 HP. You take your call."

Greed. Anger. Helplessness. Bitterness. That day, all these emotions were played out against the incessant hum of motors and gushing water in Siruvakkam. The lush green fields seemed, for that moment, so unreal.

Siruvakkam and Kammarapalayam are two small, but extremely significant, portrayals of a certain sickness in our society and its institutions, which is able to tolerate and indeed, encourage a cold-blooded, deliberate and grossly insensitive destruction of a relatively vulnerable section, far removed from the "seat of power". As Prof. Janakarajan, Madras Institute of Development Studies says, "The conventional notion is one of `spillover' from the metropolis to sub-urban and peri-urban areas. But in the case of Chennai, one can't call it just a spillover. It is a rapid grabbing of natural resources. This is going to have a disastrous effect — for the people and the resources."

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