CHENNAI: Even though the hot summer and depleting groundwater resources have put agriculture in peril, around 100 farmers in Nemam village of Tiruvallur district are steadfast in not handing over their agricultural lands to private tankers for extracting water for commercial purposes.
Two months ago, Nemam was carpeted with verdant lands bearing full grown paddy crops. But now the agricultural lands wear a deserted look as groundwater levels have gone below 60 feet. ‘‘Six months ago, I could just draw water from the well from just 10 feet. Now I have fixed another borewell for 25 feet inside the well and still, water supply is erratic. I have four acres of land which is now lying uncultivated,’’ said K Mahendran, a farmer.
As the three major reservoirs of Chennai — Chembarambakkam, Poondi and Red Hills — have completely dried up, piped water supply to many parts of the city have stopped. In turn, residents are completely dependent on private water tankers that tap groundwater mainly in and around villages at Poonamallee taluk in Tiruvallur district and Chengalpet in Kancheepuram district.
But for the past few weeks, tankers too are finding it very difficult to source water due to rising resentment among villagers. Farmers and locals fear that if tankers continue tapping water incessantly, groundwater will cease to exist and so will agriculture.
‘‘For one acre of paddy, we get Rs 25,000. Deducting all the investment, Rs 5,000 is left for us. For the past three months, we have not been doing anything,” said Suresh, a farmer who owns eight acres of land and has 12 acres on lease at Nemam.
Currently, about 200 acres of land in the village lies uncultivated due to failure of monsoons and decrease in groundwater levels. “We can’t invest money in setting up high horsepower motors which cost lakhs. Illegal and large scale water extraction by private tankers and multinational companies must be prevented for agriculture to thrive here,’’ added Suresh.
Areas untouched by private tankers still have abundant groundwater because of which they have now become primary water sources for Chennai. These include Thirumazhisai, Parivakkam, Kannampalayam, Nemam, Meppur, Kokkumedu, Sitrakadu, Sennerikuppam, Thiruverkadu, Ayanambakkam, Vellavedu, and Kolappancheri in Tiruvallur district. “Even one year back, we never crossed Sennerikuppam along the Poonamallee bypass to draw water. But now we travel as far as Nemam and Meppur. We don’t touch areas like Kattupakkam where the water levels are as deep as 100 ft. Though we are getting money to transport water, it reaches mostly residents in the city who are suffering because of the drought,” said Murugan S, secretary of Tamil Nadu Private Water Tanker Lorry Owners’ association.
PE Umapathy, a resident of Banaveduthottam village in Tiruvallur district, said though there is still water available for consumption, the 600-odd families are scared that the next generation will have to buy water even to drink. “Since March, when tankers started pumping day and night, water levels have gone down from 25 ft to 40 ft. But if the government decides to take water from us and supply to the city free of cost, we have no objections,” he added.
In some villages, while one section of farmers resent extraction, they are unwilling to antagonise the other section that sells water, which is also powerful. This has helped private tankers to gain traction. “A section of the local community here connives with the water tankers helping them identify poramboke lands to extract water. They also get commission in return,’’ says Suresh D (49), a farmer in Nemam.
Also due to failure of rains, a section of farmers find selling water from their lands more lucrative. ‘‘A 24,000-litre load fetches a farmer about `600-`800. Depending on the size of the tanker, the price varies. Say they make around 90 trips, the people who sell water earn around half a lakh,’’ said K Arumugam (39), a farmer at Nemam. Although private tanker owners say only four to five lorries extract water from the village, locals claim about 30 lorries ply everyday.
Reliant on tankers
Recent protests by villagers in Tiruvallur district opposing private tankers again throw light on the urgent need for the government to regularise this activity. Majority of tankers that ply in the city and neighbouring districts do not have permits as the state is yet to pass regulations for tapping groundwater. Due to this, there is no fixed upper limit on the amount of water that could be drawn. Time and again private tankers have gone on strike following temporary crackdown by officials. After a brief stand-off with the government, by which time most apartments in the city would be scrounging for water, tankers would be let off. This was the case during droughts in 2013, 2017 and now in 2019.
Field visits by Express to a handful of villages in and around Poonamallee Taluk in Tiruvallur district, made it apparent that both tanker owners and villagers cannot be blamed. On many occasions, the government itself has admitted that to cope with the ongoing water crisis, private tankers are vital. Though drawing groundwater without a permit makes the activity illegal in nature, many areas of the city would come to a standstill if private tankers were stopped from supplying water to Chennai.
Senior officials in Metro Water said that 4,500-odd private tankers alone supply 200 Million Litres per Day (MLD) to the city whereas 800 Metro Water tankers supply only 70-80 MLD in about 8,000 trips a day. “We are not able to cater to all IT parks, hotels, hospitals and mega residential apartments. With the present water sources, we are able to supply 500-550 MLD to residents and water for free to the slums and housing board tenements. It is not possible to tide through a dry summer without the help of private players. The chief secretary has spoken to collectors of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur to let tankers draw water without much hindrance for the time being,” said an official.
‘We are responsible’
Private tanker association members admitted that locals had every right to protest, but the current situation is so dire that they don’t have an alternate choice. “If I was a resident of one of these villages, I wouldn’t let anyone touch the groundwater too. Villagers fear that in five or 10 years’ time, groundwater levels will plummet to a couple of 100 feet like in Minjur. This is a reasonable argument. But we make sure that water is tapped only from groundwater-rich areas like Thirumazhisai, Parivakkam, and Meppur. But the government has to pass the order to regularise this profession,” said a private tanker owner, who owns a fleet of 50 tankers.
Sources privy to the issue said that a government order pertaining to regularising groundwater extraction is being prepared but there is uncertainty over when it will be passed. Though tankers have obtained permits to function from revenue department through RTO officers, no formal authorisation has been given yet with regard to how much water can be drawn. According to a central groundwater board report in 2017, all 20 blocks of Chennai district, four blocks of Kancheepuram district, 12 blocks of Tiruvallur district and two blocks in Vellore district fall under ‘overexploited’ category.
A senior official from the Public Works Department said that by July a government order will be passed to regulate extraction of water which will be applicable for the whole state. “Water resources is a State subject and Tamil Nadu is well equipped to make its own policies. A nine-member committee has been formed with the PWD secretary heading the team to draft this policy. Once it is passed, only entities with permit will be allowed to extract groundwater,” added the official.
where water is tapped
Keerapakkam, Manimangalam, Urapakkam, Thiruporur, Illaloor, Mambakkam, Kundrathur, Sommamangalam, and Chengalpet
Thirumazhisai, Parivakkam, Kannampalayam, Nemam, Meppur, Kokkumedu, Sitrakadu, Sennerikuppam, Thiruverkadu, Ayanambakkam, Vellavedu, and Kolappancheri
An extra of 10 MLD will be tapped from nine new open wells in Neyveli
From the Paravanar river basin in Neyveli 60 MLD will be tapped
Three lakes at Perumbakkam, Kolathur and Ayanambakkam to supply 30 MLD
126 mini lorries of 3,000 litre capacity planned, 1,190 HDPE water tanks to be installed
880 lorries of Metro Water make 9,000 trips a day out of which 6,500 are for slums
30 MLD is being tapped from Sikkarayapuram quarries and an additional 10 MLD will be drawn from Erumaiyur quarries
Veeranam contributes 180 MLD and two desalination plants provide 200 MLD