CHENNAI: Drought coupled with water tanker strikes is nothing new to the city and it only got worse from 2016 onwards. And, the issue of awarding license for groundwater withdrawal has its fair share of problems.
One cause for concern is few gaps in the Chennai Metropolitan Groundwater Regulation Act of 1987, which needs to be revamped, said experts and officials. The recent bifurcation of Kancheepuram has also slowed down the entire process, said officials. From August 2019, the State has awarded 605 temporary licenses for extracting and transporting groundwater from 302 villages in Chennai, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, and Chengalpattu.
Grey areas in the Act
The government is at crossroads and is facing difficulties in handing out licenses as nearly 70 percent of groundwater extraction happens from unscheduled villages that don't come under the purview of the Act.
"Most borewells are located in villages that are not governed by the Act and hence it is out of our scope to keep an eye on private tankers drawing water from these areas. PWD becomes the sole authority when it comes to these villages and hence we cannot award licenses," said a senior Metro Water board official.
Currently, the Metro Water board has been involved in giving out temporary licenses to private tankers based on the report submitted by hydrologists posted in the scheduled villages. Critical, semi-critical nature of Firkas or revenue blocks as said by the Central Groundwater Board's 2017 will also be taken into account, said officials.
"We will award licenses based on where water will be drawn, groundwater yield of that place, how much water will be drawn and for what purpose. But only if one department becomes the sole authority to award such licenses, illegal and over-extraction of groundwater can be stopped," said a hydrologist from Chennai region.
Senior officials from PWD said that the department is coming up with a comprehensive act that will bring both scheduled and non-scheduled villages under one department's purview. "The current regulations are outdated and need to revised. We are currently working on that. Once revamped rules are in place, permanent licenses will be given," said an official.
Over extraction, a menace that continues
Residents from Southern suburbs said that many tankers are still operating even without temporary licenses and continue to suck aquifers dry. In areas like Nanmangalam, Kovilamvakkam, Medavakkam, and Vengaivasal, residents said tankers make more than 500 trips from each borewell every day.
"Neigbouring areas like Keelkattalai and S Kolathur are getting affected. We, residents, fear in the next three months we will have a repeat of last year's summer if groundwater extraction is not regulated. A reply to an RTI I applied said that no licenses have been awarded in Kancheepuram district. But this so different from ground reality," said S Sankar, a resident of S Kolathur.
On the other hand, Private water tankers narrate a different story. "When we draw water from one place, we aren't given licenses if we transport the water to another location. When flats in Perambur need water how can we not transport water from Medavakkam? Even now our lorries are seized by the police. Only around 300 lorries out of a total of 5,000 lorries have been given licenses," said S Murugan, secretary of Tamil Nadu Private Tanker Lorry Owners Association.