CHENNAI: The recent strike by packaged water groups across Tamil Nadu, brought residents in Chennai and Tiruchy to their knees. It revealed the extent to which the public has become dependent on packaged water rather than water supplied by the government.
As a result private water companies feel emboldened to extract groundwater, with few restrictions or oversight until the Madras High Court cracked the whip. The high dependence on packaged drinking water, especially in the capital city, raises the question as to why the State is unable to provide safe drinking water to residents. More so, as it has managed to do so in places such as Tirupur and Coimbatore.
Sewage in water?
Despite being the capital of one of the better-performing States in India, piped drinking water remains a distant dream in Chennai. Experts say funds, tools and expertise are widely available. However, infrastructure to distribute clean water is lacking. Although water is treated as per ISI standards by the Metro Water, which supplies water in the capital, by the time it reaches the end consumer, it is polluted. In some areas, the water reaches noticeably smelly, coloured, with even changes in turbidity.
In several locations in Chennai, water from taps comes mixed with raw sewage, putting the health of consumers at risk. In North Chennai, for instance, for the last 10 years water from hand pumps in some places emerges brown or black, reeking of sewage. Metro Water officials attribute this to the quality of pipelines. The last time the pipeline system was changed in Chennai was in 2000. The system needs to be replaced every 10 years. As pipes grow weaker, fissures get bigger, resulting in sewage mixing with water in the water mains. “The gas from raw sewage and chlorine in treated water easily corrodes the pipes and causes more scale formation. This is the main cause of contamination,” said a senior official.
Transparency will help
Experts say public must hold government-run agencies responsible. For this, transparency is needed. Karen Coelho, assistant professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, said spot checking of water along various points from the treatment plant must be done daily and the data made public. “Metro Water is legally bound to provide safe drinking water to all. Though they have the infrastructure, maintenance and monitoring is lacking. If this data is published, residents can hold them responsible. Only then can the stigma associated with tap water be driven away,” Coelho said.
Chennai’s water managers could also learn from their Mumbai counterparts. In Mumbai, 3850 MLD of the cleanest tap water in India is supplied daily. An official from Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai said their quality control team tests 100-120 samples of water collected from different areas on a daily basis. The corporation started giving water connections to those without proper address proof in 2017. This resulted in the number of unauthorised tappings falling. This, in turn, cut scope of contamination.
Chennai Metro Water officials, in the meanwhile, claim that change will come soon. “By June we will start replacing the entire city’s pipeline system. In four years, with new pipes in place, water quality will improve greatly,” an official claimed.
Of trust and taste
The strike took a toll even in Tiruchy, where the Cauvery flows. Despite Cauvery water being available in public and household taps, there is a marked preference for packaged drinking water. Take P Srinath’s family in Srirangam. “We used to have Cauvery water earlier. For two years we did away with it and started paying for drinking water. It was not because we did not consider it healthy, but we liked this taste better.”
His family consumed water from taps during the strike, but have now switched back to packaged water.
However, this is less the case in the rural parts of Tiruchy district. A senior TWAD official said, “I myself drink Cauvery water and use it at home. People wrongly assume that Cauvery water is not potable and use packaged water.”
In Madurai, despite the supply of Vaigai and Cauvery water, there is a fear of contamination. Sai Nagar Residential Association President Siva Muthukumaran, for one, said, “When it comes to river water, we always find reports on river contamination, dead bodies in reservoirs, etc. Though the local bodies purify the water before distribution, one can’t be so sure.”Further, the city has had instances of sewage mixing with drinking water. “How can one expect us to consume tap water then? That is why we prefer ‘can’ water,” he said.
Look to the West
One region that was relatively unaffected by the strike was the west. This is because in Coimbatore, for instance, residents mostly rely on piped drinking water supplied by the Coimbatore Corporation.Although there are concerns about the frequency of supply — which varies by area — there are few concerns about quality. Even if piped supply is irregular, residents can fetch water from public taps. Meanwhile, a French contractor is working in RS Puram to lay pipelines to supply drinking water around the clock. Residents have objected to the scheme, calling it privatisation. Many prefer the Corporation to supply water as it does rather than provide it 24/7 through a private entity.
In Tirupur too, residents rely on water supplied by the government, sourced from the Bhavani. This is as many fear groundwater is unsafe due to release of effluents from dyeing units into the Noyyal and open spaces. Further, groundwater levels in the region have plummetted. Packaged water is used by mostly commercial establishments.
Residents note the piped water is clear and odourless. It only turns red and contains dirt for a few days in the rainy season. An official from the Tirupur Municipal Corporation said the water supplied is considered virgin water. “Parts per million (ppm) is 60-80, which is termed as very good for drinking and other domestic needs.”(With inputs from M S Aadhithya @Tiruchy, MP Saravanan @Tirupur, Deepak Sathish @Coimbatore, Vinodh Arulappan @ Madurai)
The business of selling drinking water
There are 1,750 packaged water units operating in Tamil Nadu. Officials sealed as many as 552 of these following a Madras High Court direction. In Tiruchy, all but eight of the 26 units were shut by officials. The Court’s direction resulted in the units going on strike, affecting lives of residents across the State. Residents in Tiruchy pay `1,200 for 6000 litres of water supplied by private tankers. In Chennai, the starting price for 12,000 litres of water by private tanker is around Rs 1,500.
Some experts bat for water metering
Some experts believe water metering is the need of the hour. It will save water in each household and bring in additional revenue for water boards. Since September 2019, 600-odd meters are being fitted in commercial and semi-commercial buildings in Chennai. Automatic meters will soon be fitted in houses.
“From four buildings in Anna Nagar we collected Rs 1.20 lakh in a month based on meter readings and slab rates. Fixing meters will bring in huge revenue which can be used for maintenance,” said an official.