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October 25, 2020

Can and able: How Chennai meets its water needs

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A Ganesh Nadar finds out how private water distributors help Chennai’s water-starved citizens.

Photographs: ANI Photo

Chennai, the sixth largest city in India, needs 830 MLD (million litres per day) of water. The Tamil Nadu government supplies 525 MLD for the last one month.

So how is the water shortfall managed?

There are two types of water Chennai residents use. One is to clean, bathe, wash vessels and clothes, and the other to drink and cook.

The first is managed by bore wells which every building, every industrial unit, has in Chennai while the other is managed by the private sector.


Sources tell this correspondent that Tamil Nadu has the highest number of mineral water plants in the country, numbering around 900, and half of these are located in Chennai and its surroundings.

These water plants work round the clock, and one can buy 30 litre water cans from these plants for Rs 10 at the wholesale rate.

Most plant owners this correspondent spoke to were not willing to divulge their names. “We have proper licences to run these plants. We don’t want the government breathing down our throats,” most of them say.

“I have to be in my plant the whole day if I want to maintain my clients. Remember, water is something you need every day so the customer keeps coming back. If you don’t give him water even for a day, he will go elsewhere and getting him back is next to impossible,” says one young man who has been running his water plant since 2000.

“I have a big plant so we can produce 6,000 litres of water every hour. I don’t operate it for 24 hours as it is not needed. I have customers for 4,000 cans a day, so I run it till all of them get their quota for the day,” he adds.

“They have to bring their own cans, but I wash the can, fill it, seal it, even help him load it into his vehicle.”

Very few water plants use their own well water with which they started their plants. As the wells are running dry, these plant operators first dig deeper. As the quality of water changes, they stop digging and start buying water from outside.

Chennai is surrounded by farmland where there is water available. Farmers sell well water for around Rs 500 to Rs 600 for a 12,000 litre tanker. Water is pumped into the tanker using diesel pumps.

The reason for using diesel pumps? The farmers have electricity-driven pumps for which they get free electricity. But this free electricity is meant only for agricultural purposes. If a water tanker is found standing in a field, state revenue and electricity department officials promptly conduct checks.

If the farmer is found using free electricity to sell water, the farmer’s electricity supply is cut off immediately. Hence, farmer deploy diesel pumps to get around such an eventuality.

“Last week,” says one one water seller, “it was reported that 10 water tankers were seized in Chengalpattu district. It was seized by a revenue inspector who was trying to preserve the ground water in his village. So the water tanker owners threatened to go on strike.”

“The government cannot afford a strike just now, so they told the revenue inspector to back off and we are back in business,” he adds.

“Just remember one thing,” the water seller says, “the government will look the other way only till this shortage exists. Once they can fulfill the city’s needs, they will start finding fault with us.”

Those who own water tankers buy water for Rs 500 in Chengalpattu and sell it for between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,500 depending on how far they have ferried it. A tanker manages two trips a day. With a couple of drivers the tanker owners can manage three trips, Chennai’s traffic willing.

“I sell 4,000 cans of water a day,” says one water seller, “but there are small family run units that have 500 cans of water and no customers, so don’t judge the business looking at my plant.”

The water plant owners say they make a decent profit only when they use their own well or bore water. “When you have to buy water from outside, then the profit isn’t much. Even if you have your own tankers, the price of diesel and labour is high,” says one water distributor.

What about the quality of the water?

“Our plant will purify all kinds of water,” says one water plant owner. “The more impurities in the water, the more waste water you generate, so the output quantity reduces, not the quality.”

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