Thirty four year old Ranganathan, an accountant with a Public Sector Company, has not slept even for three hours for the last five days. His nights have been spent on water vigil - waiting for that elusive water tanker of the Metrowater to hit his street corner in West Mambalam.
"The local assistant engineer had assured us that the tanker will arrive between 9 pm and 10 pm but it doesn't show up till 1 am and at times even by 3 am. Most of us fall asleep on the road waiting for the tanker. And after all that ordeal I manage to get 10 buckets of water. It is ages since I saw water flow out of the tap in my house," he explained trying to stifle the yawns and stay awake at his office table.
For the average Chennaiite a 'bucket to mug' existence on the water-front is nothing new but this time the ordeal has extended to three successive years. The city is in the shadow region of the southwest monsoon and depends mainly on the northeast monsoon for its water needs. But ever since the Orissa super cyclone of 2000 the northeast monsoon has been deficient over Tamil Nadu, more so in Chennai.
Half the city gets piped supply only every alternate day and neither the quality nor the quantity is guaranteed. "The Metrowater says we'll get at least an hour's supply every alternate day but the supply stops in 20 minutes and that too after trickle," complained Theresa a housewife in Egmore.
Residents of Bharathi Nagar in Nugambakkam have shouted themselves hoarse complaining about contaminated water that comes through the taps. "At times we just throw the water away if the impurities do not settle down after hours of storage," complained a retired teacher of the area.
Most apartments take the safer though expensive route of buying water from private tankers numbering around 1,000 compared to Metrowater's 250. Though one tanker load of 12,000 litres costs between Rs. 600 and Rs. 750 most flat residents prefer to spend this extra money since water supply is assured.
"True most apartment associations regulate water supply to a couple of hours a day, but the private tankers are regular and do not cheat," said a resident of Kasturba Nagar. Most deep borewells, sunk indiscriminately after the 1983 drought, have led to much of the groundwater in the city turning saline with even one of the largest freshwater aquifer along the coast in South Chennai turning totally brackish.
"There were simply no laws to regulate overexploitation of groundwater and even the present rules enacted by this government are too impractical. If wells are banned in Mumbai there the authorities ensure piped water supply to the remotest corner of the city."
"But here in Chennai Metrowater can neither supply piped water and yet imposes a hundred conditions in the citizen's private quest to arrange his own water supply, " said MB Nirmal of Exnora, a voluntary organization. The net result is the city which should receive at least 440 MLD(millions litres a day) now gets just 60 MLD. Against the WHO norm of at least 200 litres per person per day a Chennai citizen would be lucky if he gets 60 litres a day.
"The government has to draw the line somewhere to stop people from sinking borewells and wells as Chennai has seen the worst depletion of groundwater resources among all the metros. We are not enforcing the rules strictly because this is a really bad year but after a good monsoon when piped water supply is assured, you can expect the government to come down on overexploitation of groundwater," said a senior official of the municipal administration.