Generators work full throttle as water gushes out in force to fill up tankers parked in the middle of a barren field in Tamil Nadu’s Pasur village in Erode district.
Crops have withered and human misery is mounting under a scorching drought that is said to be the worst in 140 years. But borewells dug in parched fields have ironically spawned a flourishing trade in ferrying water from hastily dug borewells to those in dire need, for a price.
With water scarce following successive failed monsoons, tankers carrying water are racing across the state’s interiors and those running the trade, commonly called the tanker mafia, are said to be making a killing.
Those owning the borewells and operating the tankers are making a killing. To sink a borewell costs around ₹1.25 lakh. But the returns on the investment are quick and good. A tanker carrying 6,000 litres fetch ₹2,000. The price for bigger tankers carrying 12,000 litres is higher, pegged somewhere around ₹4,500.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” points out a local farmer who wishes to stay anonymous. His land having turned fallow, he chose instead to invest in sinking a borewell for supplying water to those in need.
In sinking wells and striking profits, this farmer isn’t alone.
By rough estimates, some 70 borewells have been dug up along a 25-km-stretch between Soasiramani and Randamangalam of Erode, all selling water to establishments ranging from educational institutes to residential apartments in nearby cities.
Though the trade isn’t exactly illegal since the borewells have been sunk in private land, what has raised the hackles of environmentalists is that water is being pumped out of them for sale.
“What is happening is a rampaging plunder of ground water,” points out Nityanand Muthukumar, a local farmer. As water is pumped out for quick profits, ground water table is said to be plummeting at an alarming rate.
In Tiruchirapalli, for example, water could be struck at a depth of 80 feet till recently. But since five big ‘tanker mafias’ began operating in the area, one has to dig up to 800 feet to reach the water table, said Prasanna Venkatesh, a local.
C Nallaswamy, the secretary of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Agriculturists’ Association, says the water tanker business is thriving since the situation on the ground has grown desperate.
“It is for the first time in my life I am seeing farmers buying water to save trees and plants,” Nallaswamy, 67, adds.
Local authorities say they are unable to crack down on the trade. “We seize motors used to pump municipal water to private tankers, but cannot take action against big borewells sunk on private land,” said R Papammal, the commissioner of Manapparai.
Agronomist S Janakarajan blames the government for the loot of water. “The government’s failure to prepare for drought has caused exploitation of ground water. When government cannot supply water, then it becomes difficult to block private operators from preying on the situation.”