Over the last three months, multiple protests have broken out in Tiruvallur district in Tamil Nadu against private tankers extracting fast depleting water from wells in the region, to meet Chennai's requirements. Last week, matters escalated and residents of Parivakkam village in the district seized tankers that were pumping water from farm wells into their containers.
Incensed by public protests, the Lorry Owners Association threatened an indefinite strike, adding to the anxiety of water starved areas in Tamil Nadu's capital city.
"The government assured us support and said that we can work uninterrupted, so we called off the strike," says Murugan, secretary of the water tankers association in Chennai. "But if we continue to face public obstruction, we will drop this entire operation and move to transporting other items in our lorries. And then, who will suffer?" he asks matter-of-fact.
Residents in the neighbouring district, however, remain unfazed. They allege that their suffering has already begun as water extraction takes a toll on their resources. Tiruvallur consists of eight taluks - Avadi, Ponneri, Gummidipoondi, Uthukottai, Tiruvallur, Poonamallee, Tiruttani, and Pallipattu. According to the tanker association, water has traditionally been extracted from the district's private farm wells.
"There are several abandoned farms here and the owners let us draw water from the well for a fixed amount," says Murugan.
This unchecked extraction, however, say residents, has damaged the groundwater table.
"Earlier we would get water above 25 feet for sure if we dig borewells but now, even if we go further than 50 feet, there is in only mud," says Vadivel, the Chairman of the Poonamallee Residents Association. "These tanker owners dig deep into the farm wells, close to 100 feet and exploit our resources, leaving nothing for the local residents. Water is being carried away to Chennai at the cost of people in our district," he adds.
This anger has even translated to violence against tankers in pockets of the district.
In June, residents of Bangarampettai captured a water tanker, broke its windscreen and deflated its tyres. They feared they will run out of water as their resources were taken to Chennai city, malls and even hotels.
"Private tankers have fitted more than eight bore wells in our village and are indiscriminately extracting thousands of litres of water every day," the Bangarampettai villagers wrote, reports Reuters, in a letter to a government official in the region after they stopped the tanker.
Days after that, in the villages of Madura Mettur, Mettupalayam, Periya Colony, Gandhi Nagar, Kokkumedu and Marambedu, 5,000 people protested against the tankers. They alleged that at least 11 borewells dug only a few months ago, were draining groundwater and adversely affecting their livelihoods.
They even laid siege to a public bus to attract the attention of authorities to their demands.
Despite this, they claim there was no respite or intervention from the government. Across Tiruvallur, residents allege apathy from the district administration.
"We have petitioned the local revenue officers multiple times and asked that the tankers be stopped but there has been no action," says Vadivel. "They are illegally extracting water and we the residents here are paying the price for it. This is illegal," he says.
Tanker owners, however, question the allegation of illegal water extraction.
"We are not digging deep borewells at all because we need to be able to extract 12,000 litres in 20 minutes for the entire process to be profitable," says Murugan. "Where is the question of legality when there is no concept of license to extract water? We privately deal with the well owners. In fact, we have asked the government to streamline the process and give us licenses but they have said that it is not plausible now," he adds.
The secretary further alleges that the protests are motivated.
"Only 25% of these protests are genuine. The rest of them are either unhappy that a neighbour is earning money with the water he is selling or they are setting the platform for the local body elections," he alleges.
The District Collector and Revenue District Official were unavailable for comment on the matter despite multiple efforts to contact them.
Both residents and tanker owners, meanwhile, tell TNM that their face-off will only get more fierce as the days proceed, with no solution in sight.