In April, as taps at his residence in T Nagar ran dry, Mohammad Muzammil an advocate in the Madras High Court, quickly placed calls to private water tankers in Chennai. After quick discussions, one private supplier agreed to bring 12,000 litres of water at a cost of Rs 1600. The cost was shared amongst five families in his apartment and the water which lasted for three days, came to Rs 340 per house.
The same quantity if supplied by the Chennai Metropolitain Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), it would have cost less than Rs 1000. "But Metrowater has too much demand and is unreliable for immediate supply. It was a reasonable deal in the beginning. So we started booking private tankers regularly," he tells TNM.
But as the weeks went by, summer intensified, borewells across Chennai ran dry and the demand for water from private tankers grew multifold.
"From Rs 1600 in April, the cost went upto Rs 3500 in May and now for the last two installments of water in June we've paid Rs 5000 per each lorry," says Mohammad. "And if we try to question the lorries, they say that if we are not ready to pay there are others who will," he adds.
This is not an isolated tale. Across Chennai, private water tankers are charging exorbitant rates to supply water to residences that have also used up their borewell supplies.
Over 100% increase in charges
TNM spoke to multiple private water suppliers in the city to glean rates first-hand and the cost for a 12,000 litre tanker of water ranged between Rs 3000 – Rs 6000. For a tanker carrying 24,000 litres of water, the cost was doubled.
Last year, in June, these tankers admit they were charging only upto Rs 1500 for 12,000 litres of water. In comparison to Metrowater that provides 9000 Litres of water at Rs 700. And when compared to their own rates last year, charges are up by 100% - 300%.
"They are exploiting the desperate situation that people are in," says a Metrowater official. "But the truth is that Metrowater is unable to meet the city's water needs independently. We get 1000 bookings a day and manage to dispatch about 600 water tankers. So, there are 400 pending bookings everyday and this in addition to the bookings we get the next day. The government must intervene in the matter but if they come down too hard, the tankers may go on strike and people will suffer. Their argument is that they travel over 50 kilometres in search of water to transport," he explains.
'Closest water sources now dry'
According to Murugan, the secretary of the water tankers association in Chennai, there are 4500 private agencies currently supplying water across the city. They are split between north, south and central Chennai and usually identify the nearest sources to extract water. These are usually fields with abandoned agricultural wells and the owner is paid per tanker of water loaded. This summer, however, their closest water sources have dried up and water tankers are travelling close to triple the distance to secure a load, says the association.
"Earlier, we used to get water from Poonamalle, Ayanambakkam and Thiruverkadu but the yield has reduced there. So now, for North Chennai we travel up to Vellavedu, Koothapakkam, Ulandai in Tiruvallur district. And in South Chennai while we earlier extracted water from Medavakkam, Mambakkam and Pallikarnai, we now go up to Thiruporur (Kanchipuram district) and to Old Mahabalipuram Road to fetch water," says Murugan. "What was earlier a 30 kilometre drive up and down, now goes up to even 90 kilometres," he says.
Different charges for 'yellow' water
The water now available in Poonamallee wells, says the association, is 'yellow' and cannot be used for domestic purposes. But this has allegedly not stopped water tankers from supplying it.
Krupa Ge, a city-based journalist, narrates her horror with private water tankers charging different prices for ‘different types’ of water. "The private water we have been buying is dirty and yellow. We have been buying a tanker of water at Rs 3,200. Another private tanker offered ‘cleaner’ water for the same quantity at Rs 4,500. The corporation water comes only for five minutes a week so we depend on private water tankers.” she says.
Krupa, along with her neighbours, had made an online booking on the Chennai Metrowater’s website 20 days ago, but to no avail. In order to ensure clean drinking water for her home, she has resorted to buying Mark Baxter, an organic chlorine safe tablet for use in her sump. Across the city, residents allege that the quality of water being supplied by private tankers is questionable and their charges exorbitant but point out that there is no other option at hand.
Vignesh, a resident of Nanganallur, says that private water tankers are the only source of water in his parched neighbourhood and he pays over and above the quantity he is buying. He says, “This is the first time we are being forced to buy water from private tankers. We are paying Rs 3,500 for 4,000 liters of water.” Vignesh also notes that while his family pays for a tanker load of water— 4,000 litres, their sump capacity is much lower at 3,000 liters. While they attempt to fill plastic drums, the private tankers don’t often wait.
'Tankers too paying more'
Tanker owners who spoke to TNM on the condition of anonymity, however, claim that they go to great lengths to fetch the water.
Speaking to TNM, Shekar*, a supplier of private water tankers to southern parts of the city, says, “We understand that people are complaining about the rising prices. Last year, we charged Rs 2,000 for 12,000 litres of water. This year, we are charging between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 for a load. However, last year, there were intermittent rains here and there— the borewells had at least enough for us to draw. This year, wells, bores and reservoirs are bone dry. A well used to give us five to six loads last year. This year, we are barely able to draw one to one-and-a-half loads.”
He adds that the expenses incurred to extract the water have doubled for the water tankers.
“Where we used to get water at 18 feet, we are now getting water only at 50 feet. We would pay Rs 400 to well owners for one load. Now we are paying Rs 1,000. In addition to this, in villages in and around Madurantakam and Thiruporur (in Kancheepuram district), we are paying extra to the residents (in addition to well owners) because we are taking water from their villages. Last year, we were able to transport five loads of water per lorry, this year we can make two trips at most,” he argues.
Authorities set to crack down?
Metrowater, however, is paying no heed to these arguments and has called upon the water tanker association to warn its members against overcharging the public.
Association Secretary Murugan tells TNM, "I agree that some of our members are overcharging and taking advantage of people's need for water. We have informed all of them that they can charge upto Rs 3500 but anything above that is not acceptable. The association is planning to put out a toll-free numbers for customers to complain about. The acts of some members are bringing the entire force titles like mafia and smugglers."
The Association has also informed the government that lawful action should be taken against tankers that are charging over Rs 3500 but predict a huge hurdle in this effort.
"People don't want to complain against the tankers. Even recently we found one tanker charging Rs 6000 at an apartment in Nungambakkam. When we went and asked for the bill as proof to take action, the residents refused to give it," says Murugan, adding, "They would rather be overcharged than face the prospect of inadequate water. So, it is up to us to keep the tanker owners under control."