As Tamil Nadu suffers its worst drought in the last 140 years, it is the state's economy that has been forced to deal with the brunt of the blow delivered by water scarcity. From agriculturalists who have lost their crop to small industries that are water intensive, the lack of rainfall has delivered a nasty hand indiscriminately. Even Coonoor, a hill town whose economy is bolstered by an annual influx of tourists, has not been spared.
All of 10.05 sq km in size, Coonoor municipality's winding lanes and mountainous terrain are packed with people and shops. As The News Minute team, headed towards the market area, to talk to local businessmen, we were greeted by pleasant weather and blue skies. Remnants, says our auto-rickshaw driver Ahmed, of the light rains that graced the region the previous day. This small town within the Nilgiris district boasts of a population of 45,545 people but the crowded streets and jammed buildings in the market area, suggest that the infrastructure did not keep pace.
The Coonoor municipal body which is supposed to provide 90 litres of water per person every day, is only able to give 76 litres per person following the monsoon failure. According to residents, they receive water at their homes only once in a month but the supply lasts for up to eight hours. The main source of water in Coonoor is the Ralliah dam and the corporation also uses 11 other local sources for water. Experts claim that the local body failed to create additional storage capacity and promote water conservation in this hill town. With even domestic needs for water remaining unfulfilled, commercial purposes have allegedly taken a backseat.
The Coonoor market area
As you enter the busy market, the smell of baked goods immediately wafts towards you from Crown bakery, a 137-year-old establishment owned by 58-year-old Sheriff. The bakery displays a variety of goods, from homemade chocolate to freshly baked sponge cake. While the products were inviting, the owner wasn't too keen to talk. Sheriff, when asked if the drought was affecting his business, says bitterly, "We are hardly making profits these last six months. I spend Rs 2400 every week to make sure there is enough water for personal needs and to keep the bakery running. In addition to this, I pay water tax every three months."
He goes about arranging some cookies in the case, when I dare to ask if he has confronted the local body about the problem. "What is the use?" he asks. "Nobody is going to help us and the entire town is suffering because we are not getting enough water," he added. How much water did he require to bake his products? "Why are you asking me that? Next, you will ask me for my recipes," he says before shooing this reporter out of his shop.
Our next stop was a shop selling Eucalyptus oil. The familiar fragrance, that one immediately associates with the hills. Seated inside the 'Jain Oil Eucalyptus Factory' was a tall man in an orange sweater who beckoned with a smile. 60-year-old Suresh Jain, who took over the business from his father offered some tea before settling to take some questions. "When producing eucalyptus oil, you need water for the distillation process," he explains. "But because of this acute water shortage there has been lower levels of production. We are only able to operate one shift of distillation in a day as opposed to two shifts, which was the practice. We are only producing the bare minimum," he says.
The entrepreneur adds that sales has also reduced because the tourism industry has slowed down. "The weather pattern here and demonetisation has even affected our most reliable source of income," he says gloomily.
The next stop was 'Amma Unavagam', which provides subsidised food to thousands every day. The first thing we notice, when we walk into the compound, is the water flowing out from inside the building, which was clearly being cleaned. Inside are three women, who are preparing for lunch. When asked if they have enough water for their daily needs, Meera who has been working at the centre for two years says, "Yes of course. The local body gives us 6000 litres of water a day even though we use only 4000 litres. There is really no problem here." She, however, follows it up with, "But we live just behind this building and there is absolutely no water there. In fact, the three of us take turns to go fill water when it comes once a month. If we miss it, then we have to climb a long way to a spring to get water."
The next visit was to Hotel Ramachandra, a popular establishment that had clearly not seen too much change in the last few decades. An old cashier at the entrance directed us upstairs to meet the manager. 68-year-old Madhavan had been an employee at this hotel for the last 40 years and to claim that he was well aware of its workings, would have been an understatement. "We have drilled a borewell for ourselves in an external location and bring water here to serve our needs," he explains. "We do not spend too much money because we have managed to tap into our ground water supply," he points out.
Hotels too have managed to cultivate their own sources of water. A resort owner under the condition of anonymity says that if the borewells go dry, they can still afford to buy water from private tankers and therefore there was no question of turning tourists away.
The backbone of the economy under pressure
With most of the market area covered, it was time to visit the Research Institute of the United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI), to know how this drought had affected the largest tea producing state in South India. While Coonoor's economy relies on tourists in the summer months, it depends on tea production through the year. Tamil Nadu contributes to 65% of the tea that is produced in south India, according to UPASI and in 2016 alone, grew 145 million kg of tea.
"But production has taken a huge hit in the last two years because of drought," admits R Sanchit, Joint Secretary of UPASI. "An average of 242 million kg of tea used to be produced by south India but in 2016, it reduced to 212 million kg. This is a huge fall and purely due to the drought," he observes.
According to the official, it is not practical to invest in irrigation of the plant as it stretches across mountains and occupies huge tracts of land. "It would be too expensive for farmers to take it up themselves and will require high capital. People who own and work in tea plantations have suffered huge losses due to the failure of South West and North East monsoon," he adds. A team from UPASI will soon be meeting Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to discuss the effects of climate change on tea plantations and the losses that those in the industry are facing.
"With a cash crop such as tea taking a hit, the entire spending power of Coonoor has come down," says 58-year-old Prem, who owns a clothing shop in the heart of the hill station. "Our sales have dropped by 25% and this problem has only been building over the last seven years. The thing is the lack of water has also increased the spending budget in every house to accommodate additional storage facilities - from new buckets and drums to sumps to store water. The local business here has taken a huge hit," he notes.
You can read more on the drought in Coonoor here.