There is a famous saying in the Nilgiris that is often repeated to travellers- "You ask a man from Coonoor for a thousand rupees and he will gladly give it to you but you ask him for a glass of water and he will turn his back on you."
These words, though strung in jest, is a startling preview to the manmade tragedy that the residents of this hill station are battling every single day. This famous tourist spot, known for its weather and greenery, is today rainfall deficient, drought ridden and a land with reducing opportunities for its residents. The ground reality, evident in a single visit, is in stark contrast to the postcard images that the internet may throw at you, if you attempt to learn about the town.
59-year-old Kandavel and his wife Jhansi Rani have been residing on the slopes Coonoor for over 30 years now. When they first moved here, it was 'heaven on earth', explains Kandavel. Originally from Virudhunagar, Kandavel and his wife would travel often to meet their relatives who reside in Madurai, Thanjavur and Chennai.
In October last year, Jhansi Rani (57) had planned one such trip to a relative's housewarming ceremony in Madurai. Her bags were packed and bus tickets booked, when she heard the sound. It was the single sound that dominated the lives of all those who resided in this town - water gushing from the taps in their home.
"I immediately dropped all the luggage and my husband and I began filling drums, pots and every single vessel we could get our hands, on with water," she says. The residents of Mount Pleasant, where this family stays, get water inside their homes only once every month. It is a mad rush, on the days when the corporation decides to provide these families with water. All other appointments are postponed for this essential commodity.
Dr Joghee, an 84-year-old man, who resides in the area, was about to leave for his granddaughter's birthday party in Tiruppur when neighbours announced that 'the water is coming'. He immediately dropped all his plans, informed his children and set about collecting water. If the strain of not having water was not enough, residents here face more anxiety as there is neither a fixed time nor date that the corporation has given them for the water supply to their areas.
"It was on Ekadasi on a Sunday, I remember it very well," says Kandavel. "We were just about to go to bed at around 11pm when we heard the water flowing through the pipes. An entire night's sleep was lost in an effort to collect water, so that we can survive for the next few weeks. The water comes for up to eight hours and we often run of out containers to use and are forced to turn off the taps," he explains as he shows this reporter around his home. Other than the hallway, every single room in the house was filled with drums and vessels being used to store water.
A chronic water problem
In 2016, Coonoor received 1024mm of rainfall, over 400mm less than what is considered to be normal rainfall in this region. Understandably, the Ralliah dam which the town depends on extensively for water, dried up. But according to experts, it is not the rain gods who are to be blamed for the misery of Coonoor's residents but the local body officials, who have failed to come up with a plan year after year.
"For close to seven years now, the residents have been facing a water shortage. The problem here is that the storage capacity of the Ralliah dam is not enough to cater to the current population of Coonoor," says Raminder Chowdhary of the One Earth Foundation, that has extensively written on the water problems in Coonoor.
The Ralliah dam was built by the British back in 1941, when the population of Coonoor stood close to 20,000. Today according to the local municipality's figures, Coonoor has a population of 45,454 people. This is discounting the floating population and tourists who throng these hills every year. In 2012, a proposal by private consultants to improve water supply to the Coonoor municipal region was accorded administrative sanction and a deadline was fixed for April 2013. The administration had clearly predicted the water shortage that was to come and knew that the Ralliah which supplied 65% water to Coonoor would not be able to hold sufficient water.
The Wilbur Smith project envisaged increasing water capacity of the Ralliah and increasing distribution pipelines from 44.8km to 67.3km. But a year after the work began, neither was the work completed nor was the capacity of the dam increased. According to reports, the dam remained dry once again in 2013 and the new pipeline laid was already in disrepair.
"The local body failed Coonoor's resident again and again. Absolutely blame their apathy for the suffering of the common man in Coonoor. There was no planning and research done on how exactly the capacity of the dam can be increased or how to create a new source of water storage. What is the local body doing instead of promoting methods of water conservation?" asks Raminder.
A local body in denial
The local body however denies allegations of its role in this manmade drought. The Commissioner Mohammad Siraj, who was sitting with a book full of small facts, could rattle of the population, the water levels in the Ralliah dam and the sources of water to the town immediately. But when the questions, got a little out of syllabus, he immediately summoned the Municipal engineer to the cabin. As he waited anxiously for the engineer to arrive, The News Minute directed a few other questions at the Commissioner.
"Every house must get 10,000 litres of water per month but we are actually providing 30,000 litres to them," he explains. "There are 11 local sources that we source water from and every house gets water once a week," he adds looking up.
The engineer, K Mahendran comes into the room even as I mention that residents have claimed that the frequency of water supply was much lesser. "We were giving water once in 15 days," the municipal engineer claims. "Now, after a few showers this last week we are able to give water once a week," he maintains.
Residents, however, out rightly dismissed this as a lie. "It is after the rains these last four days that there is even a possibility of getting water every fifteen days," they allege. They claim that the shortage will continue despite the Ralliah dam, which can store up to 43.6 feet, now having 32 feet of water in it. "The water will deplete in no time and there are no additional storage facilities created by the local body to save rain water," alleges Kandavel.
Despite the Corporation's version being far removed from that of the residents, The News Minute went on to ask why they couldn't increase the frequency of supply and instead shorten the duration. "There are 36 sectors in the municipal region and they are all at different altitudes, so we need to keep the water flowing for 8 hours so that it can be pumped up to the top most areas," says the Municipal engineer. "But we are working on increasing frequency," he adds hastily.
When confronted with allegations of poor planning however, the local body sticks to its 'no rain' excuse. "We are supposed to provide 90 litres of water per person every day. But without rain we are only able to give 76 litres," admits the municipal engineer. As far as the Wilbur Smith project was concerned, he claims, "That was merely for desilting, it was completed in 2014."
One municipal officer, under the condition of anonymity, said that they were unable to increase the capacity of the dam because it would make the entire structure weak. Then what was the long-term plan to avoid drought in Coonoor?
"We are planning to get 6.1 million litres of water from Emerald lake in Ooty. The project has been approved by the state government and work will begin soon. A total of Rs 40.19 crores has been sanctioned for this," says Mahendran. "It will all get done in 2018," he says confidently.
Experts however, are not convinced by these answers. "The Emerald lake is first of all over 30km from Coonoor. If this project were to be undertaken it would cost the Government 400-500 crore not 40 crore," he argues. "Moreover, this entire plan is not even feasible. It will take years for the project to finish. There is no way it will get done by 2018 and pray, what will they do when the Emerald lake dries up?" he asks.
Necessity leads to ingenuity
The residents of Coonoor too seem to have stopped waiting for the local body to provide them with a solution. Dr Vasantan, a member of the Coonor Residents Forum says, "Lack of water is a chronic problem here but the corporation gives us the same answer every time - no rain. But this makes no sense because in 2009, we had great monsoons and the town was almost flooded. But in April 2010, we once again suffered from a water shortage," he recalls.
The middle and lower classes are most affected by the apathy displayed by the civic body. While hoteliers and some well to do families, told The News Minute that they buy water from private tankers, other parts of society couldn't afford to do so.
"Water costs anywhere between R .600 to Rs 1000 for every 1000 litres. We have so much use for it that it hardly lasts even a week," says 60-year-old Jayalakshmi who lives with her grandson. "We manage most of the time but when we have guests at home, we are forced to buy water," she says.
Residents in Coonoor who can't afford to keep buying water, however, have come up with ingenious methods to recycle it. In Kandavel's home, water that is used in the washing machine is reused in the bathroom. "We will fill the tank in the commode with this water and reuse it in the toilet," he says, shrugging.
35-year-old Benny, a businessman in Coonoor, has stopped washing his car. "It seemed like a crime to use the water to wash my car when so many others require it for more pressing needs," he says. "When my Innova becomes really dusty and I have no other choice but to wash it, then my mother lets me take two buckets of water for the task. Imagine washing such a big car with just two buckets of water," he says resignedly.
While these residents, make simple changes in their daily life to conserve this resource, some others chose to create a source of water for themselves. 39-year-old Rajeswari, a resident of Ambedkar Nagar, told The News Minute that in her area, 50 houses pooled money together to harness water from a natural spring. "We didn't hire any help. We carried stones and cement that we bought ourselves, built a tank and connected a pipe to it," she explains. "Now we depend on it for water because the local body is doing nothing to help us. In fact they came to our area after all the work was done and said they will make it better," she says.
So, did the residents agree to let the local body intervene?
"Are you crazy?" she asks. "They are more of a hindrance, than a help," she concludes.
You can read more about the drought in Coonoor here.