Seven days after they began a strike across Tamil Nadu, packaged water units have agreed to continue the supply of water cans. The strike was called off after the Madras High Court issued an interim order stating that the units that have been sealed can apply for a No Objection Certificate (NOC) and that the state government must decide on the applications within 15 days of filing.
Over 600 of the 1,712 water can units in the state have been sealed so far following verbal orders from the Madras High Court. As the crackdown intensified, water can unit association first expressed dissent and announced a strike on February 26.
In its interim order, the bench consisting of Justices Vineeth Kothari and Suresh Kumar also stated that the units that have drawn underground water illegally without proper and valid licenses must make a security deposit of Rs 50,000 along with their application. It also ordered for other non-compliant units to be sealed and for a district-level Monitoring Committee to constantly monitor these units.
"We have called off the strike for now as the court has allowed us to apply for licenses," says Saravanan, a member of the Greater Chennai Packaged Drinking water manufacturers association. "We will have to see how many licenses are given and how many are rejected before commenting further," he added.
Allegations of illegal water extraction
The strike called by the water can unit associations comes after allegations of illegal water extraction came up in High Court two years ago, following which there was a crackdown on various units.
In 2018, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by a man named Sivamurthy, who alleged that groundwater was being illegally extracted for commercial purposes from Puzhal and Tiruvallur areas. In December 2019, when the matter came up for hearing, the Madras High Court directed the district authorities to take action against those carrying out illegal extractions, identify them and report to the court. However, in the first week of February, when the government authorities failed to present adequate data, the court had expressed its displeasure and demanded immediate action.
After the Madras High Court's order, officials from the Ground Water Division of Public Works Department (PWD) carried out a statewide enforcement drive last week. Collectors across the state conducted inspections to determine the levels of groundwater in areas where units were functioning.
The areas are generally classified into 'Over-exploited', 'Critical', 'Semi-Critical' and 'Safe'. And while units are allowed to be set up in ‘safe’ and ‘semi-critical’ (conditionally) areas, ‘critical’ and ‘over-exploited’ areas were to be protected from water extraction.
"Those who have set up units in the safe and semi-critical areas are likely to get permission. But others who are in critical and exploited areas will most likely have to shut down," said Saravanan.
Besides, in Tamil Nadu, in addition to following the guidelines of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and getting permission from Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), water can units will still require a NOC from the state government.
According to a Government Order (GO) passed in 2014, this certificate is compulsory unless the water is being extracted by a government organisation or for agriculture. The person applying for the NOC will have to submit 15 documents to specify the reason for extraction and the nature of the property.
Puthiya Thalaimurai reports that of the 703 water packaging units in the Chennai region, 53% do not have the requisite permission. In Madurai, Trichy, Coimbatore and Nellai regions, 54%, 72%, 58% and 26% of the total units have the NOC.