Chennai is heavily dependent on packaged water – what happens when the supply stops?

Vinita Govindarajan has a story which does not apply to Chennai alone but across most of India’s cities and towns.

An intense drought, such as the one prevailing over Tamil Nadu this year, has raised major concerns about the steady supply of drinking water among the rural and urban poor. But the more affluent households of Chennai rarely feel the impact, with a 20-litre plastic can of water delivered regularly to their doorstep.

The plastic container eliminates the need to stand for hours in line in front of a public tap with erratic water supply or an infrequent water tanker. Thousands of packaged water containers travel long distances from small villages in neighbouring districts all the way to Chennai, to quench the thirst of urban dwellers.

But a large scale strike by packaged drinking water manufacturing units around Chennai in the last week of May shook the water can consumers out of their complacency. On May 28, over 200 licensed packaged water manufacturing plants shut down in Chennai and Tiruvallur districts, and the next day, 100 more plants in Kancheepuram threatened to strike. Several residents heavily dependent on packaged water scrambled to stock up cans from distributors.

Though short-lived, the strike suggested that the regular supply of water cans could no longer be taken for granted.

There were two reasons for the strike. The first was in protest against the new Goods and Services Tax rules that levy 18% tax on packaged water. The second, was drought. Citing plunging groundwater levels in various taluks of Thiruvallur district, local revenue officials issued notices to several water units to shut down and stop extracting water.

Water is India’s topmost problem but there is hardly any attention to it. We fret so much on 1% drop in GDP but don’t care about much higher decline in groundwater levels..


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