Look at me. Do I look like I have had a bath? Not in the last one week,” says G Rukmini, 65, carrying two pots of water from her second-floor house to the cemented patch abutting the street below, where she now squats alongside a tub full of unwashed clothes.
As she stirs up the soap foam, Rukmini’s neighbour taunts her: “You haven’t been bathing and yet you have all these clothes to wash.” Rukmini shoots back: “Why? As if you have had a bath.” “No, I haven’t. We have been managing somehow,” laughs Ramani.
Ramani’s neighbour Shankar, a criminal lawyer practising in a city court, walks past and the women now decide to rib him. “You haven’t bathed, yet look at yourself. Do you use up all your water just on that white shirt you usually wear to court,” says Ramani as the two women break into loud guffaws. Shankar smiles and walks off.
As Chennai goes through one of its worst water crises in nearly two decades, made worse by failed monsoons last year and shifting rainfall patterns over the years, here in Kapali Thottam, a slum rehabilitation colony in the Mylapore area of the city, almost every conversation is centred around water — and in light-hearted moments such as these, much of this is about missed bathing cycles.
But such moments are rare. The water crisis, made worse by the searing heat — temperatures have touched up to 42 degree Celsius this season — and sapping humidity, has stretched patience thin, with frequent fights over water. A couple of weeks ago, a woman ended up with a deep cut on her neck after her neighbour attacked her over water. Outside the city, in a village near Thanjavur, a man was beaten to death by his neighbours, again over water.
“People are angry. I am angry too. What do we do when there is no water to cook, to keep toilets clean? So when water comes, everyone scrambles and then there are fights at the slightest pretext. I am so tired of this,” says Rukmini, who lives with her son Kathiresan, a sweeper-cum-cleaner with the Chennai Corporation.
In some of the city’s busiest neighbourhoods, police stations have been reporting a steady increase in complaints over water. “The root cause is water. People are frustrated and angry that they have to struggle so much for something as basic as water. Even a minor tussle leads to heated arguments and even physical attacks. Many of these fights start over people calling each other thieves — say, if someone takes home an extra pot of water than what is allowed under his family quota or if someone fetches a pot of water from a tanker that another person has booked… We can only make them sit down and talk. We try our best to settle disputes without registering a case since they are usually neighbours and need to move on. We register cases only when there are incidents of water tanker drivers getting manhandled by residents,” says an officer in one of the Mylapore police stations who didn’t want to be identified.
The colony of dilapidated apartment blocks at Kapali Thottam is one of the many ‘vertical slums’ that the government built in the 1980s and ‘90s to rehabilitate slum dwellers. Though these buildings came with pipes, two years ago, the government, in a bid to reduce consumption, stopped water supply to the colony. Instead, the government built common water tanks for each of these colonies, which would be periodically filled with water from tankers. In Kapali Thottam, which has about 500 households, the tanker now comes only twice or thrice a week.
The water tank in front of Rukmini’s apartment block is dry, she says. A tap attached to the tank is locked, with one of the local residents in charge of opening it whenever the tanker comes.
“Each time the tanker comes, a household gets four pots of water, rarely six. What can anyone do with such little water? Should I use it to cook, wash clothes or for the toilet? Sollunge… (Please tell me),” she says with a defeated smile.
Luckily, she says, the tanker came last night. “That is why I can afford to wash clothes after a week. Sometimes the tankers come in the morning, or at night. Sometimes even at midnight. But at least they come. We tip them to ensure they come again,” she says, her feet dipped in clouds of foam from her washing.
Every day, a vast network of tankers criss-crosses the city, delivering water to some of the most parched areas of the city — from posh localities such as Poes Garden, Greams Road and Adyar to slums such as Kapali Thottam.
According to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, about 900 water lorries make about 9,400 trips a day to transport water from treatment plants and storage stations to different parts of the city — the largest such deployment of these vehicles in the city ever.
Rukmini came to Chennai in 1982 from her village, Cheyyar, near Kancheepuram, after her marriage. Her husband, who worked at a company that produced cooking oil, died some years ago. “In all my years in Chennai, I have never witnessed a summer like this,” she says. When reminded about the 2001 drought that forced the AIADMK government to bring water in rail wagons from faraway places, she says, “At least there were borewells then. Now even those are dry.”
She spots her neighbour Chandran, a taxi driver in his early 60s, who has come out for a bath, carrying half a bucket of water and a bar of soap. “Ask Chandran. At his home too, they have been cooking less to keep the kitchen and toilets clean,” Rukmini laughs.
Chandran isn’t amused. “The poor always get less water even when there is enough. Now that there is a real shortage, you can imagine how bad our situation must be,” he says.
“People are dying in Bihar due to the heat. I can’t imagine what will happen if there is no rain in Chennai next month too,” he adds, sitting on his haunches and pouring a mug of water down his head.