Rs 700 crore spent annually as OMR residents wait in vain for piped water

For years, residents of the famed Rajiv Gandhi Salai IT corridor have been pressing for basic water and drainage infrastructure, lack of which has meant not just huge expenses but also undesirable developments for the city as a whole.

Towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the Rajiv Gandhi Salai Information Technology (IT) corridor (formerly known as Old Mahabalipuram Road or OMR), became Chennai’s new face. The 45-km long IT corridor stretch that was launched with much fanfare to attract IT industries and thus bring in profit to the government exchequer is even today one of the fastest growing residential localities in the city.

But take a guess at how much OMR residents spend on water and sewage every year?

Approximately Rs 700 crore or more!

For the residents, mostly IT employees living on the 20-km stretch of the first phase of the IT corridor stretching till Siruseri, getting piped water supply and a full-fledged underground sewage network, a basic infrastructure required for any developed part of the city, continues to be a distant dream. A decade of living in this area has meant waiting in vain for the government to provide the most basic of amenities – water and a sewage network. And at a huge cost.

How it all adds up

Take the case of an apartment complex in Sholinganallur on IT Corridor. This apartment complex has 56 flats and each house spends around Rs 1,600 per month on water alone.

This, in fact, is considerably less than the going rates since the water tanker owner supplies them water at a reasonable price of Rs 800 per tanker (12,000 litres) for they are his long-term customers. When asked, several other residents on the IT Corridor said they end up paying anywhere between Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,600 per tanker and the monthly average expenses on water for a family of four ranges between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000.

Now in the above mentioned apartment, considering the lowest rate of Rs 800 per tanker, the residents together spend approximately Rs 1 lakh every month on their water needs.

This apartment has a functioning STP, so the sewage that they let out is minimal. But with most of the apartments on IT Corridor having defunct STPs, a large quantity of sewage stored in septic tanks is also transported through private tankers. This again would cost on an average Rs 1,500 to 2,000 per household every month.

Therefore, a family of 3-4 members living on this road spends around Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 (2500/3000 plus 1500/2000) on its water consumption and sewage disposal. This apart, the residents also shell out money to buy canned water for drinking purpose, the cost of which ranges from Rs 30 to Rs 40.

The Federation of OMR Residents Associations (FOMRRA), an apex body of resident associations, estimates the total number of houses on OMR at 2 lakh. Given that a significant number of houses remain unoccupied on this stretch at any point of time, for various reasons, let us assume that only 1.5 lakh houses are occupied.

Taking a conservative estimate of each household’s average spending on water and sewage every month to be Rs 4000, the total expenditure on water-sewage on IT Corridor exceeds Rs 720 crore per annum! And this on the lower side!

This is the amount spent by the residents alone, without taking into account the water consumption of IT parks, educational institutions, shops and other commercial establishments. Members of FOMRRA roughly estimate the annual expense on  water and sewage in OMR at Rs 1,000 crore.

The rise of the water supply business

So, this is the water and sewage management reality of OMR, where residents continue to wait for a CMWSSB (Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board) water connection and sewer lines.

However, what has become a loss for residents and the government exchequer has translated into a gain for villagers in the peri-urban areas, for it has led to flourishing water and sewage transportation business.

By FOMRRA estimates, around 4,000 private water tankers and 2,000 sewage tankers function on the OMR stretch. In 2012, a survey was conducted by M Vijayabaskar of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and M Suresh Babu of IIT Madras, among employees of two major IT Parks located on two ends of the corridor.

The survey reports threw light on the water scenario in the IT Corridor. It observed that most neighbourhoods in the vicinity do not receive water from CMWSSB. Ninety per cent of respondents staying on rented premises said they buy drinking water cans and more than 55 per cent buy water from tankers and lorries. Not just residential complexes, even the IT parks have huge water demand.

The paper points out that the private water suppliers who have thrived because of this are actually drawing water from wells in farmlands or village tanks, all in the areas bordering Chennai.

Water tax sans water!

While the residents’ pleas for CMWSSB water and sewer connection has fallen on deaf ears for five years now, they continue to pay annual water tax of around Rs 500 per house to the authorities.

“We have been demanding that the authorities and elected representatives provide us with water and sewer network, but they have not paid heed to our demands. We are paying a water tax of Rs 500 every year. According to the High Court order, irrespective of us having water and sewer lines, we have to pay water tax. Because the water tax is considered as a component of property tax,” Harsha Koda, Coordinator of FOMRRA says.

The residents are liable to pay water tax based on the premise that Chennai Metro Water provides them water through tankers in the absence of piped water. But then the reality is different. Though the Metro Water does supply water through tankers in some pockets, the demand is high and supply is very limited.

Praveen Tirouvth, a resident of OMR and an active member of FOMRRA says due to the arbitrary water rates, his apartment residents tried and succeeded in securing water supply from Chennai Metro Water tanker few months ago. “But it was on the precondition that we have to make an advance payment every month. One tanker of Metro Water is charged at Rs 700,” he says.

The other fall-back, or even luxury, that a few independent houses on the stretch have is that of digging their own borewells. But with the fast depleting groundwater table, borewells too are not a reliable source of water. Guru Murugesh, a resident of Sholinganallur says despite having a borewell in his house premises, he continues to buy tanker water because the water availability is insufficient.

Apartments on OMR stretch avoid using borewell water asr the saltwater from borewell corrodes the water supply machines. “It will react with the pipeline and spoil the system. Most of the apartments do not have borewells; even if they have, they can only use the water for washing cars and gardening,” Tirouvth comments.

Defunct STPs and RO plants

A worse fall-out of all this is how the lack of a sewerage network has forced the sewage treatment plants in apartments to remain defunct. Most of the apartments do not have functioning STPs due to lack of sewer lines which should ideally carry the wastewater generated after the treatment.

Take the case of an apartment in which Praveen Tirouvth lives. His apartment though small in size has a STP and an RO plant which have remained unused ever since the apartment was built.

“Our apartment has 30 houses and an RO plant of 30,000 litres capacity. It is good enough for a housing complex of this size. But the functioning of an RO plant of this capacity requires wastewater of 90,000 litres, of which 60,000 litres of wastewater has to be disposed after the treatment,” he explains.

The problem that his apartment and many such apartments on OMR face is the absence of sewerage connections that can carry the treated wastewater. “The wastewater after the treatment has to pass through a channel of the sewerage network, without which it can not function. Most of the apartments on OMR face this issue due to which their STPs and RO plants remain defunct,” he rues.

Pic: Balaji Srinivasan

So, if all these apartments completely rely on private sewage tankers to extract sewage from their septic tanks and transport it, where do these private tankers dispose of the sewage? The answer is not clear.

“Perhaps they dump it in Pallikaranai marshland,” notes Harsha Koda. Pallikaranai marshland is the only surviving wetland ecosystem of Chennai and there have been extensive reports about how the marshland is encroached and polluted. There have also been reported instances where tankers have been caught in broad daylight dumping sewage in lakes and stormwater drains.

The critical question facing OMR today therefore boils down to this – when will the area stretch get its water and sewer lines? In a follow up to this story, we will explore the status of the project proposals to get water and sewage network to OMR, and also why there is such a complete lack of information in the public domain on these.

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