- Bottling Up Discontent: Chennai’s black market for water
CHENNAI, India—Midday temperatures regularly hit 104 degrees during the summer in Chennai. All outdoor surfaces from sidewalks to rooftops are said to sizzle like a dosa kal, or a caste-iron skillet over a flame. Women huddle under umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, mopping their faces with floral-print handkerchiefs. Street dogs bury themselves in the sand in whatever patchwork of shade they can find. And, with this heat, everyone is thirsty.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 25]
There are plenty of ways to hydrate in Chennai. Street vendors sell coconut water, limeade, sugar cane juice, and chilled sodas, and there is lots of water for sale. Refrigerated water trolleys, more common in Delhi and cities throughout northern India, can be found near bus stops and universities, selling glasses of cold water for a rupee or two. But increasingly, residents, rich and poor alike, want packaged water, and they don’t just want to buy the occasional packet or bottle from a street cart. They want large containers delivered to their homes, dispensed not from their taps but through pushtabs on water coolers.
Just a decade ago, all but the wealthiest Chennaiites relied on public water. The city’s poorest residents would fill plastic vessels from pumps that might flow one or two hours each day, and the middle class would boil and filter tap water through a sieve, letting it cool in steel pots on countertops.
Yet today more than half of the city’s households drink packaged water. The city’s upper middle class and wealthy can afford to spend hundreds, even thousands of rupees a month for brand-name water packaged and delivered by international conglomerates like Kinley or Aquafina. But increasingly, the city’s poor are paying for water too, and much of this black-market water comes from uncertain or outright fraudulent sources.
The growing demand for drinking water stems from a nationwide lack of confidence in the public water supply. In 2012, 70 percent of water samples tested by the city failed the city water agency’s purity tests. A 2013 survey conducted in eight Indian cities by a water purifier manufacturer and a market research firm found that 61 percent of households reported contamination in government-supplied water. This same survey found that waterborne diseases—such as cholera, jaundice, and typhoid—accounted for 77 percent of all incidents of disease in India. In 2013, an official at the national Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation reported to the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, that 3,883 people had died from diseases caused by drinking contaminated water nationwide in 2012, up from 3,314 the previous year.
In Chennai, the waters woes have proven to be just as dire as in other Indian cities. In April 2012, The Times of India reported that Chennai officials, in response to a right-to-information petition, disclosed that public drinking water samples taken from several neighborhoods throughout 2010–2011 contained E. coli, coliform, and other diarrhea-causing bacteria from human and animal feces. Samples from the city’s Tondiarpet district had reportedly failed government potability tests 47 times that year. City government officials had previously disclosed that since 2007 nearly 440 tested public water samples had been found unfit to drink. These tests, according to the report, were only undertaken following official consumer complaints.
A research team at Chennai’s Queen Mary’s College Department of Geology analyzed 400 cases of diarrhea caused by water-borne diseases, which had been treated at Chennai hospitals and dispensaries between December 2010 and June 2011. Some 48 percent of the study respondents used government-supplied tap water. The rest used water pumped from unsanctioned bore wells or rooftop tanks, because the public water supply was either unavailable or too inconsistent to meet their household needs.
Based in part on his promises to improve living conditions, Narendra Modi swept into the prime minister’s office in May 2014, and improving the water supply does appear to be one of his [End Page 26] priorities. According to an August...