Three vehicles designed to carry plastic pots were parked on the main road from Kamuthi to Sikkal in this parched district in Tamil Nadu. Few metres away, three women were waiting for the past few hours for their turns to fetch water from a pit and take it to their village, at least three kilometres from the spot.
The fourth woman who was using a plastic bottle to fetch water from the “well” and pour them into one of the pots that she had brought looks tired after having spent three hours under the scorching sun.
“This is how we fetch water ever since summer began this year. This is dangerous because even if one of my legs slip a bit, I would fall inside the pit. But we don’t have enough money to buy drinking water from other sources and hence have to source water from such pits which have been dug by individuals for their own purpose,” Seethalakshmi, 52, told DH.
Through the one-hour journey to cover 45-km distance from Kamuthi to Sikkal, this DH correspondent saw scores of people walking with their specially designed two-wheelers with empty pots to fill water from such “wells”.
Though people in Ramanathapuram district always find it difficult to meet their water needs, this year has been the worst in recent times. People in several villages in Kamuthi, Sayalkudi and Mudhukulathur in Ramanathapuram district said they walk miles together to fetch water and that their plight has not been looked into by the government.
The water crisis in Tamil Nadu has reached unprecedented proportions this summer with people lining up the streets looking for water tankers in Chennai, the capital city, and elsewhere.
The Tamil Nadu government has been in denial so far about the water crisis in the state, but the situation seems to be grim in districts like Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar which primarily depend on monsoon rains. Depletion of groundwater and not enough rainfall are said to be primary reasons for the water crisis.
Seethalakshmi, Jothilakshmi and two of their neighbours had come to this spot by foot from P Keerandai, a nondescript village a few km away, to store water for use over the next few days. “There is no water in our village. The pipes have become a showpiece since it has been long that we have seen water flowing from them. Every villager is forced to walk a few kms to fetch water for drinking and other purposes,” Jothilakshmi said.
The other two, who wished to remain anonymous, said they come all the way since they can’t afford to buy water which is sold at anywhere between Rs 8 to Rs 20 per plastic pot. “We depend on MNREGS for wages and we don’t earn so well that we can afford to spend on water. Since water is available here, we come and take it,” one of the women said.
And this water too cannot be consumed directly. “One has to either heat or filter the water before drinking,” Seethalakshmi said.
Just a few kilometres away at the massive Pandian Oorani (tank) in Sikkal village, all one could see is makeshift “walls” made of thorns and thatched roof with locks on them. The villagers have dug up pits that are quite deep and fetch whatever water available for their daily chores and drinking purposes.
“We spent Rs 4,000 for digging the well using a JCB machine and another Rs 500 for the lock. We have no other option since there is no water in our houses. We lock these spots to ensure no other person comes and fetches water from here,” Syed Ali Fathima, whose family is into farming, said.
The wells have been dug up in the past few months after people found difficult to find water for daily needs. Fathima said they spend more than three to four hours inside their “roof” in the pond, washing clothes and storing water for their needs.
“If we don’t fetch water from here, we will be forced to buy water from tankers which come once in three or four days. Based on the demand, the cost for one pot of water is fixed. A few days back it was Rs 8 per pot and today it is Rs 12 per pot and this is not even drinking water,” the 48-year-old woman said.
The ‘Pandian Oorani’ in Sikkal village would be brimming with water during monsoon and people from nearby villages and towns would throng to have a shower.
“The first thing we do when there are rains is to ensure that this waterbody gets filled with water. But this year, the unprecedented water crisis has forced people to dig wells inside the pond. Though it is illegal, one can’t do much due to the magnitude of the crisis this year,” M S K Bhagyanathan, an environmental activist in Sikkal, told DH.
He also accused the government of not taking enough steps to ward off the water crisis. Bhagyanathan said the water crisis in Ramanathapuram would turn worse with all sources providing drinking water to the district turning dry. “The Cauvery water is nowhere to be seen and even the desalination plant that is supposed to provide drinking water is shut,” he claimed.
Zubedha, a widowed mother of two minor girls, is dependent on MNREGS to eke out a living. “If we spend Rs 50 to Rs 100 on buying water, how do we manage other expenses. I go to work under MNREGS and there is no other source of income for me. Why should we spend on the water when the government is supposed to give us without any hassles?” she asked.
Since fetching water from the well takes a few hours, many are forced to take off from their work and spend the whole day at the wells losing their income. “How can we go to work when we don’t have water at home. If we are two or three people at home, we take turns to go to work and fetch water. That’s how bad the crisis is,” another woman said.
And the digging of wells also is not financially viable for many since it involves the spending of Rs 4,000 to Rs 20,000 depending on the needs. Zubedha said she is dependent on the pits dug by her neighbours since she can’t afford to dig a pit on her own to get water.