When was the last time you spend almost half your income to just survive? Forget food, I’m talking only drinking water?

I had the privilege of standing frozen when MGR asked me this question. MGR, as he is popularly called (guess MGRs never die in TN!), is a resident of the official resettlement slum working under the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in a place called Kannagi Nagar.

On OMR in Chennai, sharing a neighbourhood with elitist IT Parks and Golf villages, Kannagi Nagar residents are forced to spend almost Rs 50-100 per day, nearly half their income, for water, and thus to survive, said MGR.

“Shall we run for water or go for work?” Chandra raised her voice when we asked her how she lives with such gripping shortage of water. Her husband was a drunkard and left her two years back. She goes to Koyambedu market daily as early as two in the morning, collects flowers, and sells them in the local market for a living. She supports two children and her mother (who, like many others in the area, is a cancer patient). Even this level of mere existence comes to a stop because of the water shortage because she needs water to maintain the freshness of flowers for one night. Added to this, she pays Rs 2,600 as rent for her two rooms and a bathroom – which you can call a house if you like.

The Corporation itself (dating back to as early as 1961) defines slums as “huts erected in a haphazard manner without proper access…lacking minimum basic amenities, protected water supply and drainage arrangements. Houses built in close proximity not allowing free air to get in.” Areas like Kannagi Nagar built by the Corporation to upgrade the lives of slum dwellers, is more abysmal than the luxury offered by that definition.

By official sources, power shortage in the New Veeranam project is the culprit for this.

Veeranam, a Rs 720-cr and 1455-mcft capacity project build near Veeranam Lake, is infamous for the allegations of rampant corruption and politicking since its inception in 1967. When the project was finally completed in 2004, ironically, the lake had run dry and was used as a cricket field. The authorities then decided to dig 45 deep borewells to run the project.

“In any case,” C.S Kuppuraj, former Chief Engineer of the Tamil Nadu PWD once commented on the project, “even if there is water in Veeranam and even if all of it is sent to Chennai, it will be like pouring a mug-full into the sea.” So, that’s the way water comes, if at all, to Kannagi Nagar.

While returning from Kannagi Nagar we saw lush greenery sprawled across the land literally opposite to the slum – the AKDR Golf Village. Everyone knows that a golf green guzzles gallons of water. Where do they get their water? From the Corporation? Do they pay for their water? Or, worse, do they use borewells which could result in over-extraction of groundwater?

When we started making enquires about the details of their business and tried to get some photos of the place – in a brief role change as sports journalists – we were almost thrown out by the Director himself on the charge of ‘trespassing’!

Ha! The games people play!

Post Script: As we were writing this report, we came to know that the people in Kannagi Nagar were getting water. We are happy to know that. But can anyone tell us how long they’ll get it?

(Nidheesh is a student of ACJ, Chennai. He got inputs from classmate Mythili Sankara; S. Srivatsan, Urban Affairs Editor, The Hindu; Karen Coelho, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS); Prof. Nagaraj, ACJ; Venkat, researcher, MIDS; and Rukmini Ramani, M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation.)

(This article was published on January 23, 2013)
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