A pipe dream?

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

The Veeranam project, conceived to deliver water to the parched metropolis of Chennai, nears completion, but questions about its viability and social and financial costs are left unanswered.

V. SRIDHAR in Chidambaram Photographs: S. Thanthoni

THIRTY-SIX years after it was first conceived, the Veeranam project, which was to deliver water to the parched metropolis of Chennai, is finally nearing completion. Although work on the Rs.720-crore Chennai Water Supply Augmentation Project - I (also known as the New Veeranam Project) is almost over, it appears unlikely that any water will actually flow from the parched Veeranam tank, which is 235 km away from the city, in Cuddalore district. Instead, the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Metrowater) has dug a network of 45 deep borewells north of the tank. Metrowater's plan to pump water from these wells and transport it through pipelines that have been laid for the project has raised a controversy. Farmers in the area have objected to the decision to dig deep borewells, claiming that groundwater in the region will be depleted. Moreover, farmers, political parties and irrigation experts have questioned the very foundations of a plan to draw water from a large but dry tank. They regard the move as one aimed at enabling the government to save face after making an impossible promise.

The completion of the project is widely seen as a matter of prestige for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. In April 2003, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced in the State Assembly that the project would be completed by June so that Chennai would be able to tide over its worst period of water shortage. While responding to allegations made by the Opposition that the government had deviated from norms while evaluating tenders submitted by companies for implementing the project, she asserted that "the Veeranam scheme will be implemented and Chennai will get water". The Opposition, led by the Congress(I), had questioned the viability of the scheme; being particularly sceptical about the plan to draw water from a dry tank.

The scheme has faced resistance from farmers who fear that diversion of water from Veeranam, when they face a severe water shortage, will ruin their livelihood. The farmers also regard the move to draw groundwater from the area as short-sighted and ruinous.

THE scheme to draw water from Veeranam has always been controversial. The New Veeranam Project is actually the third version of the scheme. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) assumed power in 1967 and within a year Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai laid the foundation stone for the project at Cuddalore. After M. Karunanidhi took over as Chief Minister in 1969 following Annadurai's death, the project turned controversial. Even today the concrete pipes manufactured then in collaboration with a Czech firm can be seen lying alongside the road between Vadalur and Chennai.

In 1993 the AIADMK government proposed to draw water from the tank and establish facilities to pump 180 million litres a day (mld). It sanctioned Rs.464 crores for the project. Of this, Rs.60 crores was meant for increasing the capacity of the tank and Rs.404 crores for transmission and distribution works.

In 1996, based on the recommendations of three agencies, including Tata Consulting Engineers (now known as TCE Consulting Engineers), the project was revised and the cost was estimated at Rs.1,638.04 crores. The government relied on the World Bank to provide a loan of Rs.1,073 crores; the balance was to come equally from the Tamil Nadu government and Metrowater. However, the World Bank refused funds pointing out that the scheme had been altered substantially and therefore was beyond the scope of the project that its board had approved earlier.

The DMK, perhaps chastened by its experience with the jinxed project, drastically reduced its scope. It concentrated efforts on improving the channels supplying water to the tank. In particular, it undertook works to increase the capacity of the Vadavar channel, the main channel that feeds the tank from the Coleroon (Kollidam), a branch of the Cauvery river.

After the 2001 elections, when the AIADMK came to power, Jayalalithaa revised the project again and christened it the New Veeranam Project. Basically, it aims to draw water from the tank and pump it to a height so as to create a gradient, enabling the water to flow to Chennai. The scheme envisaged the establishment of a pumping station at the northern end of the tank, near Kattumannarkoil, with a capacity to pump 190 mld. The project has raised the capacity of the tank from 930 million cubic feet (mcft) to 1,455 mcft and increased the flow capacity of the Vadavar channel from 1,300 cusecs to 2,300 cusecs. A water treatment plant and a power station have also been erected at Vadakukthu, near Neyveli. A little further north, at Kadampuliyur, a break pressure tank has been established so that water will flow as the terrain slopes towards Chennai.

The project is almost over. All the infrastructure meant for carrying water from Veeranam is now in place. The steel pipes, which for the most part of the 235 km run underground, have been laid. Metrowater officials at the site told Frontline that the water treatment plant and other facilities were also ready.

However, there is no water in sight at Veeranam, which has an expanse of 28 sq km. For children from surrounding villages the lake is now a giant cricket field.

Undaunted by the lack of water and focussed on getting water to Chennai somehow, Metrowater has given a new twist to the scheme. It has dug 45 deep borewells in the area near Neyveli and plans to pump the water into the infrastructure built for the New Veeranam Project. A senior official told Frontline that work on sinking the wells estimated to cost Rs.40-42 crores had been taken up as a "drought relief measure".

Metrowater plans to run 30 of the 45 borewells at any given time, aiming to pump 2 mld a day from each well. A senior engineer at the site said the average depth of the borewells was about 250 metres and water was drawn using 85 bhp (brake horsepower) pumps.

Terming the wells as rakshasa borewells, a local farmer pointed out that even wealthy farmers dug only up to 50 metres in the area and used pumps of 5 to 10 bhp. Asked for a break-up of the costs relating to the project, a senior Metrowater official in Chennai said that the "thumb rule" for costs associated with laying pipelines is about Rs.3 crores a kilometre.

IN order to understand the anxiety of farmers it is necessary to appreciate the fact that the Veeranam tank lies near the tail reaches of the Cauvery. Its main source is the Coleroon. During the past decade, as the water that flows into the Cauvery from the Mettur dam has lessened, water availability in the Coleroon has fallen. The Coleroon itself has an ayacut (irrigated area) of 1.35 lakh acres (54,000 hectares). More pertinently, Vadavar, the main channel from the Coleroon flowing into the Veeranam tank, has an ayacut of about 11,000 acres (44,000 ha). And the Veeranam tank has a registered ayacut of about 45,000 acres (18,000 ha).

K. Vijayakumar, president of the Sethaithope Dam Farmers Welfare Society, said that a decade ago farmers used to raise three crops on irrigated land but today the kuruvai (short-duration) crop was almost non-existent, the samba (medium-long duration crop) was risky, and for the navarai (which starts in January) the entire area was fallow. He pointed out that the peasantry in the area, particularly landless labourers, had been in acute distress.

Several farmers said people were increasingly migrating to Chennai and other cities and towns in search of work. The state machinery also harassed farmers who had ventured into establishing brick kilns as a means of livelihood, Vijayakumar said. "The impact of the Cauvery issue has not been factored into the project," he said.

Referring to Jayalalithaa's claim that farmers need not worry because the tank's capacity has been increased, Vijayakumar asks: "What is the point in increasing the height of the tank when there is no water in it anyway?" And even with its capacity enhanced to 1.4 tmcft, the tank needs to be filled 11 times over to cater to the needs of its ayacut.

Veteran peasant leader and vice-president of the Cuddalore district unit of the All India Kisan Sabha T.R. Visvanathan told Frontline that agriculture had declined dramatically in the area in the last three decades. He pointed out that the worst-affected were agricultural workers. Thirty years ago, farmers with irrigated land in Chidambaram and Kattumannarkoil taluks of the Veeranamn ayacut used to grow three crops and agricultural workers used to get employment for 180 to 200 days. A decade later employment declined to about 120 days, and now agricultural workers get work for only about 60 days. Workers are migrating even to Karnataka and Kerala to work in brick kilns and tile factories. He said political parties were hesitant to resist the diversion of water to Chennai because they were afraid of being seen as being against the people in Chennai, particularly at the time of elections.

V. Kannan, president of the Kollidam Lower Anicut Farmers Association, who is also the president of the State unit of the farmers organisation affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, said water for Chennai was needed especially between April and August. The Mettur dam, which is about 350 km from the tank, is usually closed between January 29 and June 12. He pointed out that if water from the Mettur dam was diverted for the Veeranam project, farmers in the Cauvery delta would be affected.

Farmers are also aghast at the digging of the deep borewells. C.S. Kuppuraj, former Chief Engineer of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department (PWD), said that the exploitation of groundwater on such scale would result in severe damage to the aquifer and lead to the intrusion of sea water because the sea shore was only 20 to 25 km away from the wells. A vehement critic of the Veeranam project, he pointed out that similar over-extraction of groundwater by Metrowater on the northeastern fringes of Chennai had resulted in sea water intrusion. Kuppuraj argues that Metrowater would need to pump 180 mld for 155 days in order to gather one tmcft of water for Chennai. The project is "wasteful" because Chennai's needs are far greater. "In any case, 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 of water into the sea." Kuppuraj is critical of the government for not having examined other options and predicts that the project is "doomed to fail because it defies all logic" (see box).

Pumping water at the rate of 60 mld from 30 deep borewells will result in at best 0.33 tmcft of water for Chennai. Even this calculation assumes that water is pumped from the wells round-the-clock for 155 days a year. Farmers and irrigation experts fear that such aggressive pumping will cause severe depletion of water resources in the area, apart from causing damage to the aquifers.

Asked about the farmers' fears of depletion of groundwater in the area, an informed source at Metrowater told Frontline that the water was being pumped from the Neyveli aquifer, which he said "held sufficient water". However, Kuppuraj asks: "What do they (Metrowater) mean by `sufficient'?" Drawing on data that are available with the groundwater wing of the PWD, Kuppuraj said that the Neyveli aquifer had been "overexploited since 2001". After 2001 about 8,505 mcft of water is being drawn from the aquifer though its normal annual recharge capacity is only 8,225 mcft. He pointed out that Metrowater's plan to pump 60 to 80 mld of water threatened the health of the already overexploited aquifer.

Kuppuraj regards the costs as prohibitive. According to him, the cost of water from the New Veeranam Project would be Rs.25 a cubic metre, without taking into account the recurring costs - maintenance, electricity charges, establishment and so on. In comparison, the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Sewerage Board (TWAD) supplies water at Rs.3.50 per 1,000 litres (one cubic metre) for domestic users and Rs.7 for commercial users. In fact, Kuppuraj argues that the cost of the Veeranam project is so high that the desalination option looks attractive.

Nobody seriously doubts Metrowater's claim that water will come to Chennai before June. But the costs - financial as well as social - may well prove disastrous.

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