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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 17, december 16-31, 2009
Will the City waterways
see better days?
(By P.M. Belliappa, IAS, Retd.)

The constitution of a Chennai River Authority is a matter of personal happiness but, at the same time, concern and disappointment. Happiness over the fact that the need for an apex body to coordinate work related to improvement of the City’s waterways, an idea that I had mooted as far back as the 1990s, has at last been accepted. Over the years I had reiterated this idea at various fora, but the propitious moment has only now arrived.

An old, old promise to clean up rivers

1943: Following devastating floods, the government appointed A. R. Venkatachary, an engineer, to report on improving the Cooum and, based on his report, installed a pump at the river mouth for removal of sand bars.

1973: Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi launched a boat service which, however, ended abruptly. The boat jetties remain.

1980s: Several government studies were done to clean up the waterways and prevent flooding in the Cooum, Buckingham Canal and Adyar River.

1991: Seven Trent, a British consultancy firm, was commissioned to look at ways to improve the water-courses in the city.

1994: A study by Mott MacDonald proposed projects worth Rs.34.8 crore to improve the condition of Cooum.

1998: River improvement project launched; Rs. 19 crore earmarked for improving the quality of Cooum water.

2000: Chennai City River Conservation Project launched with an outlay of Rs. 720 crore.

2008: State Government announces World Bank aid will be sought to clean the river.

My concern and disappointment are over the fact that the Authority, as reportedly envisaged, is hardly likely to deliver the goods. I had proposed that in view of the multidimensional nature of the problem of restoring the waterways to health, a statutory body be constituted comprising administrative, technical, financial experts, NGOs and other stakeholders, having full mandate to raise resources, plan improvements and execute the plans. At a higher level, a policy body comprising Ministers, Secretaries to Government and eminent persons concerned be created to review, guide, and direct the operations, leaving the hands-on work to the statutory body.

The River Authority, as reportedly constituted, with Ministers and Secretaries to Government as members appears like yet another government committee. With Ministers constantly on the move, overburdened as they already are with other work, and Secretaries to Government prone to frequent transfers, it is not clear where the executive authority to carry out the work lies. The ideal arrangement would have been, as I had suggested, where the day-to-day work is carried out by the Chief Executive of the statutory authority and monitored by the overseeing authority. In the ‘good old days’, Ministers were involved, by and large, with policy and direction. Today they are in the driving seat and officials are perhaps involved with policy!

A problem like restoring the waterways to health is a major one, requiring detailed planning, coordination with different agencies, mobilising adequate funds, rehabilitation of squatters, desilting and removal of the sludge, and much more. It is beyond comprehension how a body headed by Ministers will find the time to attend to these matters on a day-to-day basis.

Major tasks

Among the various tasks involved in such a project, the following would need to be taken up in the order of priority given below:

1. Enumeration of the number of squatters on the banks of the waterways. Having done this, resettlement and rehabilitation should be undertaken in a comprehensive manner. This would include monetary compensation, livelihood issues, habitation, education of the children, transport facilities for the displaced to reach their workspots and back to their homes, etc. The World Bank has very good experience in dealing with these issues. It might be advisable to engage one of their ex-staff to handle this work. Resettlement and rehabilitation should be sustainable and carried out in letter and spirit. Politics should not be allowed to enter this area. The success of the project will hinge on this one issue.

2. Desilting of the sludge is a major problem. Apart from the actual removal, there should be testing of the material from different locations to understand the composition and toxicity. Alongside, suitable locations for dumping the sludge should be identified and prepared after a proper Environmental Impact Assessment is done. Transporting the sludge across the city can pose an environmental hazard. This would require attention.

3. Development of real estate along the banks of the rivers is a profitable spin-off for the project. This should be planned with a view to exacting the maximum revenues and also keeping the long-term possibilities in view. Experienced consultants with global experience are available and should be utilised.

4. Stopping the discharge of untreated sewage into the waterways is an integral component of the clean-up process. Government and public buildings are some of the culprits.

These and many other ancillary items of work would arise, calling for detailed sequencing and, wherever feasible, action in parallel should be initiated


Despite all my optimism, I come to the painful and realistic conclusion that the arrangement in its present form is ill-suited to tackle the problem in any meaningful manner. With an improper administrative arrangement and elections to the Assembly due in 2011, the City’s waterways would have to bide their time for better days.

Sewage may yet stall Cooum clean-up

(By a Special Correspondent)

The Chennai dream of clean rivers will materialise only if 473 raw sewage outfalls (discharges) in six waterways in the city are plugged, according to experts.

These discharges into the Adyar and Cooum Rivers, the Bucking­ham Canal, Otteri Nullah, Captain Cotton Canal and Mambalam Drain are yet to be plugged despite the completion of the Rs. 1,700 crore Chennai City River Conservation (CCRC) project which was intended to prevent untreated sewage from flowing into the waterways, say engineers in the know.

These waterways, through which flood waters flow during the Monsoon, carry largely untreated, partially treated as well as treated sewage the rest of the year. The sewage results in the accumulation of sludge and the formation of sandbars at the mouths.

Much of the work done during the implementation of the CCRC project was substandard, allege engineers. Manholes have collapsed, there has been faulty construction, and failures of pipe joints, they say.

To avoid repetition of this, an expert engineering committee should be formed to ensure the success of the Chennai River Authority’s bid to clean up the waterways of the city.



In this issue

Will the City waterways see better days?
Urban renewal must look decades ahead
Heritage legislation is essential
Calming traffic in recreational areas,
like the Marina
Historic Residences of Chennai - 32
Other stories

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