Buckingham Canal – from ruin to restoration?


The Government has said that it plans to nationalise the Buckingham Canal and make it a navigable waterway once more. This is an excellent idea and is to be welcomed. However, like many government plans, it may prove well nigh impossible to implement, for on the ground the canal has practically ceased to exist, particularly in the stretch through Chennai.


The Canal, one of the longest in the country, has a total length of 1079km and connects Pedda Ganjam in Andhra to Marakkanam in Pondicherry. The Government plans to allocate Rs 500 crores to de-silt the waterway, dredge it up to a depth of two metres and make it navigable once again by introducing barges for transportation of goods. This is not a new plan and time and again several such intentions have been aired only to be put back on the shelf. The same plan was announced in 2002 and there was no action after that.


Even in 2002, the same questions had been asked about the feasibility of the plan- all of them concerning the stretch within Chennai city limits. This eight kilometre stretch was also navigable at one time till a cyclone in the 1960s extensively damaged its banks. Continued settlement of slum dwellers and the connecting of all city drains to the waterway ensured that it soon became a gutter. Interestingly, the Canal, in its course outside the city, remains a vibrant water-body.


By the 1980s, with the city portion becoming completely dry, it was decided that the Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) would run along the river bed. It was in vain that those who were concerned with storm-water drains in the city pointed out that the Canal played an important role during the monsoons. All this was overlooked and pillars were erected on the Canal bed and the MRTS has since become a reality. The areas on both sides of the Canal have been prone to flooding ever since.


The erection of the MRTS pillars however put paid to any real hope of restoring the Canal. The waterway is now cut across in some places by the MRTS route and in many places the MRTS runs on the waterway itself. This has naturally constricted the space available for the water to flow and any widening or dredging will naturally be hampered by the structures. It is a classic example of various Government bodies working independently with no wholistic idea on what is to be done.


At this point in time, the real beneficiaries of the proposed nationalisation and improvement scheme will be the sections of the Canal that are outside city limits. The 2002 plan made no bones about this and it was decided that the Canal network would connect to the road system within the city which meant therefore that the portion of the Canal within city limits would remain untouched. While this may disappoint residents of Chennai who still hope to see a revived Buckingham Canal, it may be the only option available.


 Pic by Ajay Khullar – taken from S Muthiah’s “Madras, the Gracious City”buckingham-canal