There is much activity along the banks of the river Cooum as the State Government finally addresses itself to the task of beautifying the banks of the river. The coming up of the new Assembly along the river has no doubt been the prime-mover behind the action. But in the process, as in many other projects of a similar nature, the core of the issue is being bypassed – namely the quality of the water and the feasibility of making the river navigable.

Early this month, a 1.1km stretch of the land along the river Cooum, behind the new Assembly complex and between the Napier and Periyar Bridges, was handed over by the Public Works Department to the Chennai Corporation for beautification. The government has identified 16000 encroachments along this stretch, mainly by slums and orders have been given for their eviction. The thriving grey market for auto spares at Pudupet will also be shifted as part of this drive. The 460 auto-part merchants who will be affected by this move will be given alternative accommodation on a 22 acre complex titled Auto Nagar within the Marai Malai Nagar industrial area. The government is however silent on how it plans to deal with all those whose livelihood depended on Pudupet. Will they need to move to Auto Nagar as well? What about their accommodation? Will it be organised by the government or is it simply a question of shifting a slum from one place to another? In the meanwhile, Langs Garden Road, which had a teeming slum till recently, has been emptied of all squatters and work on beautification of the river bank is on, at a cost of Rs 1.6 crore. Here too, alternative accommodation has been promised to those displaced, but exact details are still awaited.

The government has however not said much on what it proposes to do with the water in the river. Also, it is a moot point as to what can be achieved by beautifying the river bank when the water by itself remains so polluted. Beyond an announcement to the effect that an MOU will soon be signed with Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) to work out an integrated solution to the problems of the river, no details have been forthcoming. The SCE, according to its web site, is an agency formed by the Ministries of Trade and Foreign Affairs of the Government of Singapore to deal with queries from countries that are keen to tap into Singapore’s development experience. The agency lists urban planning and environmental services as its areas of specialization.

To counter the oft-repeated and entirely justified call for a central nodal agency to handle all the issues concerning the river, the Government set up the Chennai River Authority in December 2009. Headed by the Deputy Chief Minister, it has the ministers in charge of the Slum Clearance Board and Environment and also the Chief Secretary and the secretaries of multiple departments on board. The government is working on providing the authority with sufficient financial and statutory powers.

At present the upper reaches of the river are being attended to thanks to funds from the World Bank-funded Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water Bodies Restoration and Management Project. Funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are being used for closing sewage drains that fall into the river within the city limits. The total cost is said to be around Rs 1200 crores. What the fate of these development works will be in the light of the proposed tie-up with the SCE is not clear.

Another factor that is likely to affect any river clean-up/beautification is the proposed elevated corridor from Maduravoyal to the Port. This will certainly have an impact on river and if the MRTS on Buckingham Canal is anything to go by, care needs to be taken that the river’s course is not in any way impeded. A total of 7400 families are expected to be displaced by the proposed road, all of them along the river bank.

Any agreement with the SCE needs to be finalised only after the Chennai River Authority’s own scope of work is scoped out in detail and its powers are spelt and structured clearly. In the absence of that, we will once again see multiple agencies carrying out work as and when they see fit, with the overall river remaining what it was – a gutter.