The daily press carried reports recently of a Tamil Nadu government delegation to South Korea. This was led by the Deputy Chief Minister and while it was a trade promotion initiative, the team also took time to study the restoration of the Cheonggeycheon River that runs through the capital city of Seoul. The team’s impressions have not been reported, but a perusal of a document released on the restoration by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and available on the web makes it clear that there are some aspects of unlearning that those in authority in Chennai will have to do if the city’s rivers are to benefit from a similar process.

The Cheonggeycheon has in the past suffered a fate that is quite similar to what has happened to Chennai’s waterways- the Cooum, the Adyar and the Buckingham Canal. Once the lifeline around which the city developed, it began to see the settlement of displaced and landless farmers along its banks during the Japanese occupation in the first part of the 20th century. The banks of the river became slums and the waterway itself was converted into a drain and became notorious for the spreading of infections. Even during the Japanese occupation, work began on covering a part of the river and while this was abandoned in the years following the liberation of the country and subsequent Korean War, it was taken up once again in right earnest in the late 1950s. In 1967 it was decided to build an elevated, six kilometre four-lane two-way highway on it. A 11km drain was laid below the highway and pipes and conduits, respectively for water and electricity have also been laid below it.

In the 1990s, the structure supporting the highway was found to have developed cracks and work on it. Despite work continuing till 2003, certain safety-critical aspects could not be ensured and that is when the idea came up of dismantling the entire highway and restoring the river to its original glory. The project, now envisages doing away with the entire highway, putting the service facilities below the river bed level or along the sides and recreating the stream. Like Chennai’s rivers, the Cheonggeycheon is also not a perennial one and so efforts are on to get recycled water to provide continuous flow. The required levels of oxygen in the water to support aquatic life will be monitored on a continuous basis.

The project moreover is not one that is looking at the river’s restoration in isolation. As it passes through one of the most congested commercial districts of Seoul, more than 4000 interviews and public consultations were held before the project took wing. Street vendors and those whose establishments were earmarked for demolition were encouraged to move to a new location where facilities were built and made ready before the shift, so as to ensure minimum dislocation in trade and therefore revenue to the Government. A vast stadium was also converted into a shopping complex as part of the project. In addition, those who drove to work in the area were encouraged to take bus transport and if that was not possible, were given parking facilities at some distance from the river. What is important is that shuttle buses were provided from the parking lot to the downtown area near the river-front.

The project is of course not anywhere near completion and will take a few years more. But the Government’s vision is to transform Seoul from a grey city filled with concrete to a green one. Walks and pathways along the river, with special access for the physically challenged are on the anvil.

The Government in Chennai needs to mull over these points if it is to take a leaf or two from Seoul. The MRTS has already truncated the Buckingham Canal and rendered it useless as even a storm-water drain, leave alone as a navigable canal. Pillars to support elevated roads are being planned on the Adyar and the Cooum. Contrast this with what is happening in Seoul. Can we not hope for some futuristic and holistic thinking?