The recent elections have seen a new dispensation taking charge of the State and consequently, as is common in Tamil Nadu, several decisions of the previous government are being reversed. One among these is the plan to clean up the Cooum. It is said that the much publicised tie-up with the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise has been called off on the grounds that not much progress had been made anyway beyond the usual signing of a formal memorandum of understanding. While this may be true, what cannot be lost sight of this that the river is desperately in need of a clean-up. It is to be hoped that that the new Government will soon come up with a viable alternative plan.

It cannot be denied that the earlier plan was sound in its fundamentals. It had envisaged a Chennai River Authority with the Deputy Chief Minister as its Chairman and the heads of the 18 and more agencies and departments of the Government who have stakes in the river as the other members. This it was felt would ensure that conflicts between various agencies, which have been the usual stumbling blocks for earlier attempts at cleaning up the river would soon be overcome. With the whole plan now in cold storage, yet another chapter in the history of the river would appear to be over.

The Union Government had in 2009 sanctioned Rs 360 crores for the cleaning up of Chennai’s waterways. This was based on an estimation submitted by the city’s corporation for which funds have been allotted out of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNURRM). The estimation in turn was based on a study by consultants who recommended desilting of North Chennai’s waterways in particular, constructing micro and macro drains and building concrete walls. The sanction was hailed as a major victory for the State by the powers that be. What of that scheme now and what is its fate?

The first time an attempt to clean up the waterways was in the 1970s when boating was planned on the Cooum. Some of the piers and jetties built for this can still be seen along the river. This was abandoned when there was a change of government. Since then there have been several programmes and schemes all of which have come to nought despite crores of rupees being spent on so-called improvements which somehow never appeared to have the desired result. In addition to the above schemes, there have been several smaller grants for periodic desilting of the waterways. These have been for smaller stretches and their effect on completion, has been negligible. Almost Rs 2 crores is spent each year in these exercises. Buckingham Canal, which was more or less forgotten thanks to the MRTS going right over it, received attention in 2002 and once again in 2008 when its nationalisation was announced with plans to spend Rs 500 crores in making it navigable once more. Since then nothing has happened.

What is more worrying is that work on the elevated corridor is progressing unabated all along the Cooum. This will finally result in a roadway on pillars from Maduravoyal to the Port. The pillars are expected to be on the river bank but a closer inspection shows that at least in the Egmore stretch they are being constructed right on the river bed. This will ultimately choke the river as has happened with the Buckingham Canal. Perhaps that is an alternative solution – no river means no further cleaning up. But what of the environment and the much touted plan of making a navigable waterway?