The recent rains have once again exposed the woeful inadequacy of the drainage system in the city. This despite the fact that the Corporation of Chennai was sanctioned Rs. 1447 crore by the Centre four years ago to improve the city’s drainage. At that time, the civic body had announced that flooding in the city would soon be a thing of the past. But what exactly was meant by ‘soon’ was not defined and, till now, most of the projects to be executed from that funding are nowhere near completion.

The money that was obtained from the Centre was to be used in two ways. Macro-drains were to be constructed by the PWD and these were to channel floodwater from the city’s waterways into the Bay of Bengal. The micro-drains, which were under the Corporation’s jurisdiction, were to drain water from the streets to the waterways. Both these projects are, after four years, complete around 50 per cent at the most. The macro-drains are bogged down by problems of land acquisition and issues concerning eviction of families living along the waterways. The micro-drains are caught up in red tape and sheer tardiness in execution. As a consequence, the city’s drains can handle at most 12 to 15 cm of rain per day, while the plan was to increase their capacity to 25 cm. Mumbai, on the other hand, whose drains were also funded by the same scheme, has drains that can handle upto 30 cm of rain efficiently.

Why is this the situation in Chennai? It would appear that our bureaucracy has long lost its ability to plan for contingencies and worst-case scenarios. Take for instance an estimate for land acquisition for macro-drains along the Okkiam-Thoraipakkam area. The cost of acquisition of 5.36 ha of land was assumed to be Rs. 54 crore while in reality the price expected was Rs. 100 crore. Which project can sustain a 100 per cent cost overrun? Naturally, that part of the macro-drain scheme was given up. But what was once again overlooked was the real estate development continuing unchecked all along the same stretch, with no real drainage facilities coming up. Naturally, this area will be flooded in the next rains and then we will see plenty of digging and makeshift solutions.

As for projects that are already underway, it is reliably learnt that hardly any checks are being made to see whether they are progressing on schedule. There are no field inspections and backsliding contractors are not being warned. In the absence of any follow-up, the work is unconscionably delayed and the city is suffering flooding repeatedly.

Chennai is a flat city with hardly any slope. As a consequence, it encourages stagnation of rainwater. This is not a new finding and, indeed, the first ever report on the laying of drains, prepared by Captain Tulloch in 1867, stated this as a matter of the greatest importance in planning. Unfortunately for us, planners of today have long forgotten such elementary lessons. Colonies, areas and lay-outs are coming up in a haphazard manner, resulting in water stagnation since natural outlets have all been blocked indiscriminately. The construction of the MRTS on the bed of the Buckingham Canal was one such monumental blunder. Ever since, Mylapore has been subject to terrible flooding each monsoon. That we have not learnt any lesson from that is evident in the way the proposed elevated road from the Port to Maduravoyal has been planned. Most of its pillars are in the bed of the Cooum river.

Lastly, there is the issue of desilting existing stormwater drains. This is not being attended to on a regular basis. And, so, even if we have all the macro and micro-drains in place, the absence of routine maintenance will soon put paid to all our efforts.

It looks, therefore, as though Chennai will have to live with its flooding for some time to come. That is, until officialdom gets its act together and plans well, implements well and maintains well.