There is now yet another plan to clean the Cooum river. We are sorry if that line has a sense of déjà vu, but we cannot help reflecting on how many such schemes have been announced and millions of rupees spent, though the status quo remaining unchanged as far as the river is concerned. It is to be sincerely hoped that the latest scheme, to be administered by the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT), will have the desired result of giving us clean and navigable river.

Under the latest plan, the CRRT has been asked to submit a study report by November 2013 on the state of the river. Once this is done, a stretch of the river, between Avadi and its mouth near the Marina swimming pool, will be cleaned. With the CRRT having overall authority, it is expected that the various Government departments concerned with the Cooum will work as a team. Among the key malefactors is the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board (CMWSSB), which has not been able to effectively contain the discharge of untreated effluents into the river. Yet another is the Corporation which still encourages dumping of garbage all along the banks of the Cooum. The new plan speaks of preventing all this and then planting mangroves along the river to improve the ecology. It also aims to construct recreational spaces, such as walk areas and parks, on the banks.

All this looks great on paper, but it should not be forgotten that no project has thus far succeeded in cleaning the river. The first attempt 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. The project 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 having been spent on so-called improvements which somehow never appeared to have the desired result. In addition to these schemes, there have been several smaller grants for periodic desilting of the waterways. These have been for shorter stretches and their effect, on completion, has been negligible. Almost Rs. 2 crore is spent each year on these exercises.

In 2001, a Rs. 1200 crore City River Conservation Project was sanctioned by the Central Government. Rs. 750 crore of that was spent on building sewage treatment plants for the CMWSSB. At the end of it, raw effluents were still found pouring into the river. It was admitted later that the scheme had failed to take into account the needs of the city’s exploding population. At present, around 30 per cent of the city’s raw sewage falls into the Cooum. Cynics state that this is the reason for the river having any water at all! But when you consider that around 100 million litres of sewage makes its way into the river in a year, the environmental impact is staggering. Some 340 drains connect from CMWSSB manholes directly into the river.

The Union Government had in 2009 sanctioned Rs. 360 crore for the cleaning up of Chennai’s waterways. This was based on an estimate submitted by the city’s Corporation and funds have been allotted under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) budget. The estimate 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?

Leaving that aside, the present scheme only raises hopes that something good will happen to the river and thereby for the city too. But will this plan succeed where all others have failed?