It is just a couple of months since we reported on a detailed exercise that was planned to clean the city’s river of sorrow. Even then we had apologised for expressing a sense of déjà vu, and now we are not certain as to what is to be said. But plans are afoot once more, for yet another attempt, this time with Spanish technical help. It makes you wonder as to what happened to the earlier plan and/or whether this new exercise is part of the same scheme.

The new team has done a detailed study and presented its findings at a public discussion organised by the Chennai River Restoration Trust a couple of weeks ago. It ran along the expected lines that anyone familiar with the river restoration knows – steps needed to keep water flowing during off-season, prevention of untreated sewage from being let into the river, ensuring solid wastes are not directly disposed off into it, and resettlement of slums that exist along the river.

Those who attended the consultation trashed the study as elitist as it focussed principally on beautification, which included building of cycle tracks and parks, along with upmarket housing on space that is now occupied by shanties. Some were of the view that the study did not take into account the problems of the slum dwellers. It also skirted around the issue of wastes being let into the river by Government agencies. Among those who were present were representatives from the slums who feared that in the name of resettlement they would be displaced to far away colonies, completely removed from the places where they earn their livelihood. The study is expected to be tabled before the Government in a couple of months after which work is expected to begin.

It cannot 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. 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 having been spent on so-called improvements which somehow never appeared to have had 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 out of that was spent on building sewage treatment plants for the CMWSSB. At the end of it, raw effluents were found to be still pouring into the river. It was admitted later that the scheme had failed to take into account the needs of city’s exploding population. Presently, around 30% of the city’s raw sewage gets into the Cooum river. Cynics aver 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 estimation submitted by the city’s Corporation for which funds have been allotted out of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). 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 like most of its predecessors chooses to avoid the question of the slums along the river. What can such a solution that ignores ground realities achieve?