Work is expected soon to resume on the elevated expressway connecting the Port to Maduravoyal. This is following the High Court of Madras setting aside the 2012 order of the Public Works Department to stop all work on the project. While there is no denying that the elevated road was a necessity for the free movement of cargo to and from the port, it is unclear as to what will be the fate of the Cooum River in whose dry bed several pillars for the elevated road have been erected.

Envisaged as a 19-km elevated corridor, the project was mooted by the Chennai Port Trust. Clearance was given by the State Government in consultation with the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The project, initially estimated to cost Rs.1500 crore, had its foundation stone laid by the Prime Minister in 2007. Work then began on the road and progressed rapidly in the next few years.

Originally planned as a corridor running over Poonamallee High Road, its alignment underwent a couple of changes since. Those in charge had voiced the view that land acquisition in Poonamallee High Road would be an issue and the expressway was then planned to run along the Cooum. This was resisted by the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Management Zone Authority (TNSCZMA), which claimed that the proposal to build the road along the Cooum violated Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance.

Surprisingly, the TNSCZMA later reversed its stance and said that the proposed road would not affect the free flow of water in the riverbed. This despite the fact that around 34.58 hectare of the road fell within the CRZ and, more importantly, 35 foundation pits were to be in the riverbed. To all intents and purposes this meant that the road would effectively be built on the riverbed, leading to obstruction of water flow.

In 2011, with the change in regime in the State, the elevated road was among the first projects to be stalled. The Chief Engineer of the PWD issued notice to stop work on the ground that the road was being constructed directly over the river and had therefore deviated from its original alignment. The Port Trust challenged this order in Court. With the NHAI also filing a writ requesting orders to resume work, the Court has permitted this, with the proviso that the PWD must be taken into confidence and care must be taken that there is no obstruction to the Cooum. It is to be hoped that this will be adhered to.

It must be pointed out, however, that the NHAI has not yet given any commitment to remove the pillars in the river or to change the alignment again to prevent any construction on the riverbed. If it continues to build the corridor with the river as its base, we are in for trouble.

To those who have seen what happened to the Buckingham Canal, all this is not new. The MRTS was built on the canal bed and this permanently destroyed that water body, at least within the city. Since then, all announcements to the effect that the canal would be revived as a navigable waterway have remained hollow promises. The sinking of pillars into the canal has only ensured that the waterway is no longer an effective stormwater drain system and also causing flooding in neighbouring areas. The same method, if adopted with the Cooum, can spell a bigger disaster as the river flows through several crowded localities within the city.