Veeranam Tank
Veeranam Tank

The lake that you see there is not within the geographical bounds of our city. But though it is 235 km away, it would be no exaggeration to state that it is Chennai’s lifeline, supplying roughly 50 to 180 million litres of water to the city every day. Nothing prepares you for its vast expanse — 11.2 km in length and 4 km in width (as per Wikipedia), and when full of water, it is an awesome sight. I allude to the Veeranam Lake, located in Cuddalore District.

We need to thank the Chola prince Rajaditya for this. In the 10th century, he assigned his men the task of excavating this tank, to collect the surplus waters of the Kollidam River. When completed, Rajaditya christened it Veeranarayana, after one of the many names of his father Parantaka Chola I. This is now Veeranam. Kalki R. Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, opens with the hero riding along and admiring this lake.

In the 1830s, (later Sir) Arthur Cotton, the engineer who later harnessed the waters of the Krishna and Godavari, studied the tank in detail. He noted that there was no serious defect in the tank (this, 900 years after it was constructed) apart from the narrowing of the mouth of the Vadavar River that connected the lake to the Kollidam and the tendency of the bund to breach when filled to the brim. Interestingly, Cotton’s report is full of anglicised Tamil terms — totie (thotti or tank) and calingula (from kalingu or sluice) being two commonly used words.

In 1967, C.N. Annadurai, then freshly elected Chief Minister of the State, mooted the idea of supplying water to the capital city from Veeranam. He died in 1969 and it was left to his successors to execute the plan. The project, estimated at Rs. 21 crore, was then the biggest to be sanctioned in independent India. The contractor put up a plant at Tirukazhugukundram in collaboration with a Greek firm for making the pre-stressed concrete pipes.

What happened next reflected no credit on any of the parties involved. There were allegations of corruption, delays in sanctioning foreign exchange and quality issues. With the DMK government being dismissed in 1976, the matter was taken to court, and in the middle of it all, the contractor suddenly died. The pipes were abandoned all along the Cuddalore-Madras route and were put to good use — entire families were raised in them and some others became latrines.

The project languished thereafter for over three decades only to be revived in 2000, and by then, the cost had ballooned to Rs. 720 crore. The local ryots were none too happy at the metropolis guzzling their precious resource, but water began flowing into Chennai in 2004.

Standing on Veeranam’s banks a couple of weeks back, I wondered at Rajaditya’s vision and what he could achieve. Then I pondered over what he must be thinking about us present-day people. But that is best left unexplored.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated April 11, 2015