A view of Cooum from Harris Bridge

On paper it is all there – our State is committed to protecting its waterways. It is forever in river-cleaning mode, spending billions of taxpayers’ money for this and all the while its own agencies, departments and undertakings continue to pollute and impede the rivers as much as they can. This is the feeling that you get when you read the recent orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) when it came down heavily on State-owned power utilities for continuing to pollute the city’s waterways.
It was in June that the NGT had first taken note of the continued pollution of the Buckingham Canal and the Kosasthalayar River, chiefly by the indiscriminate dumping of fly ash by the TANGEDCO-controlled North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS). The offending Government department had been asked to dredge the rivers and remove all the debris. This was duly done. But immediately thereafter, the NCTPS resumed discharging of fly ash into the rivers. According to environmental activists, over 300 acres of the Ennore Creek area are now covered by fly ash and other debris. Incensed at this, the NGT has asked the NCTPS to stop the discharge of ash within a week or face closure of the plant in entirety.

We are sure that in keeping with our tradition of being best while in fire-fighting mode, the plant officials will scramble and claim to have plugged the leaks at the end of the week. But what of the long term? There is every likelihood that the dumping will resume within a few months once the NGT has its attention diverted to other issues. It is a well-known fact that most of the pipelines that carry effluents and waste from the NCTPS are more than 25 years old and so cannot be in any way leak-proof on a long-term basis.

If this is the way a Government agency responds to a court order and if this is the way it treats national resources such as rivers, then what kind of an example is it setting to private agencies? India is a signatory to the Ramsar Agreement that aims to protect water bodies. This is “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the wise use, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories,” to quote from its website. To what purpose such agreements if they are not to be implemented at ground level? It is also worth recalling here that the part of Buckingham Canal that runs through our city is as good as lost chiefly because of the way the MRTS has been constructed over it, the pillars in the river beds and giant station buildings cutting off entire sections of the waterway.

We also have repeated announcements of restoration of the Canal to “its former glory”. We are not aware of what that means exactly but the latest announcement, made in 2016, was for a restoration plan costing Rs. 3,000 crore, to be taken up at the national level and spent across all the States through which the Canal flows. If organisations such as TANGEDCO continue to pollute the waterway, then how can such enormous projects for improvement make any impact?

There is a strong feeling among environmental activists that Government agencies view laws protecting rivers and lakes to be mere impediments in the way they continue to operate. Instances like this only go to strengthen such a view. It is high time penalties for pollution of water bodies are raised to punitive levels. Mere strictures will not do.