And so in a case of going back to basics, our city’s Corporation has instructed its officers to go on an inspection drive – each ward has been asked to inspect at least 1,000 buildings, thereby bringing the total to 200,000. The idea behind this is that the city will have a clear picture of how many such structures have rainwater-harvesting (RWH) systems in working condition, how many need to be rectified and finally, how many have no such arrangements in place. All this so that as and when (we sincerely hope it is not a case of if and when) it does rain, we will have begun storing what is now merely surface runoff. The question is, what was the Corporation doing for so many years?

Chennai was the first city in India in modern times to take up RWH schemes. That was in 2003, when the Chief Minister passed an ordinance to this effect and went on media to appeal to the people. The implementation of RWH facilities was made mandatory in all new buildings and it had to be taken up by existing structures as well. The matter was followed through in right earnest (what else do you expect when the CM has said so) and sure enough, when it rained in 1996, the groundwater was recharged and everyone congratulated everyone else on having achieved a great success.

Unfortunately people took the rain for granted. The Government changed and the new dispensation clearly did not consider something so clearly associated with the previous one to be worthy of follow up. Or at least that is what officialdom appears to have thought anyway. And so, RWH was given the go by. Studies have gone on to reveal that most of Chennai’s buildings have installed RWH structures more as a matter of compliance with no proper planning or maintenance. As a consequence, the rainwater is not harvested at all and is allowed to go waste. The worst offender it transpires is the Government itself. The Times of India has reported that the SAF Games Village, now an upmarket housing colony for Government officials has no RWH for instance. What was officialdom doing when the Government was building this complex? It is quite clear that RWH, like much else for which we pass ordinances and rejoice as landmarks in our evolution, has been reduced to a mere piece of

To what purpose is this post-mortem? And before you run away with the idea that this survey will yield results, let us present you with the next statistic – the study will cover just 200,000 buildings while Chennai has 12.5 lakh constructions. When will we know the status of the rest? Metrowater claims that around 8.9 lakh RWH systems are in place in the city. What is the status of each of these? Nobody really knows. The task of monitoring RWH structures and ensuring that they are effective should have been a routine process with a system of warnings and fines in case of non-compliance. After all, the Corporation has perfected the method of collecting taxes, sending out reminders and awarding punishments when the same are not paid. Can it not extend the same process to monitor RWH given that it is so vital to our city?

By abandoning an excellent process and let it come to nought, we have brought about this crisis on ourselves. It is going to be an uphill task to set right what has been wilfully neglected thus far. However, that said, it is never too late. But the problem is that once it rains copiously we will go back to our profligate ways, until the next drought that is.