S Satyamurti walking with Governor Sir Arthur Hope, Aug 8, 1940, from the Ragami collection, now with the Roja Muthiah Research Library

On November 21, 2020, the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, inaugurated the fifth reservoir of the city, located at Thervoy Kandigai in Thiruvallur District. It will have a capacity of one thousand million cubic feet (1 tmcft) and is expected to go a long way in solving the water crises that the city faces in most years. It has taken us 381 years since the founding of the colonial city of Madras that is Chennai, for a fifth storage facility. What is even more significant is that this is the only such reservoir to be built since Independence! We are not certain if that is a record to be proud of.

The last time a reservoir was planned and executed for the city was in the 1940s. It was the brainchild of S. Satyamurti, who was Mayor of Madras in 1939/1940. The Poondi Reservoir scheme was approved in August 1940 and the foundation stone laid on the 8th of that month. The construction was completed four years later, by when Satyamurti was dead. The storage facility was rather appropriately named Satyamurti Sagar in his memory. With a capacity of 2,573 mcft, it is of course smaller than the new one at Thervoy Kandigai but contrast the time taken – the latest addition was mooted in 2012, with actual work gaining momentum only in 2018. The cost incurred has been Rs 380 crores. The population of the city at the time work began at Poondi was 8 lakhs or so. It is now ten times as much and yet it took us 76 years to build a new facility.

It is not as though nothing has been done in the interim. We have had the Telugu Ganga scheme, we have harnessed the Palar, requisitioned the Veeranam lake and also got the Chemparampakkam waterbody to cater to our insatiable thirst. Desalination plants have come up and bear a significant part of our water demand, no matter what the environmental impact and energy costs be. In the interim many photo opportunities have been created by the plastic pots. And we have on occasion had railway wagons bringing us water. A Hollywood star was moved to comment on our situation, when after having suffered floods and a cyclone in two consecutive years, we ended up being water starved the very next season. And all along we have extracted ground water with no let up.

All of this points to the sheer apathy of the leadership and the failure of the bureaucracy that should be planning for the future. The political class has always been happy to wait for Chennai’s water problems (flood and drought) to reach flashpoint and then appear with some firefighting measures, milking the publicity in the process. The bureaucrats have been quite content with pushing paper. Imagine a metropolis reaching a point of going without water. In what way is it commendation worthy to celebrate the arrival of railway wagons of water or tankers careening on the roads with water brought in from the mofussil? At the other end, it is also a failure of us the people. Even a simple scheme such as rainwater harvesting is met with opposition. It is a well-known fact that most large real estate developments give this the go by. That such a scheme is mandatory for approvals is got around by bribing, or worse, simply putting up a couple of so-called soak pits, with no follow through on the rest of the system. Ultimately, we get what we deserve.

The completion of Thervoy Kandigai is no cause for complacence. With it, Chennai still has storage for one full year only, while our droughts are known to extend beyond that. A few more reservoirs will not hurt and let us hope we don’t need to wait another 76 years.