The Buckingham Canal

Let us all rejoice! For if the newspapers are to be believed, the Government has just announced that its Buckingham Canal Beautification Project is nearing completion. The fine print of course carries all the details – it is just a 2.1 km stretch in the Adyar Taramani area. To put matters in perspective, the canal has a length of 31 km within city limits. And the beautification is just improvements along the banks. The water will remain as degraded as ever. It is in short, yet another cosmetic exercise over which Rs. 20 crores have been spent. To what purpose is all this if the canal remains the degraded gutter it has been reduced to?

The idea it seems, as per The Hindu, is to “make travelling on the Rajiv Gandhi Salai a pleasant experience, as the project involves setting up of a Miyawaki forest, installing bright streetlights, wall paintings, and laying a paved footpath.” While any attempt at making travelling on Chennai roads a pleasant experience is commendable, it should be pointed out here that the total length of the Rajiv Gandhi Expressway is 43.7 km – so what happens after the 2.1 km of pleasant experience is over? Will we therefore be soon spending similar amounts on the rest of the length of the road? And therefore will Rs. 400 crores (@ Rs 20 crores for every 2km left) be spent on beautification when all along, the core problem of the canal remains unattended to? Yes, the eye may delight for 2.1km at the Miyawaki and other things but what of the nose? The fundamental problem of the canal is that it remained a beautiful waterbody as long as the city has not grown along its banks. Even on the Rajiv Gandhi Expressway, there are patches of the waterbody that show what it was at one time, but the degradation is slowly but steadily catching up. 

We know what the standard response to this critique will be – the Corporation of Madras does not have absolute control over the river while it does have responsibility for the banks and so it has done what it can do within its purview. That however does not hold good if you take a step back and consider that the Corporation is part of the Government which surely has a wider mandate over the river. Yes, we know that the canal is a pan-Indian waterway and so it involves other States, but we also need to understand that nowhere else is the canal as bad as it is in the city. It is in this context that we would like to remind the State Government that there does exist at least on paper, a Chennai City River Conservation Project that was launched amid much fanfare in 2001 with a budget of Rs 1,200 crores. By 2008, the engineers of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board, banding together as the Association of Engineers in Metrowater, had filed a PIL stating that the effort was a complete failure. Thereafter, there have been some sporadic steps but with no visible result. There have been plenty of such attempts, all with no change as far as the waterways are concerned. Why does the State Government not realise that unless it has a masterplan for the restoration of the waterways, no amount of beautification along the banks can serve any purpose? 

It is time to remind the present Chief Minister that in 2010, when his party was last in power, a similar Cooum Bank Beautification Project was launched, with 1.1km between Napier Bridge and the then New Assembly Building being handed over by the PWD to the Chennai Corporation. The work of beautification was to be executed in collaboration with some Singapore (of course) based agency. Since then, 12 years have elapsed – and the results of the beautification are there for all to see. Without addressing the core issue of the polluted water, all these cosmetic works along the banks are a sheer waste. 

In conclusion, we would like to quote Tyagaraja, the great composer –

To what purpose decorating with gold jewels a corpse? 

Let us first give life to the waterway and then talk of beautifying its banks.