Last fortnight’s article on the Round Tana, its name, what happened to it and its eventual metamorphosis into a subway led to many emails from those who remembered many aspects of the subway. Lots more comments came on a YouTube channel that I record episodes on Chennai history for. That led me to some further research and I hit a goldmine of sorts – archival issues of a magazine named Civic Affairs dating to the 1960s. From a reading of some issues, I am giving a few updates pertaining to the underground subway at the Round Tana and its construction.
The Idea of a Subway
The idea of such a subway appears to have emerged at a meeting of the Traffic Committee for Madras City. Civic Affairs has the following details in its issue of April 1959 –
“The Traffic Committee for Madras City on March 19 under the chairmanship of the Home Secretary, Mr. S. K. Chettur, decided to redesign the traffic roundabout at the Round Tana and to construct a subway at Mount Road between the Indian Airlines Corporation building and the Old Bosotto Building. The redesigning of the Roundabout will be done by acquiring a portion of the land of the Government Estate on Mount Road so as to provide a 42 ft.carriage way on all sides. Traffic cones for regulation of traffic will also be provided on important thoroughfares.”
SK Chettur on the Harrington Road Subway
SK Chettur ICS, in his memoirs, The Steel Frame and I, has written in some detail on his role in the creation of underpasses. I am grateful to Karthik Bhatt for supplying me with this reference –
“On the whole I liked the Secretariat work The files that came to you were not too complicated, the tempo of the work was light and smooth and I had the additional kudos of being the youngest Secretary to the Government at the time. I remember that the scheme to which I really applied my mind with considerable zest was a scheme which many people had touched and left unfinished, namely, the proposal to build three over-bridges over the railway line for traffic at the Chetput, Periamet and Beach level-crossings. The public had been crying out for a long time at the consistent delays to traffic at these three points. I myself had been held up at the Chetput level-crossing for fifteen to twenty-minutes on several days owing to a succession of steam-driven trains and electric trains coming one after the other, making it impossible for the gateman with the best will in the world to open the gates Meanwhile on each side traffic had accumulated for nearly half a mile.
Having studied the file I (arrived at how the funding could be) -third of the sum required as loan and another one-third as grant and the Corporation would then find one-third from its own funds. The Secretary, P.W.D., would not commit himself to this formula, but I went back to my room and wrote a note pointing out the absolute necessity of these three over-bridges and indicating that the cost which was considerable might be met by the formula that I had proposed to Mr. Ramunni Menon Finally just before I left the Secre-tariat I understood that the matter had been referred to the Corporation for its agreement to bear one-third of the cost from its funds and one-third by way of loan. I am glad to add that though the matter hung fire for several years after I left, it was taken up by my successors in office and finally one of the three over-bridges, namely, the one at Chetput, the worst of the lot, was completed two years ago and triumphantly opened by the Governor. The opening day was a proud day for me because of this small but not negligible part I had played in my attempt to get the scheme sanctioned.”
The Chetpet subway remains one of the busiest in the city even now. We now come to the Mount Road subway. That the work on the subway was delayed for long was referred to in the previous article. It would seem that even after commencement, the project was delayed by several technical snags. Civic Affairs dated September 1966 has the details and is worth quoting from in full. It would seem that the conflict between multiple agencies when it came to execution of civic projects in the city is nothing new.
Work Held Up on Mount Road Subway
Work on the subway at the Round Tana, Mount Road, has been held up for some weeks now because the Corporation of Madras has not been able to divert the water mains, carrying supplies to Triplicane, along a new alignment in time.
At present work on two of the shaft tunnels with entry respectively at the Government Estate end and the New Elphinstone end is over, and the workmen are giving finishing touches. Already fluorescent lighting has been installed underground.
But on the third side, leading to the Ellis Road, work has come to a jarring halt. When from the central shaft, 25 feet of the tunnel shaft had been completed the City Corporation stepped in and asked the work to stop, as the existing 27 inch main to Triplicane had to be diverted first. The contractors then blanked off that part with iron plates.
During the period of enforced idleness, the contractors left out 44 feet from the blanked off portion and then finished the stair-case part farther on at the Ellis Road end.
Work on the subway which commenced on June 25 last year should have been completed exactly in one year. The work was progressing smoothly until some weeks ago. In this connection, it is stated by those engaged in the work: “We have completed on schedule all what we could. Whatever is remaining cannot be executed by us until the 27-inch main is diverted. This work is being handled by the Municipal Corporation.
“As a result of the delay in the diversion, the public will not be able to use the subway for at least six months.”
The completed part of the subway is a handsome affair with a striking massive central pillar at which the three tunnel shafts converge.
A walk round the area reveals that the Corporation has laid its giant 44-inch pipes from Blackers Road side across the Mount Road, and along Wallajah Road at the Ellis Road junction. But parts of this pipe line, which branches off straight from the Kilpauk water works, are left unconnected at various stretches enroute. For example though the pipes have been laid under the Cooum River near Harris Bridge yet the shoulder sections on the banks of the Cooum are yet to be linked up and pipes laid down. Besides, it is stated that some parts – “specials” for linking pipes together and other vital equipment have to be obtained by the Corporation.
Only when the Corporation attends to all this and closes all the gaps in the pipe line, can water be let into the 44-inch pipes. When that happy day arrives, the existing 27 inch pipe in front of the Elphinstone Theatre would be removed, and water would go along the bigger 44-inch main to Triplicane.
An engineer expressed surprise that work on the pipe diversion should have been halted because of lack of vital equipment, as the project had been talked about for the last four years. The Corporation should have placed orders for the equipment in time.
There is, however, a silver lining to the cloud. It is gathered that there is a proposal for the two completed shafts, i. e. on the eastern, Government Estate side, and the western, Elphinstone side, to be thrown open to the public. If the authorities approve of the proposal, then the unfinished Ellis Road branch of the subway would be barricaded for the present.
The subway might be left open until about 10 p. m. when it would be closed for the night. The idea is to prevent squatters or bad characters getting into the tunnel.”
So much for the subway as late as in 1966. But with an election looming large the next year it would seem that the project was speeded up and completed in 1967.
The RBI Subway
What is of interest is that with the Round Tana subway hogging all the limelight, the RBI subway was executed quietly and completed on time, more or less concurrently. It must have had its fair share of challenges but documentation on this has not yet surfaced. What we do know however is that when planned it was known as the Lighthouse and not RBI subway. Civic Affairs reports on its completion in April 1966 –
“On April 29, Madras Chief Minister Mr.M.Bhaktavatsalam formally declared open the Lighthouse subway built at cost of Rs.60 Laks in Madras City. From May 2 the subway is in use of the traffic. Work on the subway commenced in March 1964. It has two carriageways, separate cycle tracks and also pedestrian footpaths. Formerly the level crossing gates here used to be closed 120 times a day and caused great inconvenience to the public. An average 1,200 vehicles an hour used to pass through this point. A sub-way had to be built in preference to an over-bridge, in order not to spoil the appearance of stately buildings like the Reserve Bank, the High Court and the Port Trust, said Mr.O.Sivasankaran the Highways Chief Engineer.”
Such sensitivity in 1966! Decision taken to construct an underpass and not a flyover to give heritage its due! And separate pedestrian and cycle tracks! What has happened to us thereafter?
This article appeared in Madras Musings dated April 1, 2023
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