Yet Another Buckingham Canal Restoration

Buckingham Canal near RA Puram

Buckingham Canal is back in the news, accompanied by mega budgets for its ‘restoration’. As per the latest announcement made in the Assembly, a sum of Rs. 1,281.88 crores (it is a wonder as to how budgets always are so accurate right down to the second decimal when actuals always vary considerably) has been allotted towards the restoration of the canal, its associated drains and also those that connect to the Adyar and Cooum, in order to help facilitate a comprehensive restoration of waterways in the city. To begin with, 2.7 km of Buckingham Canal, the portion between Swami Sivananda Salai (behind the University) and Mylapore, has been selected. 

On the anvil are the usual plans – a survey of encroachments, demolition of the same, plugging of untreated sewage outfalls, bank beautification, park development, and planting of trees. It will remain to be seen as to how much of all this will make it to reality even while the budget is completely spent. Somehow, our Governments have always managed to spend their river restoration budgets without making much of a difference on the ground. And as usual, nobody is willing to address the elephant that is in the room – the massive pillars of the Mass Rapid Transport System that are right on the canal bed. Unless and until these are removed, and the rail re-routed at enormous expense, all talk of canal restoration is futile. 

Identification of encroachments via GPS, as is proposed, is simple enough. But the action that will be forthcoming after that is debatable. The low-hanging fruit, namely the slum dwellers along the banks will be soft targets for eviction. They will be relocated elsewhere amid much publicity, even as large-scale encroachments by the politically powerful will remain untouched. And very often it is these latter that cause the most damage. Slums all said and done, are not likely to discharge hazardous wastes into waters. And speaking of slums along the banks, let us not forget that it is the political parties that have encouraged settling of people at these locations since the 1960s.

The first move was understandable after a massive cyclone but to turn a blind eye for decades and then one day descend on the people with sanctimonious wrath is not acceptable. Any administration worth its salt ought to have monitored, and controlled encroachment even while it was attempted. Now to try and set right decades of neglect will only mean prolonged litigation and therefore delays, all of which could have been avoided. 

While it is a fact that the Buckingham Canal looks its worst within the city, the actual cause of pollution lies elsewhere. It is well-known that thermal power plants at the northern end of the city dump hot water and fly ash and debris into the Canal thereby killing whatever little bio-life there can exist. Based on complaints by environmental activists, the High Court has had to repeatedly intervene and demand action, much of which has been sporadic. In the face of such pollution, whatever is caused within the city pales into insignificance. The plan for restoration conveniently overlooks this

The Government, if it is serious about the canal, ought to pause and reflect on what restoration really means. If the idea is to make this a navigable and thriving waterbody, plans have to be on a long term, needing vision and commitment across multiple administrations. Much will need to be removed, and alternatives will have to be arrived at. And that demands political resolve, and not just a desire for good optics. In the absence of all of this, any talk of canal restoration can only mean cosmetic changes.

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