Metro Minus!

Human endeavour has its limits while nature’s sweep has none whatsoever. Even cities with superior infrastructure will find themselves unequal to the task if nature chooses to be nasty. Chennai, in that context, is a sitting duck. A floating one, if you like. Or as days pass, sinking & stinking too. This constipated city, with its choking waterways, clogged drainages, encroached lake embankments and narrow roads with even less motorable space is clearly in no position to answer nature’s call. And as the calls increase, it is calamity, unlimited.

Chennai and water are like chalk and cheese. Cat and mouse, if you like. Or J & K, if you are the political kind. But the point is our pet metro has never got along with that precious liquid that makes you wet. For that matter, TN itself is often in troubled waters in not just rivers like Cauvery, Krishna and Mullaperiyar, but even Sethusamuthiram. I guess ours is the State with the longest coastline in the whole of India and therefore with the largest ‘access’ to water, of a Bay, a sea and an ocean, all at once. But that’s geography’s tantalysing trick and along with the monsoon’s truancy, TN and Chennai, specifically, have only had turbulent and traumatic trysts with water.

And this jinx with jal touches both extremes. From endemic scarcity to total inundation, Chennai’s water woes swing like a pendulum. Being a lower riparian State, TN’s rice bowls have always held a begging bowl towards Karnataka and Kerala for critical agricultural needs. Chennai for its part has been wholly monsoon dependent. Decades of deficit rainfall had rendered the city parched with a fast depleting water table. Really, Chennai had come to be known as the land of eternal summers. The typical landscape of Chennai would be incomplete without tanker lorries, roadside water domes, snakelike hoses, platform handpum-ps and colourful plastic pots. The tap’s end was often the venue of heated water wars between otherwise cosy neighbours, impacting the civic and cultural landscape too. Indeed, if quest for potable water signified civilisational growth, Chennai belonged to the pre-historic!

OVERPASS FAILS THE TEST: The just 9-month old Padi flyover (opened in Feb 2009)
looks ravaged and run-down even after this small spell of rain.

Thankfully, those years look passe. At least, one hopes. While the prospect of draught looms overhead, as it did this year, the last few rainy seasons have been bountiful with Met records indicating a rising trend in average rainfall in city. The water lorries are off the roads, thus increasing the Chennaiites’ average life span; platform pumps and tanks are far apart and petty pot fights fewer. So is it watery bliss now? Enter, problems of plenty! This water-starved city is actually worse off with abundant water! Theoretically, Chennai, unlike many other metros, is very well endowed with natural infrastructure: It has several natural storages, over five hundred big and small lakes around it, besides a few waterways within it. And there are also a number of marshlands and swamps, at least on the maps. Such a set-up is a god-sent insulation against flooding. But man-made follies have frustrated this divine scheme by converting acts of god into catostrophes.

A water-starved city should have by now learnt to conserve the vital resource, but water management is not one of Chennai’s virtues. The citizenry and the civic authorities must share the blame, the latter the most. The unchecked encroachments on lake embankments and water conduits leading to and from storage points are the primary culprits in laying waste the bonanza from the skies. Thanks to such obstructions, the flowing water stagnates resulting in flooding and evacuations. Also, stagnant water loses its potability. But worse, it becomes breeding grounds of disease. The lapses in town planning over the years tells its own tales. Chennai is growing vertically and horizontally, albeit haphazardly, but underneath it is almost status quo. The drainage, sewerage and drinking water infrastructure has not matched the pace above. With lakes and marshlands becoming housing colonies, disaster visits whenever water seeks to re-establish its ‘land rights’.

A common refrain this season is that things are not as bad as last year. The authorities claim that the desilting of waterways, clearing of storm water drains and the RWH network have considerably mitigated the damage this time. For one, these are still early days. The delayed monsoon is yet to reach its full fury and is nowhere near last year’s levels. So all such premature tall talk stand the risk of being washed away if there is an action replay. We only hope there is no inaction replay. But the present signs are mixed. While there is a visible caution in official circles based on earlier experiences, many ‘ground’ realities are very discouraging. The quality of the physical infrastructure comes to mind at once. While outdated civic structures are bound to creak or crack due to time and tear, what of the recently built ones? Post the current bout of rains, most of the MRT stations of recent vintage are already in various states of dilapidation. Many new flyover roads look as if they have had a mini quake; the slew of subways that were launched with much fanfare are now popular boatways, with no way out for rainwater. Indeed, the prospective seems more damning than the past.

Drought or flood, Chennai looks doomed to civic hell! And that’s sad. To the likes of me hooked to this city, come rain or shine, the pain gets magnified. In a few decades, over fifty percent of world population will be in cities. With cities also becoming showcases for tourists and investors, fighting urban decay and rising upto the demographic challenge are key concerns of Governments across the globe. But India lags and among Indian metros, Chennai lags. Much as we like musing over Madras’s charms, the fact remains that it has missed the bus to modern glory. Thanks to its geographical vantage point, it could have easily become the gateway to South East Asia. But first it lost out to Colombo, then to Singapore and now to many other less endowed cities. Forty years of myopia and blurred vision wrought by dravidian rhetoric, dark glasses and darker deeds have ensured that Chennai remains imprisoned in its potholes, puddles, petty polemics and personality politics.
Aah, how we wish we can think beyond the next rainy day!

e-mail the writer at [email protected]

Jawahar T R