There is a lot about modern Chennai to celebrate. The city is host now to a few posh watering holes in which it is possible even to get a civilised craft beer or a canned international beer as opposed to a national brand and its franchisees bottling it in the state and passing it off as pilsner or lager for years. Maybe, the taste has to do with the local water that goes into the manufacture and we can’t blame the master brewers who are now allowed to ply their trade uninterrupted after several policy shifts from Prohibition in the 1970s.
Talking of water brings us right back to the subject of - water. Namma Chennai got some international notoriety when it was in the focus of news to do with water shortage in the last few months. There wasn’t a prominent newspaper or news channel in the world that did not run a story on a city that had run out of all its water. Taps running dry in Chennai became all the news and even those needing a map to tell them where the capital of the Tamils is would have been made aware of a city that had just celebrated its 380th birthday after the advent of the British, but with a fear over when the water would run out.
Water managers have been served a harsh reminder that only poor planning could have brought a city with an annual rainfall of 140 cm - spread in 30-70 proportion between the southwest and the northeast monsoons - to its knees. The northeast failed in 2018, which means the pressure was bound to be there to keep the water running in the city taps through the summer and past the best southwest rainy months of July and August until the city’s main monsoon arrives in October-November. It must sound strange that a city which was flooded on receiving 250 cm in 2015, should now be facing such bad water years.
The good news is that Veeranam has been getting inflows after the opening of Mettur and an old scheme to lay pipes all the way to the lake near the Cauvery distributary of Kollidam (or Coleroon) is repaying its planners’ and engineers’ vision. Also, neighbouring Andhra has been gallant in acceding to requests from a thirsty Chennai whose lakes have just not filled up despite all the good rain of August because the catchments did not seem to get much of the showers.
Beyond wetting the lake and reservoir beds, the rain did little to slake the needs of a metro, apart from raising the groundwater levels.
The one feature in which Madras was infinitely better than Chennai was in the cleanliness of its major waterways comprising three rivers - Adyar, Cooum and Kosasthalai - and the Buckingham Canal that British engineers built first from North Chennai to Ennore as the Cochrane Canal for just 18 kms in around 1806 before it expanded to its near-800 kms run to Kakinada. In its best days, the canal used to see barges float in it, filled with timber and other goods. Navigation was possible right up to 1970 or so before the canal degraded towards its current status of a ‘Bathroom’ Canal.
Ms Jayalalithaa was once incensed when I made fun of a Cooum restoration plan in this column. The scheme was one of many that have sunk without trace in the stinking waters of the river turned drain of the city. I had said that all the produce of all the perfumeries of Paris would not make the Cooum smell any good. But it is not only Jaya as chief minister who wanted the eyesore (or should it be nose sore?) waterways of Chennai to transform as they did with the Singapore River that flows into the Singapore Reservoir and whose postcard pretty picture I captured from my kin’s apartment.
It was on a TV programme that I ran into what seemed an excellent idea to clean Chennai’s waterways. The expert said “Do nothing” but he qualified that by saying that if they stop the three crore litres of sewage that they let into the Adyar, the Cooum and the Buckingham Canal then the waterways would be flushed clean in a couple of monsoon cycles. The solution seems simplistic but it would require enormous work in terms of setting up several score sewage treatment plants that would process the waste that is now getting into the water and from there into the sea and, perhaps, causing the phenomenon of a purple sea that was seen off the Chennai coast a couple of weeks ago.
The day Chennai gets to clean up its waterways with Nature playing its part as it did in 2015 in giving them a full turn of the flush, the city would have regained the glory of its early Madras days and become truly worthy of a modern city with all its glittering appurtenances.
(R. Mohan is the Resident Editor of the Chennai and Tamil Nadu editions of Deccan Chronicle)...