The heaviest ever rainfall of 294 mm and 345 mm recorded on a single day — the day’s rainfall being more than the average rainfall recorded for the entire northeast monsoon — caused many deaths and made life in Chennai a misery as urban services almost collapsed. Without going into too many aspects of the matter, I attempt here to list what seems to have gone wrong with our urban planning.
From all that has been reported, it appears that heavy rain forced the authorities to release 30,000 cusecs of water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir into the Adyar river, which is not deep or wide and whose banks have been encroached upon. Similarly, the water released from the Poondi and Puzhai reservoirs flooded the Cooum river, which flows through the city.
The city was just not prepared to handle this because of the mindless development that has taken place over the years. Lowlands have been taken over for construction, and storm water drains have been choked, leading to the blockage of water exits. It has been reported that some 300 water bodies of the city have disappeared.
The concretisation of the wetlands has taken place. Some 5,000 hectares of swamp has been converted into the IT corridor. The city is reported to have more than 880 km of storm water drains, and around Rs 1,500 crore has been spent in the past five years to interconnect them so that lake overflows go into the three main rivers of the city.
And Rs 4,500 crore is to be spent on an integrated storm water drain project to lay a network of storm water drains in the suburban areas of the city — which currently does not exist and where the maximum problems seem to have arisen. The envisaged system has apparently not worked.
Serious questions have been raised as to whether there has not been something fundamentally wrong with the urban planning process of the city. Rapacious urbanisation and callous town planning have been listed as the culprits. It would be worthwhile finding out what the master plan for the city says and whether its provisions are being implemented seriously and diligently.
Or have too many violations taken place because of political patronage and maybe bureaucratic connivance? Is there a drainage master plan to address the water flow issues? If there is one, what is the result and its stage of implementation?
Every city is supposed to have what is called a disaster preparedness plan and the district administration and the city authorities are supposed to be in readiness before each season of rainfall. Was this exercise done before this rainy season and were serious issues flagged?
There is a concept of service level benchmarking, also for the drainage sector. It talks about the coverage of storm water drainage networks and the incidence of water logging to be ultimately at zero level.
Has the city followed this exercise and apprised the residents about the progress made each year? The Urban Renewal Mission had laid down rainwater harvesting as a basic reform measure to be completed citywide during its implementation. In all probability the city has reported full compliance.
It would be worthwhile to see at this stage what the ground realities are now. Whenever roads are built or road improvements made, a drainage system is expected to co-exist with the work, meaning provision should be made for this aspect as well in the estimate and contract awarded.
Chennai is one of those rare cities which have a formally announced non-motorised transport policy that addresses the issue of developing footpaths so that the pedestrian requirements are adequately met. While developing footpaths, have the greening and water permeability issues been kept as priority or only concretisation to the maximum extent been resorted to?
Every city wants to develop fast and invest in its infrastructure. But while doing so do cities care for environment issues and an overall balance in the varying requirements of the city specific? Chennai is a flat, lowlying coastal city. The region always has an uneven system of rain. The water tanks were basically meant to make sure that every drop of rain water is collected and when it is excessive, the water drains into the rivers Adyar and Cooum.
The Buckingham Canal, which was navigable at one time, has around 31 km of its stretch in the city of Chennai, where it cuts both these rivers and serves as an exit point for various drainage systems. One criticism is that urban planners identified the land along the canal as open public land and facilitated the construction of rail links and the like.
The new airport terminal is on the flood plains of the river Adyar; the MRTS travels along the Buckingham Canal, and it is reported that SEZs, educational institutions and gated colonies have come up along the catchment areas and disrupted the natural drainage route.
People have started asking whether such a city is going to be a smart one. The answer is that it is left to the residents of the city to identify and list what smart features they would like to have and, in accordance with the guidelines, develop their smart city vision and plan. The question is: Did the city residents have this opportunity?
Did they specify the identification and preservation of all water bodies as a must for the smart city they are envisaging and do the city leaders prioritise adequate responses and institutionalising action on the issues raised here as priority at this stage of sustainable city building?
(M Ramachandran is former secretary, Union ministry of urban development. The views expressed are personal)