Urban Planning

With incomplete details of water bodies, Chennai's master plan is a recipe for yet another disaster

With less than three months to go for the North East monsoons, the city does not seem any better prepared to tackle a flood-like situation.

Residents of Sidco Nagar in Chennai are still reeling from the effects of the flood last year, when the neighbourhood half-disappeared under several feet of water.

Sidco Nagar was one of the worst-affected areas during the floods in the city caused by torrential rains in November and December.

The residential area and the adjoining Sidco Industrial Estate were built on the erstwhile Konnur Lake. As is the case with any natural reservoir, the lake was in a low-lying area, which acts as a collection point for water from surrounding neighbourhoods.

“But the housing board selected this [lake area] for the housing purposes,” said PA Chittibabu, general secretary of Sidco Nagar for 30 years now. “We have constructed over 4,000 houses, so now there is no water body here. But during the floods, we suffered for up to 20 days.”

However, with less than three months to go before the receding North East monsoon, when Chennai gets the bulk of its rainfall, the city is in no way better prepared to tackle heavy rains.

Who cares about water bodies?

The water body that Sidco Nagar and other development projects swallowed up was spread across 250 acres, according to a social audit report released in early August by Arappor Iyakkam, an NGO in Chennai. One glance of the 1972 Survey of India map is enough to validate that.

The Konnur Lake. Credit: The Survey of India map, 1971
The Konnur Lake. Credit: The Survey of India map, 1971

Today, the lake covers just 20 acres. But the Chennai’s urban planning authority does not even recognise that much in its master plan of the city’s development – instead, it has termed the entire area as an institutional plot, paving the way for further development on whatever is left of the lake. A metro project, for instance, came up here in 2013.

The 20 acres that are left of the Konnur Lake. Credit: Social Audit report of Specific Stretches on Chennai Waterways by Arappor Iyakkam
The 20 acres that are left of the Konnur Lake. Credit: Social Audit report of Specific Stretches on Chennai Waterways by Arappor Iyakkam

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority’s plan, prepared in 2008, is a blueprint for the city’s development till 2026. It chalks out the land use for the entire city – which areas can be used for industrial development, as institutions, residential complexes, agriculture, water bodies and so on. Accordingly, licences for construction are provided by the government authorities.

In the map below, the horizontal red lines indicate institutional land in the city, which includes the area occupied by Konnur Lake.

The plot with horizontal red lines marked '1' on the land use map is the Konnur Lake.    Credit: CMDA Masterplan 2008
The plot with horizontal red lines marked '1' on the land use map is the Konnur Lake. Credit: CMDA Masterplan 2008

The Konnur Lake is not the only water body that has gone unnoticed by the urban planning body. The Ennore Creek, a swamp-like backwater in North Chennai with the tidal mudflats, marshes and fishing villages, now also houses large petrochemical industries that are unrestrained in dumping toxic fly ash and chemical-ridden water in and around the river.

By deeming the Ennore Creek a zone for hazardous industries and the Konnur Lake for institutional development – both places were deluged during the December floods – the urban planning authorities have clearly not taken existing hydrology and ecological sensitivity of the areas into question while planning the city’s growth.

In fact, nearly 90% of the area reserved for Special and Hazardous Industries by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority in Ennore Creek reportedly constitutes salt pans, fish farms and tidal water bodies that fall under Coastal Regulation Zones. These wetlands are crucial as they are natural sponges that prevent flooding by soaking up surface water, rain water and floodwaters, apart from hosting a diverse ecosystem.

Mind the gaps

In June 2016, the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group of Chennai filed an RTI plea asking the urban planning authorities if the master plan had taken into account the complete list of water bodies in the city.

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority responded saying: “The water bodies indicated…is not the complete ones in the Chennai metropolitan Area. As the Master Plan is a Broad Brush zoning map, small narrow water bodies may fall into land uses of agriculture, industrial, institutional etc.”

The urban planning body said that they do not have a list of all water bodies in Chennai.

The master plan is based on maps belonging to the revenue department. The tehsildar, or the local administrator, however, has a different set of maps, which include more minute details of the topography in that particular area.

In its response to the RTI plea, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority admitted that it does not have the kind of details on its map that the tehsildar does, but says that “such accuracy is not required in the master plan. There is no plan to incorporate and integrate the information.”

Activist Nityanand Jayaraman said that a master plan, by definition, must bring together various data sets and sources to come up with detailed development plans. If this has not been done, he said, it is worthless and can do more damage than good.

“By stating that the master plan authors did not have access to data about water bodies, the RTI shows that the master plan has not been designed with hydrology as a concern,” Jayaraman said. “Chennai's master plan appears to be a sham, and a blueprint for filling the pockets of corrupt administrations and revenue officials along the chain.”

Ideally, the master plan should be drafted after carefully examining the existing use of each part of the city, before opening it up for industrial or development activity.

So how did Konnur Lake lose its status as a water body?

Powerful tehsildars

For reclassifying land or water bodies – changing their land use in the master plan – the approval of the tehsildar is required, except when there is a direct order from the government.

After the floods, the Chennai Municipal Development Authority introduced the rule that a builder must provide a certificate from the tehsildar stating that construction is not being carried out on a water body.

In the RTI reply, the urban planning authority said that information provided by the tehsildar is not verified, because with incomplete maps, they do not have the means to do so.

In other words, if the builder produces a certificate from the tehsildar stating that there is no water body on a site where they propose construction, the urban planning body does not cross-check the claim.

“Some of the information is with the tehsildar’s office and some with the state revenue department,” said Tara Murali, an architect. “In today’s age of digitisation, why can’t the tehsildar’s information be integrated into the master plan?”

Small Steps

Eight months after the heaviest rainfall recorded in 100 years in Chennai flooded large parts of the city, killing more than 300, damaging property worth several thousand crores and leaving thousands stranded at home without electricity, food or drinking water, the citizens of Chennai are restless. With the monsoons fast approaching, there is grave concern over the rivers filled with silt, dysfunctional canals that are meant to pump out rainwater and relentless encroachment on water bodies.

The Chennai Municipal Development Authority now requires each project to have an indication of the prevailing flood line – the highest level up to which water rises in the monsoons – and take all necessary precautions in the design of basements, said Durganand Balsavar, the principal architect of Artes-Human Settlements Development Collaborative in the city, who also works with the Master Plan Committee.

But with the urban planning authority’s unwillingness to take note of smaller waterways and channels, the prospect of another disaster this year looms large.

“We get little bit of information that something is being desilted or something else is being cleared,” said Murali, “But there is no cohesive policy and nobody has identified the various problems or which department is going to plan and execute a strategy for flood prevention. For all I know, this year if we have a similar amount of rainfall, we may again lose many lives.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.