When the North-East monsoon, Tamil Nadu's main rainy season, set in on October 30, the devastating floods of last year were still fresh in the state's collective memory.
A year after unprecedented rainfall caused a massive deluge in Chennai, Kanchipuram, Tiruvallur, Cuddalore and other parts of the state, killing more than 300 people and causing losses running into several thousand crores, the state is still not rain-ready.
In Chennai, one of the worst-affected areas last year, work on desilting, or cleaning up canals and water bodies and unclogging storm water drains – which should have been completed before the monsoons, has just begun.
To complicate matters, the term of the elected representatives of city’s civic body has ended and local body polls to the Chennai Corporation, scheduled in October, were cancelled by the High Court over alleged irregularities inthe poll process.
Administration of the state has also been hit ever since the hospitalisation of AIADMK head and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on September 22.
Special officials have now been appointed to the Chennai Corporation to take up flood-prevention measures, but residents, citizen activists and environmentalists have claimed that the last-minute job is shoddy and poorly thought out. Meanwhile, 15 IAS officers appointed as monitoring officers by the government to oversee monsoon preparedness have identified at least 100 major civic issues that could cause flooding this year, according to reports. This includes desilting of canals and rivers, removal of encroachments along waterways and construction of storm water drains in areas that lack an adequate drainage system.
Solution is the problem
A major project that the Chennai Corporation is undertaking is to connect the city's 1,660.31-km long network of storm water drains to several lakes and ponds, so that excess rain water can be emptied into these. Engineers in the Chennai Corporation’s Storm Water Drainage Department who did not wish to be identified confirmed to Scroll.in that 55 water bodies in South Chennai and 95 water bodies in the north would collect outflow from the storm water drain network in the city.
The project, approved in August, is being funded by Germany’s government-owned bank KFW and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. More than Rs 2,000 crores is being pumped into this project.
S Thirunavukkarasu, a retired engineer with the state Public Works Department, said that the plan could, in fact, increase risk of flooding and contaminate the water. “In most residential areas, sewerage lines are connected to these storm water drains,” he said. "So it is not just excess rainwater that will flow into these lakes and ponds but sewage, garbage and muck. The Chennai Corporation is finding a shortcut to the problems that we are going to face when the monsoon comes. We are holding talks with groups which work towards protecting water bodies.”
Environmentalists that Scroll.in spoke to expressed similar concerns.
KA Jayachandran of the South Chennai Lakes Security Group said the chances of flooding in Chennai could increase if the corporation goes through with project. “Already the water bodies have shrunk because of unauthorised construction," he said. "Also, none of these lakes have been desilted in the last 10 years. If the corporation connects the storm water drains to these lakes too, there is a big chance of flooding in residential areas (as the lakes can overflow)".
Environment activist KVRK Thirunaranan argued that the sewage carried by these drains would not just harm humans but also disturb the ecology of the water body. “Many migratory birds visit these water bodies and marshes and this will affect them if the water turns into sewage."
Experts said that the AIADMK government and the AIADMK-led corporation should have learnt from the fate of such projects in the past. In 2001, when the DMK was in power, the government had connected the existing storm water drains to the Cooum and Adyar rivers and the Buckingham Canal, the three main waterways in the city.
"The biggest example is before us – this is what has happened with the Adyar, Cooum rivers and the Buckingham Canal,” said S Janakarajan, water resources expert and professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. "It is only because storm water drains were connected to these waterways that they have turned into sewage ways." A bulk of the city's untreated sewage makes its way into these waters.
In 2011, Central Chennai was selected for a Rs 1,000-crore project, partly funded by the Centre, to connect more storm water drains to rivers.
Work yet to begin
Officials at the Chennai Corporation, however, claimed that there would be no flooding this year as the water bodies are being connected by a network of canals, so if excess water accumulated in one river, it would be carried to another.
“Around 800 areas in Chennai have been identified as places where water logging happens during rains and so in these places this connection of water bodies has already started,” said the engineer with the Chennai Corporation. “But the work will not get finished before the monsoon starts.”
By the state authorities’ own admission too, work at many of these sites is yet to begin.
In a case filed before the National Green Tribunal in Chennai, petitioner Jawahar Shanmugam had asked the court to direct the Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu to unclog the Buckingham Canal, where the accumulation of silt, debris and water hyacinth has been obstructing the flow of water. On October 27, just three days before the North East Monsoon set in, the PWD informed the court that work on the canal had not begun.
The department submitted that Rs 53.15 lakh would be allocated for “various activities in the South Buckingham Canal” and an additional Rs 60 lakhs had been allotted for “specific works” from Kottivakkam bridge to Okkiyam Maduvu, including the construction of a drainage canal. An estimated Rs 638 lakhs has been allocated for desilting of some water bodies and Rs 91 lakhs for “works in Cooum river.”
“Other waterways” in the city would get Rs 150 lakh, the PWD told the tribunal.
The tribunal directed the PWD to finish the work fast and said it would closely monitor the progress. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for December 12. By then, however, the monsoon would be on its way out and the damage, if any, would already have been done.