Images of the Chief Minister and city mayor wading into floodwaters filled with sewer and garbage is nothing new to the Chennai public for this prototype has been in place for more than 40 years, dating back to the days of former chief ministers MGR and M Karunanidhi. But what these pictures do not tell is that during the same period, crores and crores of public money were poured down these stormwater drains and the river restoration projects, with little use to the common public but benefitting the cash-rich contractors and middlemen.
According to official sources, since the 2005 floods, the State and the Chennai corporation had spent more than Rs 16,000 crore to repair and develop the infrastructure. Since then, the number of drain coverage has increased by 600 kilometres, but water logging continues to be a perennial issue in the low-lying areas and also in the developed pockets like T Nagar where the Smart City project was implemented in the past three years.
DT Next spoke to stakeholders like politicians, bureaucrats, activists and urban planners to ascertain the cause for Chennai reeling under floods. “The desilting works are not complete in several areas and I am also a victim, thanks to poor drainage works. I am spending close to four hours daily monitoring the clearing of stormwater in my Saidapet constituency,” said Health Minister and former Chennai mayor Ma Subramanian.
“There has been clear unsystematic handling of drains and the middle part of the drain has not been cleaned and now we are clearing the murk. The usual practice is to rely on a newly constructed drain, but a lot of technical failures have led to collapse,” the Saidapet MLA added.
“Once when the water recedes, an in-depth analysis will be carried out to ascertain the technical faults, which will be addressed at the earliest. The compound walls raised near the river banks had given some respite for those residing near the river banks,” the minister said.
“For the past four years, our organisation had filed RTI petitions seeking a detailed project report of stormwater drain works executed by the Chennai Corporation but to date, there is no reply from the civic authorities,” fumed Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor, Arappor Iyakkam. “The corporation is executing projects worth several crores but it is not sharing documents in the public domain. To date, there is no map showing the stormwater drain network of Chennai and the entire stormwater drain concept seems to be an ill-designed project to benefit the nexus between the administrators and the contractors,” he further said.
“We are in an era of cloud bursts and climate change but our drainage system planning is age-old. There is no fresh thinking and the design needs an upgradation,” said political commentator R Venkatesh. “Tokyo which has a population of 3.5 crore people has better drainage systems thanks to the tunnel boring water conservation plan, where the stormwater is saved under playgrounds and parks and then pumped out during summer. We need such long term solutions and the ban on plastic will also give some respite enabling the free flow of water during monsoon,” he added. “The leader of the Opposition and the former chief minister E Palaniswami has made a clear statement on this issue. Whether it is T Nagar or another area it is floating as the DMK failed to take up the pre-monsoon works,” said an AIADMK party spokesperson who is also a former MLA. “The DMK is blaming the previous government to escape from the public outcry,” the AIADMK functionary added.