World Rivers Day: The lifelines that the growing city lost

From becoming the nerve centre of the city to being reduced to mere channels, the course of the three rivers – Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum and Adyar – has changed forever. Will they ever regain their glory?
World Rivers Day: The lifelines that the growing city lost

Chennai

R L Srinivasan, a three-decade resident of Kattukuppam in Ennore along the Kosasthalaiyar river, remembers jumping into the river every morning for a bath. That was in the early 80s, when industrialisation had not yet taken a toll on the waterbody. Today, many parents like him are scared to see their children going anywhere near the river.
“Now, the water here has been polluted considerably by factories and the fly ash from the power plants (NTECL Vallur Thermal Power Station and North Chennai Thermal Power Plant). From health issues among women to respiratory and skin infections, the damage is big and irreversible,” his voice trails off.
Sudha Umashanker, a resident of Harrington Road who has spent half a century living in the area between Chetpet and Egmore, says how the river has been a cesspool even in her oldest memory. “It took me so many years to see the river in its pristine glory, when I visited the part of the river in Korattur Anaicut before it enters the city,” she notes.
In Nandanam, where R Devendiran has been a resident for over four decades, the Adyar river has become synonymous with unbearable stench only now. “I have memories of playing in it and travelling by boat to reach Gandhi Mandapam even in the 70s. The water was sparkling, and clear like a shiny mirror,” he says wistfully.  The rivers are all linked, as the water flowed from Kosasthalaiyar to Cooum and Chembarambakkam lake before joining Adyar river and reached the sea. And somewhere the stories of their degradation, too.
The damage had been triggered much before the city realised, says R Venkatesh, historian and writer. Starting from 1940 – 1950, the population rose exponentially over the next three decades. “Poondi dam came across Kosasthalaiyar and the Kesavaram dam on the Cooum followed, killing both.”
Exponential pollution:  Nithyanand Jayaraman, social activist, says the waterbodies would never recover their functionality. “In fact, I am hesitant to call Cooum and Adyar rivers any more, they are channels. Kosasthalaiyar is the least harmed compared to the other two, but it is also being harmed at a faster pace,” he says. “However, interventions can be done with the three in various degrees,” he adds.
Activists also rue the lack of understanding of the natural drainage system. G Sundararajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, a people’s movement, explained how there were 18 large canals and 540 small streams which took the floodwaters during rains to the rivers, from where it drained into the ocean. “Kosasthalaiayar could once carry 1.25 lakh cusecs of water. But during the 2015 floods, it could barely take 80,000 cusecs. 
All due to the pollution from the port and the fly ash from the thermal plant.” Cooum’s floodplain has been taken over by a towering mall, while the secondary runway in the Chennai airport is inside the Adyar river, which resulted in Mudichur being flooded, he says. 
“The compound wall of a reputed hospital is in the flood plains of the Adyar river and the water wreaked havoc during the floods due to it,” he says. Highlighting the government’s lack of vision that has led to impractical and unviable solutions, he adds: “They told us they will build compound walls along the rivers to prevent the flooding.” 
Lack of plan: The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board does a monthly analysis of the water in Buckingham Canal, and Adyar and Cooum rivers. But it has no plan in place to reduce or control the pollution. Activists charge it of being ineffective in tackling pollution of the water bodies. 
Jayaraman said, “Monitoring alone is not sufficient and cannot help. No further industrial encroachment of Kosasthalaiyar should be allowed. For Adyar and Couum rivers, new encroachments and pollution through sewage have to be addressed.” While the PWD has been removing encroachments along the river banks, the long-term plan doesn’t extend beyond evictions and widening. Jayaraman observed how the eviction drive was different for elite and marginalised. “They won’t dare touch the industries or the hotels,” he says.
However, city historian Venkatesh has a counter intuitive point to offer: “We had to pay the price for it and environment took a hit. The story is same with rivers across the world. No one can clean the rivers; it must happen naturally. As rivers are lowest in altitude they tend to get polluted. We must remember that no one ever migrated from Chennai due to lack of water,” he remarks.
Cooum paved way for Development of Madras
Padmapriya Bhaskaran, who mapped the Cooum through the places of religious worship in her book ‘The Gods of the Holy Koovam,’ said that the river has multiple historical significances. “The British wanted a place close to the Bay of Bengal. To facilitate the trade between London and Madras, they set up an office where the Fort St George stands now.” 
The genesis of Chennai cannot be seen without Cooum, she said. “Every aspect and development of the city is associated with the river. Institutions like the eye hospital, the first museum, the first prison and the first theatre – all are on the banks of the Cooum. The city grew from Georgetown and the villages were annexed. Chintadripet is a manmade settlement and derives its name from the china thari, which means small looms. Select weavers from across Madras presidency were brought to the locality. Two temples were built by British for these people,” she added. 
Even with respect to education, the development took place on the Cooum banks. “College Road gets the name from College of Fort St George, set up by FW Ellis to teach Tamil and Telugu language, that was set up there in 1812. Prisoners of war were kept as captives in the Doveton House, which is Women’s Christian College now,” she said.

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