Will the High Court directive to preserve the river leads to its resurrection?

From a picturesque river, as portrayed in Tamil literature of yore, to a few decades back when it was eulogised by the lyricists of Tamil films, the Vaigai remained not only the lifeline of Madurai but the very face of a bustling city. That it has become the dirtiest place in Madurai has been a disturbing fact for its residents.

As the river grapples with uncontrolled pollution, the Madras High Court bench here has stepped into the scene last week to step up vigil and preserve the Vaigai. Last week, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by an advocate in 2011 to control pollution in the Vaigai, Judges R. Sudhakar and S. Vaidyanathan pointed out the deteriorating quality of the river water.

Besides setting up a two-member advocate commission to work with the Madurai Corporation, Public Works Department and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to clear and control the pollution, the judges issued a stern warning against all forms of pollution. The case should be posted before them at periodic intervals to monitor the progress in controlling pollution, they had said.

Several residents of Madurai say they are hopeful about the resurrection of the famous river after the High Court’s directive. “To see people defecating in the river is disgusting. Every day as I ride on my two-wheeler on roads along the banks of the Vaigai, I am sickened by the sight. As garbage is also dumped into the river, the stench is all the more revolting,” says S. Preetha, a college student. “It is a welcome sign that the court is stepping into the scene. I hope there will be some action on the part of civic bodies to clean up the mess. As a first step, more public toilets should be constructed on the river bank and they must be properly maintained. Hefty fines must be slapped on those who dump garbage and defecate in the river,” she adds.

Overpowering stench

For A. Malathi who resides in Thathaneri off the Vaigai, there is no escaping from the stench. “I keep the windows of our house closed most of the time because of the stench. Still the stink seeps through. A comprehensive river cleanup plan should be prepared and implemented by the Corporation authorities,” she says.

N. Thangaswamy, a petty shop owner at Arapalayam, says, “So far a lackadaisical attitude has been shown by the authorities in cleaning the river and keeping it free of pollution. At least with the High Court monitoring the cleanup drive, the authorities should act swiftly.”

S. Muthukumar, who filed the public interest litigation in 2011, claims there are at least 37 places in Madurai from where sewage is let into the river. “Sewage from households, waste from hospitals and effluents from dying units are the major sources of pollution. Dhobis should be restrained from washing clothes in the river as the chemicals they use pollute the river. The Vaigai banks should be cleaned and fenced so that waste cannot be thrown into the river,” he suggests.

R. Kannan, counsel for K.K. Ramesh, who filed two petitions recently to clean up Kiruthumal and Vaigai rivers, says, “Letting cattle graze in the Vaigai should be restricted and the wild growth of karuvelam trees and bushes uprooted.”

Channels vanished

J. Kanagavalli, a water expert in Dhan Foundation, says: “The Vaigai used to fill at least 2,000 tanks. Most of the channels that took the Vaigai water into these tanks have vanished over the years owing to unchecked growth of residential areas. As new settlements do not have proper drainage systems, sewage is discharged into the Vaigai. Unless and until these housing areas get proper drainage systems, pollution in the Vaigai cannot be controlled.”

Laying emphasis on the responsibility of the civic bodies, Ms. Kanagavalli says, “High Court directives alone cannot prevent pollution of the river. There should be a strong will among the authorities to clear encroachments from the river and a sense of responsibility among the public to stop dumping garbage into the river,” she concludes.

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