The more you look at other cities in the world, the more miserable you feel about Chennai. If other cities are undoing their past mistakes, embracing best practices and creating better places to live, Chennai planers adamantly pursue disastrous ideas.
Let us compare Seoul and Chennai. One common problem: a canal in the city, but two vastly different attitudes and outcomes. In the middle of Seoul, which has a population of more than 10 million, runs Cheonggyecheon canal. This natural water course was extensively developed into an efficient drainage network by the end of the 18th century. However, over a period of time, as the population grew, this water body was ignored and it eventually turned into an open sewer. Instead of cleaning the canal, the city authorities decided to bury it. By 1977, Cheonggyecheon was covered with concrete and a 6-km long elevated road was constructed over it. This created more problems.
In 2002, the newly elected mayor promised to restore the river and pull down the elevated road. He kept his word, and, in 2003, restoration of Cheonggyecheon commenced. The concrete cover was ripped out, the elevated road dismantled and water system innovatively revived. The entire project was completed in just two years. As a result, the city got back a vibrant public space with well-designed pedestrian pathways. Today, Cheonggyecheon canal is one of the most visited places in Seoul and attracts about 90,000 visitors a day. It is celebrated as an internationally-acclaimed urban development project.
Chennai is a study in contrast. The Buckingham canal, which is about 425 km long, runs through the entire length of Chennai and beyond. It is substantially longer than Cheonggyecheon and has more potential. However, it never got the attention it deserved. Only for a brief period, between 1960 and 1969, there was some hope that Buckingham Canal would get a fresh lease of life. During this time, about Rs. 60 lakh was spent to make it suitable for navigation. Wharfs were constructed in Chintadripet and Mylapore, and restrooms built for boatmen.
Just when people began looking forward to a boat ride and walk along the restored canal, in 1969, the government changed its course. It abruptly concluded that the Buckingham canal was not used much after the advent of lorries and hence not needed. By closing it, one can get rid of the sluggish dirty water, it argued. In place of the canal, a railway line was again proposed.
The government did another flip flop in 1971. It changed its mind and sought to revive the canal. Studies were commissioned in 1985 and again in 1996. The truth is that the government was never genuinely interested in restoring the canal. Since 1975, unmindful of the consequence, the State silently pursued the elevated MRTS railway track along the canal. Contrary to public assurances, the MRTS project extensively damaged the water body and severely limited any possible navigation plans. Even a public interest litigation filed in 1996 failed to stop the government’s badly conceptualised plans.
Today, the pathetic state of Buckingham Canal is there for everyone to see. However, all is not lost. There is still a long stretch of the canal, south of Tiruvanmiyur, that can be effectively used. Ditto with the stretch north of Ennore. Can we dream of a well-landscaped Buckingham Canal which will allow us to cycle up to Mamallapuram; a simple arrangement to row boats; kilometres-long grand public space for everyone to use? The canal within the city and along the MRTS too can be protected from further damage. The banks of this stretch too can have cycling and pedestrian tracks. All that is needed is genuine will and commitment to improve the city.
Will the new Mayor turn around the city and restore our waterways and public spaces? Or will we continue to remain a badly-planned city?