The Hindu archive is a treasure trove. One can tirelessly dip into it not just for nostalgic pleasure, but also to get a glimpse of decades of serious city reporting, which enable a critical reflection of the present, particularly when it comes to civic conditions.

This week I did just that — went back in time. The provocation was the budget announcement and an earlier news report about plans to spend thousands of crores of rupees to clean the rivers in Chennai.

I share two important photographs and some texts from The Hindu archive to illustrate why such announcements evoke only scepticism and how, over the years, civic decadence has set in.

The photo of Adyar River shot in 1959 shows a clean, accessible and beautiful landscape. Playful children, green trees, clean water and men rowing capture a blissful place. The other photo taken in 1961 is that of Buckingham canal near Hamilton Bridge, Mylapore. The canal is navigable, fire wood is transported back and forth and traffic is fairly dense. In 50 years, these waterways have turned into open drains overflowing with filth and sewage leading to our losing beautiful public spaces and impoverishing ourselves.

If the city administration is one big housekeeping exercise, we come through as the most incapable housekeepers.

This is not to say that things were perfect in the past. Even then, the city’s rivers had problems, but back then, there was a low tolerance towards inefficiency.

One of the earliest reports in The Hindu, dating back to January 1895, lamented the deteriorating conditions of the waterways. When a major scheme to improve the Cooum was announced in 1901, the newspaper edit complained that such schemes are‘as old to us as the fetid odours that the river emits.’ Despite numerous suggestions, ‘the Cooum and its nuisance continue to be the same as ever’, it admonished.

But governors in the past admitted that they had failed, and took responsibility for their failures. Citizens on their part repeatedly demanded that authorities commit themselves to keeping the city clean. Somewhere in between though, the vigil was lost. Indifference set in and the rivers rapidly deteriorated.

Post independence, in 1953, a Cooum improvement committee was set up. Nothing much came of it. It was upgraded to a high-power committee in 1960, and it drew up a proposal for more than Rs. 4 crore. Even after ten years, only a fraction of the work it proposed was completed. Another major scheme costing Rs. 194 crore was prepared in 1987, only to be followed by another project in 1995 for which the Central government sanctioned Rs. 80 crore.

What has happened to these projects? Before one can get an answer, another major river cleaning project was launched in 2000 at a cost of Rs. 490 crore, followed by another in 2006 and another in 2009. If the last scheme estimated the cost of cleaning to be Rs. 1,200 crore, the newly-proposed project, it appears, is going to be ten times bigger.

Enough has been spent on the waterways. Will the authorities guarantee that this time they will disclose their objectives and guarantee completion?

We need our rivers back, and we also need more accountability.

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