The Corporation of Chennai has only one method of cleaning the city's 1,660 km of storm water drains. And it is terribly out-of-date.
It is one of the most off-putting sights in ‘Singaara Chennai.’ The Corporation of Chennai periodically removes silt or sludge from the hundreds of kilometres of storm water drains in the State capital, but the entire system is not even Victorian in its level of sophistication.
As the accompanying picture taken over the weekend in Kodambakkam shows, the muck is simply dumped on to the footpath, where it will either dry in bright weather, or be swept right back into the drain in a flash shower.
What is most surprising is the hypocrisy of the Corporation. It claims credit for how it goes about the job. According to the website of the civic body, the drains are maintained well. When they are cleaned “the removed silt is cleared immediately and transported to the designated place in departmental vehicles.”
As anyone who lives in Chennai knows, this is totally at variance with the truth. The Corporation will not transfer the silt until it has dried up – often not for weeks. That can pose serious problems when the available road space is clogged with a couple of million vehicles, and a massive pedestrian population struggles to even use the broken footpaths.
The deep ecologist Lewis Mumford said, “Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition the mind.” What kind of mind would form in a city that recklessly tosses all manner of waste in its open spaces, for people to tread upon, for trucks and buses to disperse across already filthy roads?
The lack of cleanliness as an ethic is so visible all over Chennai, that people are willing to tolerate ever higher levels of muck. This attitude is antithetical to the visions of modernity that have been painted about the metropolis; if a cleaning system cannot be upgraded in tune with the times, just how much of planned development is actually taking place here? All those glossy real estate advertised, the expensive flats, villas and gated communities - are they not essentially afloat in muck that is periodically removed and simply dumped on the roads around?
The indifference of the civic body to the unclean work that workers and contract labour have to perform is too glaring and disturbing. It is also in the process of constructing more drains, so it needs to rethink its methods.
What the Corporation needs to do is to draw up a time-table for storm water drain clean-ups. They need vehicles that will shift the sludge in a matter of minutes, after the workers have pulled it out using proper tools, not themselves soaking in the gooey stuff. Let the civic body and the Tamil Nadu government not wait for another round of litigation as it happened in the case of the manual scavenging issue, which had a bearing on the working of Metrowater. Let us have some genuine leadership on basic issues of city management.