City awash with dreams of a clean Cooum

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T. Ramakrishnan

Since the earliest proposal was mooted in 1890, the river has been bothering citizens and policymakers alike

CHENNAI: The Cooum question never vanishes. C.N. Annadurai, former Chief Minister, once described the Cooum river as a black spot on the fair face of Chennai.

Eleven months ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too had made a reference to the river. Dr Singh, who laid the foundation stone in January for the elevated corridor project from Chennai Port to Maduravoyal, said the Cooum would get beautified by the corridor project.

Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, at a function last week, called for realising Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s “dream project” — Cooum beautification.

Ever since the earliest recorded proposal was mooted in 1890, the river, characterised by pollution and the presence of squalid shanties, has always been bothering Chennai citizens and policymakers alike.

Victim of urbanisation?

One can argue that the Cooum is a victim of urbanisation. But the fact is that this natural watercourse has, over the years, been reduced to a carrier of sullage, sewage and even cattle wash. Officially speaking, there are 127 identified sewage outfalls into the river, out of which 85 are in use. A study revealed that 21 types of fish species were found in the river in the late 1970s but, not any more.

The banks of the river have been the “living space” for thousands of families. Citing the 2003 enumeration, an official of the Water Resources Department (WRD) of the Public Works Department (PWD) says that 9, 000 families are among the encroachers. About 450 commercial establishments have also encroached upon the banks of the watercourse.

Core problem

However, the core problem of the Cooum has been that due to the sand bar, the river mouth near the Napier Bridge gets blocked for most of the time, preventing the river water from draining into the sea. This has, eventually, made the river, in its 18-km-long stretch in Chennai, a stinking cesspool .

In September 1967, six months after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam captured power for the first time in the State, Chief Minister Annadurai inaugurated the Cooum Improvement Scheme. Mr Karunanidhi was Public Works Minister then.

Installation of a regulator and a sand pump at the river mouth, protecting the sides of the river with cement concrete slabs from the Chetput bridge to the Napier Bridge, provision of a walkway on either side of the river, removal of encroachments on the banks of the river and more importantly, the diversion of sewage were all carried out.

Besides, seven boat jetties were built. Roving boats, powered boats and paddle boats, “all safe and sleek” to quote former civil servant A. Padmanabhan (who was the PWD Secretary in the early 1970s), were made available at a nominal charge. All these works cost the government about Rs. 2.2 crore. At a gala function in February 1973, Mr Karunanidhi, who was the CM then too, inaugurated a pleasure boat service. But, the experiment failed as the sand pump developed snags.


When the DMK returned to power in 1996, the government made another bid – this time covering all important watercourses. The Buckingham Canal and the Adyar were also included. Supported substantially by the Union Environment and Forests Ministry, the Rs.1,200-crore Chennai City River Conservation Project (CCRCP) took off in January 2001. This time, it was aimed at arresting the sewage outfalls and strengthening the sewer network.

After years of implementation, the government, in a recent release, said that as the Project did not cover Tiruvallur district (which accounts for 54 km of the Cooum river stretch), it did not yield desired results.

After the DMK took charge in May 2006, the eco-restoration of the Cooum again came to the fore. To facilitate the implementation of the project, the Chennai River Authority, headed by the Deputy Chief Minister, has been formed. This will, among others, coordinate the implementation of various projects.

The State is carrying out the World Bank-funded Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water Bodies Restoration and Management Project, under which the upper reaches of the river are proposed to be covered. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission envisages the execution of a number of water supply and sewerage projects in the city and peri-urban areas. Under the elevated corridor project, 7,400 families, living on the banks of the river, will be covered under the resettlement and rehabilitation component. Officials say Mr.Stalin is keen on executing the Cooum beautification project in a period shorter than 10 years that Singapore took in cleaning its river.

The Chennai citizens are waiting for a day when the Cooum symbolizes cleanliness, if not fragrance.

(With inputs from K. Lakshmi and Liffy Thomas)




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