Almost all of Chennai sank during the recent rains and many, including Union Minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu, attributed the magnitude of the catastrophe to encroachments on waterbodies and river courses.
During a meeting with him last Sunday, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa too urged the Centre to allot Rs. 5,000 crore for providing alternative housing to around 50,000 families residing along Adyar and Cooum rivers besides Buckingham Canal and other waterways.
Days later, passing interim orders on a public interest litigation petition, the First Division Bench of the Madras High Court led by Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul directed the State government to ensure that there was no further encroachment on water courses.
It was followed by another interim order passed by the second Division Bench of the High Court led by Justice Satish K. Agnihotri who directed the government not to permit any kind of construction activity on waterbodies across the State.
What many missed to notice was a warning given by the Madras High Court Bench here on August 6 last year while disposing of a PIL petition to protect waterbodies from encroachments.
It was a Division Bench of Justices V. Ramasubramanian and V.M. Velumani that expressed shock over alarming rate of encroachments on waterbodies in Chennai, Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore, and issued a slew of directions for protecting them.
Culling out statistics from status reports filed by the Engineer-in-Chief, Water Resources Organisation, Public Works Department, the Bench said that there were 34 rivers in the State, grouped into 17 major river basins and 127 sub basins.
It also stated that the total surface water potential of the State was 853 tmcft, including 275 tmcft expected to be realised from neighbouring States. There were 89 dams in various districts across the State with a total storage capacity of 238.58 tmcft.
The count of the number of waterbodies in the State was 39,202. Of them 13,699 major tanks were maintained by the Water Resources Department and only 3,701 of those were fully protected by surveying their expanse, evicting encroachers and laying boundary stones.
Pointing out that 10,000 waterbodies in the State were not fully protected even as per the admission of the officials, the judges expressed awe over several crores of rupees allotted for a number of projects undertaken by the State for restoration of waterbodies.
Writing the judgement for the Division Bench, Mr. Justice Ramasubramanian said: “The total outlay for the schemes and projects undertaken by the State… is mind boggling and it shows that money flows much faster than water. If the entire outlay as indicated in the status reports is actually spent on the above projects with all vigour and vitality, the entire State may see a Green Revolution. But we do not know where and to what extent there could be seepage or leakage not only of water.”
The judgement had also taken serious note of the PWD itself having given consent for conversion of many waterbodies into building sites even for locating government establishments on the premise that those waterbodies had fallen into disuse.
“The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court itself is an example of a government building on a waterbody. What was once Ulaganeri, a huge lake, is said to have fallen into disuse and the High Court itself has come up on the said land,” the judge lamented.
Hence, he directed the State government to issue appropriate directions, which were mandatory in nature, to all local bodies not to grant planning permission for any construction on a waterbody.
He also ordered that Local Planning Authorities and Metropolitan Development Authorities should be directed not to grant approval for any layout or building plan if the land concerned was located either in part or in whole in a waterbody.
“The government may also contemplate issuing an order under the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act to the effect that every application for building plan or layout approval should be accompanied by a certificate of the Revenue authority that no part of the land is located in a waterbody. The persons issuing such certificates should be held responsible for any wrong information provided in the certificate. Further, the preservation and protection of the waterbodies, already undertaken by the department, shall be completed within a period of one year.
“No civil court shall be competent to grant any interim protection order restraining any local body or Revenue Department from evicting a person from a waterbody,” the judgement passed on the PIL petition, filed by advocate R. Lakshmanan of Madurai, read.
Commenting on it now, the advocate said: “Chennai may not have suffered as much damage as it suffered if the officials had complied with the directions issued by the Madurai Bench last year in letter and spirit.”