A new light on British-era stormwater drains in Madras

Back then as now, lack of maintenance was the problem, says researcher Viswanathan Venkataraman

August 27, 2022 10:06 pm | Updated September 01, 2022 01:27 pm IST

File photo

File photo

Viswanathan Venkataraman, who is pursuing a doctorate on the history of water supply and drainage infrastructure in colonial era Madras city with the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the Department of History, King’s College London, says British-era stormwater drains suffered from the same scourge afflicting SWD networks today: Lack of maintenance.

Viswanathan says the ones built then were mainly masonry drains covered with RCC slabs. “They were deemed superior to what they replaced in many places — earthen ditch drains. In areas like George Town, they were built to supplement the even older masonry underground arch drains (built in early 1800s under the East Indian company) which were crumbling due to lack of proper maintenance. So more than the material used, it was maintenance that was an issue then as it is now,” says Viswanathan in response to questions over email.

According to Viswanathan, the city had only 20 miles of masonry stormwater drains, mainly in George Town, by 1940 as against a total road mileage of 480. “Given these inadequacies, we need to be wary of nostalgic views that see British era drainage in the city as something that has stood the test of time,” says the Adambakkam resident.

The same goes for British-era sewage pumping stations like the one at Napier Park, Langs Garden, North and South Mylapore.

“The number of pumping stations has increased manifold since the 1940s but the fact that some of the British era stations continue to function suggests there might be some vintage machinery or practices surviving in those locations,” he says.

To a question on what the city can do to maintain an inventory of old drains and maps, Viswanathan says the Greater Chennai Corporation could initiate a project of bringing together all old reports, drawings, maps on water supply and drainage in the areas under its jurisdiction. This will help in making an assessment of what can be preserved and how to build on them, says the researcher.

There is some inspiration that Chennai can take from the West.

Paris has a museum of sewers, which takes one through a tour of the sewerage network of the city. London has a museum of water and steam, located in one of the city’s defunct water pumping stations, exhibiting vintage pumping engines.

He says when the city’s water supply system was introduced in the 1860s, Chennai was one of the biggest cities in the world, larger than Manchester or Birmingham, and the engineering challenge in building such systems was just as novel.

How did Viswanathan take up this topic for his PhD? His interest in the subject was sparked by the Chennai floods of 2015.

“As a series of discussions about what caused these floods, and how they could be prevented in the future were unfolding in the public sphere, I thought a good place to think through these problems was by pursuing the historical record. To my surprise, I found very little historical research in this area,” says the engineer.

In London, the British Library is his source of information as it contains a number of useful resources on Madras.

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