An ambitious plan to revive the Buckingham Canal

The Buckingham Canal was once the preferred choice for ferrying goods along coastal Andhra Pradesh. An ambitious plan to not only restore the British-era canal to its past glory but also extend its course is now afoot.

Updated - August 05, 2017 03:37 pm IST

Published - August 05, 2017 12:15 am IST

“The meandering Buckingham Canal from Kakinada to Pulicat lake in Andhra Pradesh is sometimes picturesque, in places full of filth, and disappears at places only to reappear after a few miles.” The polluted canal water near Krishnapatnam port in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh.

“The meandering Buckingham Canal from Kakinada to Pulicat lake in Andhra Pradesh is sometimes picturesque, in places full of filth, and disappears at places only to reappear after a few miles.” The polluted canal water near Krishnapatnam port in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh.

Three decades after lack of patronage forced him to dispose of his two boats, 70-year-old Peeta Satyanarayana still cycles his way to the site of the Commamuru lock that controls the flow of water in the Buckingham Canal and makes it navigation-worthy. He comes here often to catch a glimpse of the placid waters of the canal as he strikes up conversations near a vantage point close to the British-era lock with fishermen, who wait eagerly, their ears trained for familiar sounds of splashing in the nets — the sign of a good catch.

“How can I forget this canal that fed me and my family? The advent of lorries has snatched away my boats and livelihood but I cannot forget the canal and never miss an opportunity to visit the place,” says the frail Satyanarayana. In his youth, he used to run his two boats, one of them inherited from his boatman father. The boats fetched a decent income and he oversaw the work of 10 labourers who would load tonnes of sand and unload them at Tenali 50 km away. The sand from the canal fetched a decent income.

“It was back-breaking work, manually lugging the boat. What kept our spirits up were songs we sang together,” Satyanarayana reminisces. Today he is reduced to taking care of his one acre-farm with a farm hand. His son has shifted gears to become a car driver. As he blames motorised transportation for ruining his livelihood, he cannot escape the irony of his son’s dependence on a car. When told about the government’s proposal to revive navigation on the Buckingham Canal, a process involving deepening through dredging and widening it, his eyes light up. “Really, is it? That is great news. My son and I will get back to boating”.

The grand revival plan


Trailing the meandering Buckingham Canal from Kakinada to Pulicat lake in Andhra Pradesh, a distance of 560 km, one finds that it is sometimes picturesque, in places full of filth, and disappearing at places only to reappear after a few miles. The colour of the water changes from light blue to brown and black. People living along the canal share stories of despair and hope, as the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) braces to revive this asset, once a watery vein criss-crossing the coastal Andhra landscape that ushered in prosperity by integrating navigation, irrigation and fishing.

A ₹2,000-crore plan announced by the Central government last year for rejuvenation looks ambitious in its sweep as it aims to cover 1,095 km. It is much more than the originally planned course from Kakinada to Kalapettai comprising Kakinada Canal (Kakinada to Rajahmundry: 50 km), Eluru Canal (Rajahmundry to Eluru: 74 km), Krishna Eluru Canal (Eluru to Vijayawada: 65 km), Commamuru Canal (Vijayawada to Peddaganjam: 113 km) and North Buckingham Canal (Pedda Ganjam to Tada: 258 km) — all in Andhra Pradesh. But for the North Buckingham Canal which is partly tidal, all others are fresh water-based. In Tamil Nadu, the revival plan covers South Buckingham Canal: Chennai to Marakkanam (110 km) and Marakkanam to Kalapettai in Puducherry (22 km).

The plan now, as finalised by the IWAI, is to extend it to the Godavari river system from Bhadrachalam (in Telangana) to Rajahmundry covering a distance of 171 km; and to the Krishna river system from Wazirabad (Telangana) to Pulichintala near Vijayawada (157 km). A MoU has been signed by the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government to get the project going through a special purpose vehicle and involves the Visakhapatnam Port Trust. The idea is to develop the waterway to Class-III navigation standards for running 1,000-tonne-capacity vessels.

The men by the canal

Gunasekhar’s ancestors had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Dugarajapatnam and then Aragatapalem abutting Krishnapatnam port in Nellore district. “Ever since the port and three thermal power plants came up nearby, my boating and fishing area have been reduced to just about two kilometres,” he laments, pointing to the tidal wave stretch of the Buckingham Canal full of blackish sludge, apparently waste flowing from the port. The place where many boats used to dock is now an open-air toilet.

It is a daily grind for Gunasekhar as he has to manoeuvre his boat through the sludge and spread the net for catching the fish. At adjacent Ramanagaram, fishermen showed three “obstructions”, temporary roads laid by power plants over the canal restricting their fishing area to a few patches. They are all gung-ho about the proposal to clean up the mess and restore the canal. At Pedda Ganjam, a number of salt pans and shrimp ponds have come up perilously close to the canal.

Yet there are stretches like Eluru to Nidadavolu and Tadepalligudem to Rajahmundry forming part of the Eluru Canal where the water looks reasonably fresh, the canal wider and navigation is alive and kicking. At Nandamuru, profusely sweating labourers are shifting sand from a boat to two lorries — a far cry from the days when the canal was used not only for transporting sand but also foodgrain. “Though the number of boats has come down and they only fetch sand now, they still run here as the fare costs are cheap,” says Muralikrishna, the boat owner.

Incidentally Nandamuru presents a picturesque sight — a rail track, the highway and the canal running parallel to each other. The British kept extending the canal leveraging their engineering prowess, and for over a century and a half it withstood cyclones, tidal waves and a tsunami. From the initial 17-km stretch from Chennai North to Ennore (1806), it extended to Pulicat lake, a distance of 40 km, built first by businessman Basil Cochrane and then under British governance, and winding up to Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, then part of Madras Presidency. A part of this extension of the canal was for providing work to the people affected by the Great Famine of 1876-78 in the region.

Glorious past, gloomy present

Originally called Cochrane Canal in 1806, it was then called Lord Clive’s Canal for a brief while. It finally became Buckingham Canal in 1878 as it was on the order of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos — as Governor of Madras — that the extension of the canal was taken up to help people affected by famine. Buckingham it was and has come to be. Extension work began and the Buckingham Canal stretched gradually to Kakinada further north in Andhra Pradesh and to Markkanam south of Chennai.

Details of the working of the Buckingham Canal and how it brought prosperity to the coastal belt were recorded meticulously in late 19th century district gazetteers of Kistna district, as Krishna used to be called in those days. The cyclones of 1965-66 and 1976 however struck a blow, damaging the multipurpose canal in some places, while the arrival of road and rail transportation led to the slow death of navigation barring a few stretches.

Clearly, the worst part of the Buckingham Canal as it stands today are the urban sprawls of Vijayawada, Tenali, Eluru and Kakinada from where it struggles to snake through. Look at the coastal town of Cocanada that evolved to today’s Kakinada, the starting point of the revival project. The picture it presents on either side of the British-built bridge is quite a contrast. If one side, opening into the Bay of Bengal, brims with port activity, the other side connecting the Buckingham Canal, locally called Kakinada Canal, remains quiet. In the days of yore, this part of Kakinada too might have seen activity matching the port, moving goods from ships on to the boats and ferrying them as far away as Vijayawada. The quay from where the cargo was carried inland now lies hidden behind a host of encroachments, one-room houses, temples, a petrol bunk, timber depot and rows of shops vending knick-knacks.

Mounds of garbage have shrunk its width while a sheet of hyacinth covering the water reflects the poor health of the canal. “As a teenager, I have seen many boats carrying coconut, foodgrain and fertilizers. Then sand used to be brought from Rajahmundry. But all that has stopped now,” says 68-year-old V. Ramu, a hamali (labourer) who used to help in loading and unloading.

It is the same story of neglect and apathy at Vijayawada and Eluru. Close to the Prakasam barrage in Vijayawada, the channel from where the boats used to enter Krishna river and the place where they used to dock were filled with debris just before Krishna Pushkaram, the river festival held last year. In Eluru, the canal passing through the middle of the town is reduced to a sewer line. The bunds on either side have a string of statues of public figures, temples, fruit and tea shops. The western locks near the bus stand that used to control the flow of water lie in a dilapidated state.

The Tamil Nadu stretch

A view of the South Buckingham Canal at Mamallapuram, Chennai.

A view of the South Buckingham Canal at Mamallapuram, Chennai.


The situation is no different in Chennai. The waterway has shrunk and degraded into a sewage carrier in many stretches over the decades. Though navigation was suspended in the 1960s, the canal continues to be a source of livelihood to people of many coastal hamlets on the fringes of the city. The canal, which is even 40-50 m wide in some portions between Pulicat and Ennore, has drastically shrunk near Ennore and heavily silted with fly ash deposits dumped by thermal power stations. As the waterway enters Chennai, it is a victim of rampant pollution due to sewage and floating garbage. The Mass Rapid Transit System built right on the bed of the Buckingham Canal is the biggest encroachment in Chennai. The urban stretch of the canal running for about 40 km between Ennore and Sholinganallur was left out of the National Waterway 4 project as it was polluted and declared not navigable.

The remaining portion of the South Buckingham Canal is not without its share of problems. The canal is even 80-100 m wide in places like Pulicat, Ennore, Muttukadu, Pudupattinam and Marakkanam where it joins the sea. But it has shrunk to less than 10-m width in some stretches like Kalpakkam and heavily encroached upon.

Many old-timers narrate tales of boats transporting goods through the Buckingham Canal until the late 1960s. V. Paramasivam of Mamallapuram says the canal was the main mode of transportation about five decades ago and letters used to be transported in boats from Mamallapuram to Muttukadu. “I remember watching boats on the canal. Men along the banks used to pull the boats with ropes to help smooth sailing,” he says.

Challenges aplenty ahead

A gargantuan task awaits the Centre, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu governments. After decades of neglect, revival of the Buckingham Canal came into focus after it was declared as National Waterway 4 in 2008. This itself came about after studies showed that the canal acted as a buffer and had saved many lives and properties when a tsunami hit the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coast in December 2004. Taking a leaf out of the Britishers’ vision for the canal, ambitious plans were drawn, but work on the ground has remained slow and tardy.

Challenges are plenty — from maintaining the water level in the canal, removal of the very many bridges built haphazardly on its course, and encroachments on the canal bunds in the towns, among others. Yerneni Nagendranath, former member of the Krishna, Godavari, Pennar Delta Drainage Board, is sceptical: “People may want it and it may look possible on the drawing board but one needs to be cautious while executing it. For instance, Krishna river, on which a major part of the revival project rests, has been receiving less inflows with upstream States taking up irrigation projects with renewed vigour.” Also, he says, 80% of the new bridges across the canal built over the last two-three decades will have to be demolished, besides the need to acquire land for widening the canal. “After all the spending, will there be patronage given the rapid strides in transportation by road and rail?”

But I.S.N. Raju, former Chief Engineer of Irrigation of Andhra Pradesh, disagrees and contends most of the canal is intact and all that is needed is dredging and widening. “It is a long-pending environment-friendly transportation project and should be taken up,” he says.

That overcoming such challenges is indeed a tough call is indicated by the way the IWAI has chosen a much easier option. It has taken up “development” of the 82 km Muktyala-Vijayawada component of the 157-km-long Wazirabad-Pulichintala stretch of the Krishna river. “We need to take up something which is commercially viable and could be completed in the shortest period of time. We chose this component as it links about 14 cement plants in the hinterland of Muktyala to the [under-construction] capital Amaravati. By 2018, we can run 500- to 1,000-tonne vessels, cutting short the road route by 50 km,” says V. Sridhar, Deputy Director of IWAI, Vijayawada. In Tamil Nadu, the development of National Waterway 4 has taken a back seat with the IWAI shifting its office from Chennai to Vijayawada last year.

Three years ago, elaborate plans were devised to develop the stretch between Pulicat and Ennore and Sholinganallur and Marakkanam to enable cargo vessels of around 300-tonne capacity and passenger vessels to navigate the waterway. It remains a non-starter due to issues between IWAI and the previous Tamil Nadu government over the project.

While the Tamil Nadu government is yet to decide on resuming the project, it has set the ball rolling for desilting and widening of the Buckingham Canal between Ennore and Muttukadu.

Dredging work has just begun on Muktyala-Vijayawada stretch for the completion of which ₹81 crore is estimated. The overall estimate of ₹2,000 crore is just preliminary. When the actual restoration work on the canal from Kakinada to Chennai begins, it is expected to run into hundreds of crores. For instance, the first-phase work from Kakinada to Vijayawada alone is estimated to cost over ₹6,000 crore, including land acquisition on either side of the canal. But it is all worth it for the people living by the side of the canal, for whom restoring the waterway could mean a new lifeline.

With inputs from K. Lakshmi

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.