The silent sufferers

Even with civic apathy at its worst, Bharathi Nagar has not hit the headlines because the residents have long endured such problems, says GOUTAM GHOSH.

BEYOND MOOLAKKADAI junction in north Chennai, Grand North Trunk Road to the east is at its worst. The potholes on this north Chennai arterial road are deceptive. Their depth can never be guessed after rain. As few can focus in two different directions at the same time, it is challenging to keep an eye open for a zone and another on the road simultaneously. Bharathi Nagar (not M.K.B. Nagar alias Mahakavi Bharathi Nagar) though over 40 years old is not as easy to spot as its peer, Sarma Nagar that sits across the street.

As you drive down the slope, you will come across a waterway that used to flow into the Buckingham Canal a decade or so ago. Not anymore. "The flow was cut off after Ambedkar College was built. Whatever little flow remained has been blocked by the garbage dumped into it," said Patchaikani, a journalist working for a vernacular daily.

Not far from this stinking mess that offers a breeding ground for mosquitoes is a rectangular pit under which runs a water pipeline supplying the local houses. "The water that you see is from a hole in the pipe. When the pressure is high, the water in this pit overflows. And when the pressure falls, the water re-enters the pipeline. After rain, the pit is flooded with water from the canal and this contaminated water finally gets supplied to the residents. It stinks," claimed some of the residents who overcame their hesitation to share their woes.

The silent sufferers

A huge well close by could not be ignored. The diameter of the open well was over 20 feet and the water level was 30 feet below the road level. "There is nearly 40 feet of water even now," said Patchaikani and Kamaraj. The outside edge of the well was hardly a foot high. There were some steel beams across the top with some wire nets covering a small part of it. There were houses all round except on the road by which was the well. That the gaping, open well was potentially dangerous for children should be obvious. Though the well has claimed no child so far, one could fall in one day.

Another well some 100m away was stashed with garbage. There was a dog lazing on the garbage pile and the residents claimed it had been living in the well for over three years. None had tried to rescue it. This well too was as large as the first but had been filled almost completely with garbage. Though the safety measures to prevent an accidental fall were as impressive as in the first, the residents said there was no risk because the water remained invisible unless it rained heavily and the wells overflowed. The edge of this well too was barely a foot high but an adult could climb out of it. The garbage pile therefore was nearly 65 feet high from the bottom of the well.

One could not help but be amazed at the residents' apathy to keep the well clean. Though the Chennai Corporation had built a garbage hut with tiled walls about 20m away from the well, it was filled with what seemed to be firewood. The residents obviously preferred to dump their garbage in the wells.

A short walk away was the third almost identical well in which there was a floating layer of plastic garbage - plastic bottles and sheets. Despite the garbage, the water seemed to be clean. "We no longer use the water from the well. How can we when it is so dirty?" said Krishnan (69).

The most striking feature of this residential area was the three huge, deep wells, which if cleaned and linked to slopes from the road could easily recharge the aquifer with rainwater. Bharathi Nagar seems to have learnt to live with water shortage and other irritants. The residents got water connections only recently.

The silent sufferers

There is no doubt that the wells can be cleaned and then covered with strong nets that could prevent mishaps and trap garbage. The wells can hold a large volume of rainwater, which could then recharge the ground aquifer. The area has endured severe water scarcity during summer in the past, so the weathered residents seem to know that nothing could be worse. But Bharathi Nagar has not hit the headlines because the people there seem to be peace loving, belonging to a disadvantaged group - the lower middle class.

"We have alerted the civic body about the problems with our wells but it has not helped. No action has been taken even though several leaders and bureaucrats have visited the area many times already," said Kamalakanthan and R. Raja. Whether the civic bodies take action or not, there is no denying that the wells can help recharge the aquifer. This is what Bharathi Nagar needs - badly. Bharathi Nagar, Shanthi Nagar, Kakkanji Colony, B.V. Colony and Chozhan Nagar also need proper sanitation. The residents said that though they cleared the dues for their plots in the World Bank-aided scheme decades ago, they were yet to get their sale deeds from the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board.

A short drive down Erukkancherry High Road was the Vyasarpadi subway below the railway track that is infamous for its ability to freeze traffic after a burst of rain. The mid-day traffic density was high, with vehicles trying to squeeze past one another and shoot through the subway quickly. A local traffic policeman said, "It is difficult to handle the vehicles after rain when the subway begins to float in water. The problem could be solved if there was a causeway at a higher level for cyclists and other two-wheelers."

Given the space on either side of the supporting masonry of the subway, the causeways could be built, just as a causeway for two-wheelers exists between the Vyasarpadi and Perambur subways. That would take care of the traffic snarls that seem inevitable today after a cloudburst. The Perambur subway and the Vyasarpadi subway are two crucial links between north and south Chennai. Wouldn't you wonder why keeping the wells clean seemed to catch our civic officials napping? Isn't rainwater harvesting an oft-repeated mantra these days?

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