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Mucking out the Cooum

Members from the Transparent Chennai team attended the public consultation on the Cooum River Restoration Project on 13th June 2013 at the PWD Office in Chepauk. The Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT) had appointed LKS Group from Spain to come up with a plan to restore the Cooum River. The meeting began with a presentation that described the project, identified problems, and proposed solutions. This was followed by a Q&A session, where members of the public could raise questions and express concerns.

For the most part, the brief presentation by the LKS team consisted of context-less pictures showing pollution along and in the river, location of slums on the flood plain, and proposed solutions for sewage and garbage disposal with parks and cycling tracks for the public[1]. Three solutions were proposed for slums along the river – in-situ rehabilitation, rehabilitation within the same radius, or resettlement at a faraway location (in case the other alternatives were not viable). However, the presentation did not include detailed findings from studies or surveys with information like total project cost, percentage of slums that fall under flood-prone areas, or details of slums that could be rehabilitated in-situ and those that would have to be resettled.

Public opinion ranged from environmental concerns to concerns about measures to rehabilitate the affected slum dwellers; the need to prevent pollution of the river caused by sewage disposal; the need for measures to deal with vector-borne diseases; the lack of clarity on the expenditure on and the timeline of the project; and concerns about co-ordination between various government agencies in the implementation of the project. While a few people welcomed the idea of having a beautiful riverfront similar to Singapore and London, most people present at the meeting were concerned about the seeming inevitability of large-scale displacement of slum dwellers.

Many slum dwellers expressed support for clean-up of the river but voiced concerns about its effects on the lives of people living in informal settlements along the river. The recent history of slum policies in the city suggests that their concerns are valid: though the project charted out three solutions for affected informal settlements along the river, the third option of relocation has been the one most frequently adopted in recent times. Although there are schemes like the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) that prioritize in-situ rehabilitation, the TNSCB has not implemented an in-situ slum improvement project in Chennai in many years. Many slum dwellers are daily wage laborers, or work in the informal sector. Relocating them to far-flung resettlement colonies such as Kannagi Nagar, Semmencheri, etc. (which are ironically, also susceptible to flooding[2]) can destroy their livelihoods. Moreover, when people are relocated, the houses that they are allotted have historically had very poor living conditions, with limited access to basic services especially when they are first moved. Hence, members of the public insisted that the project must not rely on the relocation option.

Louis Menezes, a former IAS officer who once headed the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, pointed out that there is evidence to show that Metrowater is largely responsible for discharge of sewage into the river. He referenced a study conducted many years ago that found that the government is responsible for approximately 90% of the sewage outflow into the river, but pointed out that the Government has not taken any measures to stop its own pollution. He also claimed that the bigger institutions and companies that have encroached upon the banks of the river,and might also be contributors of pollution are usually untouched. Instead, slum dwellers are often erroneously assumed to be the main cause of pollution, and this has often been used as an excuse to evict them[3].

Attendees at the consultation also asserted that by not advertising the public consultation adequately, and by holding the meeting at a location that was far away from the affected sites, the public consultation was cooptation in disguise. The meeting did not include many of the residents from the river banks who would actually be affected by this project. There was only limited representation from community groups and NGOs, who spoke on behalf of the affected persons. Although this project would involve multiple government agencies like Metrowater, Corporation, and the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, their representatives were also not present to answer public queries. There was also no time for the public to reflect on the details presented and revert with questions.

Unfortunately, when pressed for various project details, the consultants didn’t have answers to most questions that were raised but promised to revert with details, and make available project details at their office. The consultants said that as the project included many components, it was unable to provide cost estimates at this stage.

To us, as observers of the event, it seemed that the project proposal lacked a true public purpose as the focus was not on providing necessary services to those who live on the river banks such as water and sewerage connections, transportation to schools and places of work, health facilities, etc. Paths for walking and cycling and landscaped parks are important civic amenities, but they are not the most urgent current needs of city residents.

With all the allegations of the government being responsible for polluting the Cooum, and squandering away public money for beautification projects, we need clear details before we will actually see clear waters in the Cooum.

[1]The Hindu.
[2]Economic and Political Weekly, 45, 21.

Written by Nidhi Subramanyam and Diana Evangeline, interns, Transparent Chennai