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Cleaning Up The Cooum  
Source:   New Indian Express City   : Chennai Published On   22-12-2009  



Adopting the Singapore model to beautify the Cooum is not very convincing. While the Singapore River Cleaning project was environment-centric, the Cooum model appears to be beautification oriented, which could be mostly cosmetic, says M G Devasahayam

FOR once Cooum is in the news for the right reasons. As one newspaper report put it `City is awash with dreams of a clean Cooum'. This dream has been there ever since former CM C N Annadurai inaugurated the Cooum Improvement Scheme in September 1967. Indeed, a 42-year-old dream, worthy of entering the Guinness Book of World Records! Will it be realised now? Yes, says the Principal Secretary to Tamil Nadu Government's Public Works Department. Because "compared to previous clean-up efforts, the presence of a coordinating agency, the Chennai River Authority , will make a difference this time." Going by past experiences, one wonders if the mere presence of a coordinating agency can make a difference.

First a brief recap on Cooum.

Originating from the surplus of Cooum tank, enlarged by diversion of flow from Kesavaram Anicut, Cooum river runs a length of 65 km.
At 42 km from the sea, it enters the Chennai Metropolitan Area near Zamin Korattur, where there is an Anicut diverting some of its flows to Chembarambakkam tank. Cooum traverses about 18 km within Chennai city and there are 16 bridges/ culverts built across this river.

Urban decay and human abuse over the decades have taken a toll on this once clean river, which faced three near catastrophic floods during 1943, 1976 and 2005. The only real development initiative carried out in this river was during 19681973 in the name of "Cooum Improvement Project" utilising the technical skills that existed during that period of time and was executed economically. The project seriously addressed the core problem of blockage of river mouth, which prevents the river water from draining into the sea. During operation, the sand pump developed snags and flushing of sewage as anticipated using the tidal transaction could not be sustained.

The government made another bid in the late nineties, this time covering all important waterways in the city -- Cooum, Buckingham Canal, Adyar -- under the Rs 1,200-crore Chennai City River Conservation Project substantially funded by the Union Environment and Forests Ministry. This also flopped and a lame excuse was dished out that it was so since the project did not cover Tiruvallur district, which accounts for 54 km of the Cooum river stretch.

Cooum continues to be an open sewer despite crores of rupees being spent on it and any pronouncement on the waterway has low credibility. The new drive to `beautify' Cooum', adopting the `Singapore model' is not very convincing. Because while the Singapore River Cleaning project was `environmentcentred', the Cooum model appears to be `beautification' oriented.

Besides, success of the Singapore project can be attributed to several factors. Foremost is the planning and implementation of a comprehensive environmental management strategy covering prevention, enforcement and monitoring. This led to innovative urban development in compatibility with surrounding land uses to achieve a quality environment. Coinciding with this was the creation of a comprehensive environmental infrastructure for sewerage and waste management. Legislative instrument and enforcement measures were put in place and strictly implemented. Above all, there was consistent and insistent political will. Without addressing these fundamentals, aping the `Singapore model' would turn out to be counterproductive and money-guzzling. It is therefore imperative that an appropriate and sustainable concept is evolved for Cooum. This could be in the form of a utility-based integrated riverfront development emphasising on environmental enhancement, flood control, augmenting storages in the catchment area and boating. `Beautification' could at best be an add-on.

The integrated approach could include total stoppage of sewage flow into the river, in-situ upgradation of slum settlements, augmentation of storage of existing tanks, providing adequate waterway to convey maximum design flood, removing stagnant pools of water, clearing obstructing structures and creation of green river fronts for parks and recreation.

Smooth and unhindered river flow into the sea is critical to keep the Cooum clean. For this, the government has to abandon monstrosities like multi-level elevated highways on the river bank and ensure continuous removal of the sand bar at the river mouth to maintain adequate bed/flow levels.

Cooum is a people's issue and, they must have a say in conceptualising, planning and implementing the new project. Only this will bring about credibility, which is more important than any bureaucratic `coordinating agency'.

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