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Can TN's Water Woes Ever End?

By N SATHIYA MOORTHY
December 01, 2021 20:55 IST
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For the current woes of the state to end, in city after city, town after town, village after village, unauthorised constructions have to be removed, no questions asked, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Young men sit in a vessel as another man pushes them through a waterlogged street following heavy rains in Chennai, November 27, 2021. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo
 

Come summer, Tamil Nadu is thirsting for that last drop of water, if available, miles deep under one's foot -- the sub-soil water, with fast-receding storage line.

In the twin-monsoons that follow, the entire state is being inundated for days and weeks together, that is if the seasonal rains don't fail as frequently as it used to and the rain god, instead, frowns upon the people...

The question remains: Is there a way out for Tamil Nadu? The weatherman has reported that the state has received seasonal rains many times more than the annual average from recorded past -- and that the continuing northeast monsoon is still active.

The answer is a small 'Yes 'and a big 'NO'.

Yes, for hopes on ameliorating the summer sufferings rest on properly utilising all the monsoon waters that waste into the seas, year after year. But there is no escaping the monsoon floods, which can only worsen if the monsoon patterns of recent years remain.

Self-taught environmentalists especially are flooding their social media handles with attributions that the dreaded climate-change is going to eat into the nation's coastline sooner than anticipated.

Tamil Nadu has over 1,000-km of coastline of the nation's total of 7,500-plus km. Chennai, which was never a planned city like those where ancient civilisations flourished on a copious river-bank, is also on the sea.

Tell these climate change activists that such phenomenon as eroding shorelines and periodic tsunami-like catastrophes had wiped out cities on the shores, all across the world, and they have no explanation why those things happened when the world was breathing easy and there was no such destruction in the name of development.

The submersion of Dwarka, supposedly still identifiable under water, is a prime example from the Vedic era. Sangam literature has enough pointers about not one but two tsunami-like aazhi peralai devouring the capital of the Pandya kingdoms, in Kapatapuram and what is now referred to as Then Madurai or 'southern' Madurai.

Ancient kings had their capitals by the shores, so as to develop maritime trade with such other communities and civilisations. It is believed that only after the successive submergence of Kapatapuram and Then Madurai that the Pandya kings moved the capital away from the shores, to build the present-day Madurai.

Yes, rains and more rains are to blame for the present bane of Tamil Nadu. Whether it owes to climate change or not is not the question. But mindless urbanisation over the past 100 years and more is the other culprit. Urbanisation as a concept may have caught up only in the 21st century, but it was happening all the time.

Today, every time the Centre puts out statistics on the level of urbanisation across the country, Tamil Nadu tops the list. Today, close to 50 per cent of the state's population is living in urbanised areas. Time was when these populations were thought to have cities and towns.

Today, this still happens, but they are also taking urbanisation as a practice, not necessarily concept, to interior areas. Cost of living, coupled with cost of housing have forced people to move out, or stay where they used to.

If desired education for children of aspirational generations was a problem, branded schools in Chennai have since been opening franchises across the state. Less said about the mushrooming number of professional colleges across the state in the era after the advent of economic reforms, especially.

At one point, not very long ago, Tamil Nadu used to 'invent' engineering colleges in places where grass did not grow. Roads, street-lights and bus transport followed. It should have been the other way round. Or, at least should have gone hand-in-hand.

Drainage did not matter to the creators of those temples of higher education. After all, they were converting cowsheds into open spaces, and drainage was never ever a concern. That's until the student strength began overflowing, accompanied by houses and shops in the neighbourhood, most of them unplanned, often unauthorised, partly or wholly.

The colleges would have been the first culprit to start with, followed by hospitals and nursing homes, private sector schools and all. Thankfully, there is a halt and reversal to this pattern as the rush for engineering education is satiated, and many of these colleges have been shutting shops in the state over the past few years.

Ask the older generation in every village, town and city in Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere in the country, and they would list out the number of tanks, ponds and lakes that have been levelled to put up public utilities like bus stands, stadiums and a rare school or college.

The government was invariably the culprit, either for doing it all by itself or shutting its eyes when a private entrepreneur did it, violating all laws and norms. Of then the list goes back to a hundred years and more.

Post-Independence era witnessed the development of new housing colonies, facilitated and authorised by the government of the day. In Tamil Nadu, invariably, serving bureaucrats were the initiators of the process. Even there, they had this IAS-IPS incompatibility, with the result, the latter class has lately been getting the government to develop housing colony sites for their clan.

Interestingly, even where housing colonies centred on the bureaucracy had provisions for middle and lower-income housing, no politician was among the first beneficiaries. They stepped in only when the property began changing hands. At least initially, the ruling class did not demand money from the bureaucratic promoters. They were happy with their loyalty.

There was a marked difference between then and now. When housing projects initiated by bureaucrats in the name of the government and the housing board, though also to subserve their personal interests, they did ensure adequate if not proper water and drainage connections.

Local, small-time promoters, who took money in instalment from their buyers could not risk delays caused by legal proceedings, so many, if not all, evolved healthy in-house practices. There were cheats even then, but they claimed to be selling apartments at a lower cost and purportedly to a different strata.

All hell began breaking loose only around the turn of the century when a spurt in overseas IT jobs and family incomes back home led to a near-overnight explosion of urban housing. That was also when land prices in cities like Chennai rose five or 10 times the previous year's market price.

The entry of big-ticket 'Bombay builders' with their money-bags ended not only the monopoly of the local builders, it also put an end to whatever ethical practices the latter had enforced, to whatever extent possible.

If today, there are residents who bemoan on television news and social media channels how they are marooned in waist-deep water, their apartments are built on marshy lands outside city limits, invariably under a local panchayat, which did not have the revenue to build the required drainage system, leave alone storm-water drains. This is apart from the location of those posh buildings.

Unfortunately, these apartments are mostly owned by the so-called new-generation elite with multiple degrees with a son or sons, a daughter or daughters, working overseas, and sending money home in dollars.

Those that earned that money are too busy to look up at city master-plans and existing flood-plain schemes in home cities back in India -- though from their American and Australian homes, they do raise their voices on environmental issues and ecological disasters.

It is another matter that some of these apartment owners have retired as CEOs, CFOs and senior government jobs in Delhi and elsewhere.

This is true of some of the housing colonies that evolved by itself in the heart of cities like Chennai decades earlier. In those cases, the owners had either sold their agriculture properties in native villages of generations to move into the city, or their children had 'high-paying' corporate jobs in Mumbai, Kolkata, or Delhi.

Every time there are rains and floods, the Tamil social media and television talk shows are flooded with experts, many of them self-styled, condemning the politico-bureaucratic nexus for the people's woes.

Citing Chennai as the prime example, they list the number of tanks and lakes that have been lost, how the city's three arterial rivers that plied food-boats on a regular basis until about 60 years ago, have become blocked sewages and worse.

They want this trend of unplanned urbanisation and destruction of the marsh lands stopped here and now. What is true of Chennai is also true of almost every other part of the state, going all the way down to the last village, thanks to urbanisation.

Ask them, if the trend can be reversed and a way out of the current mess found, they evade an answer.

There is no way out of Tamil Nadu's problem of seasonal water-logging. While experts and environment enthusiasts have a point when they want the current trend reversed, they do not answer the even more pertinent question: How?

For the current woes of the state to end, in city after city, town after town, village after village, unauthorised constructions have to be removed, no questions asked.

In the past, successive governments since the nineties have been mercilessly bulldozing squatter-homes and shops along the roadsides all across the state, to expand road-width.

Occasionally, governments have also brought down middle class homes built on government lands without authorisation, invariably outside the city-centres, to make an example. But rarely has such an attempt -- even if politically motivated -- served the purpose until after Supreme Court intervention, which takes years, if not decades.

If some government has to open up waterways for flood waters to flow and into what used to be tanks, lakes, farm lands and marsh lands (even if private-owned properties from the past are kept out), it has to bring down buildings after buildings, with an iron hand. Rather, an iron-clad mind.

Politically, it is unwise, socially, the question arises where are these people going to find alternate homes, and economically, the issue is about paying for those homes, even if rental. Still someone has to build those houses, somewhere else, and there should be authorised space, under laws that have to be enforced, or legislated afresh, where required.

Until academics and environmental activists are able to find a lasting and legitimate solution to the question of ever-increasing demand for land, for housing, infrastructure and industry, there is no real hope of solving the issue, the legality and legitimacy of the existing projects notwithstanding.

This may be one area, where they can derive there lessons from other parts of the world, modify it not only to Indian and Tamil Nadu conditions (including political compulsions) but also to the level of individual districts, cities and towns.

Against this, there is still hopes of saving the monsoon overflows that now drain into the seas by constructing more check-dams on a war-footing -- and avoid the annual summer crisis. Deepening and desilting existing lakes and ponds, rivers and canals could improve storage is workable still, though it requires huge investments.

For decades now, Tamil Nadu, for instance, has problems with upper riparian Karnataka over the sharing of the Cauvery waters. Despite favourable orders from courts and the Centre-appointed Cauvery Water Tribunal, the state is not getting its apportioned shares as stipulated and in months, when required.

Karnataka holds back Cauvery waters until southwest monsoon rains begin flooding its reservoirs, and release those waters downstream to Tamil Nadu when it becomes problematic to store them. That's also the time when Tamil Nadu's Cauvery catchment areas and river-side gets copious rains, with the result there is excessive flooding and wasted waters flowing into the seas, year after year.

This northeast monsoon reason, the state released up to an a criminally high 60,000 cusecs of excess Cauvery waters into tributaries and canals, which are already overflowing. The story is almost the same with regard to every other river and lake across the state. They can be stored more than already for summer-time use, both for drinking water and irrigations purposes.

There are issues. Edappadi K Palaniswami's predecessor AIADMK government launched an ambitious Rs 400 crore project to desilt the Mettur dam on the Cauvery and the river's tributaries. Nothing much is known about what happened to the project other than the photo op that the launch offered the then CM.

However, three or four years down the line, the official storage height of Stanley Reservoir stands at 120 feet. The official storage capacity too has not increased.

Yet, all the additional work that needs to be done -- and could be undertaken, and effectively and honestly, too -- would serve any purpose if and only if there are seasonal rains, year after year, even if there is too much of it.

Continuing years of poor rainfall makes such the massive investments, if made, questionable, post facto.

How to balance it all, and also ensure that there is no large-scale seepage of funds is a big question that the state has not mastered over years and decades. With the result, every time there are floods and cyclones, affected people raise their voices, becoming louder and visible in this social media era. But once the water recedes or the summer passes, they also go back to their other routines.

In doing so, they still refuse to acknowledge that by purchasing apartments and houses, shops and mall property without verifying the legality and environmental clearances for the said properties, through years and decades, they too have to share the responsibility -- and accountability, with the builders, bureaucrats and politicos.

Thereby hangs a tale!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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