Mixed Signals on the Cooum River

First let’s “beautify” it. Then we’ll slap an elevated highway on it.

That, in essence, seems to be the plan for the Cooum River in Chennai. Two days ago, the Deputy Chief Minister of the state, M. K. Stalin inaugurated a new Rs. 1,200 crore project for the “eco-restoration” of the Cooum River. Beautification plans and projects with the word “eco” in their titles usually spell disaster for the urban poor. Middle-class citizens and policymakers have consistently confused the aesthetic disorderliness of a slum with its environmental impact – it looks dirty to them, so it must not be ‘green and clean’ – when in fact the average slum dweller consumes a tiny fraction of the resources and produces a tiny fraction of the waste that a middle-class city dweller does.

This beautification plan is no exception. Let me quote from one article about the project at length, because I think it conveys the absurdity of the situation.

“A host of factors has contributed to the Cooum problem. Intensive use of surface water upstream for agriculture, indiscriminate pumping of groundwater leading to reduced base flow in the river, formation of sand bar at the mouth of the river, discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents and encroachment along the banks of the river are some of them. Conscious of the fact that some options for attacking the problem consume more time, the authorities are now focussing on one aspect – removing encroachments in the city limits and developing the areas retrieved intro parks. This will ensure aesthetic appeal and utility.”

Let’s get the logic of the government clear. Because the other options take too much time, the government has chosen to do something, namely, removing ‘encroachments’ or slumdwellers, that will actually have no impact on the environmental quality of the river.

But wait, it gets even worse.

The articles about the new beautified Cooum forgot to mention one important thing: the river will soon have an elevated highway running along its banks. The National Highways Authority of India is building a 19 kilometer elevated expressway from the Chennai port to National Highway 4 to enable container trucks easy access from the port to India’s highway system. But instead of augmenting the existing straight road connection along Poonamallee High Road, the government has instead decided to build a much longer road along the Cooum banks, perhaps to avoid messy land acquisition issues with private landowners. So they’re spending Rs. 1,200 crore to build parks under an elevated highway that cuts through the center of the city? Historically, that hasn’t really worked so well.

Unfortunately, the Cooum’s banks currently house thousands of the city’s poorest residents, many of whom have lived there for decades. The two projects together will reportedly displace 18,000 families by the government’s own estimates. Estimating 5 people per family, that’s 90,000 affected people,  almost 10% of the city’s slum population. It is likely that the actual numbers of affected residents are higher. The projects, if carried out, will radically change the face of the city.

Evictions have already started along the river, but have been put on pause because of pending court cases. I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

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