St George’s Cathedral turns 200!

April 25, 2015

In just five days from now, St. George’s Cathedral, on Cathedral Road, will complete 200, for it first opened its doors to worshippers on April 30, 1815.

By 1800, Madras had become a haven of peace. And with that, the British began leaving the secure confines of the Fort and George Town to take up residence in vast bungalows further afield, a number of them being in and around Mount Road. That meant the principal church, St. Mary’s in the Fort, was a good distance away, which became a convenient excuse for not attending Sunday prayers. The upper-class profile of those who stayed away meant a church had to be built close to where they lived and thus came about St. George’s.

The edifice was designed by Col. James Caldwell and built by Maj. Thomas Fiott de Havilland, a controversial but brilliant military engineer. Even before work began, a clear directive had arrived from Bishop Middleton in Calcutta. In his letter to the Governor of Madras, he expressed his distress at the “plainness or even the ugliness, of buildings being erected as churches”. St. George’s, he implied, had better be impressive.

The most popular ecclesiastical architect of that time was James Gibbs of London and Caldwell and de Havilland faithfully copied his designs — a rectangular structure like a Roman temple with a spire running to 139 feet. Its pillared portico, white chunam finish, stained glass and spacious interior made an enormous impression on the parish that comprised the most important people of the city. Middleton, arriving in 1816, was pleased by what he saw and approved.

With the completion of this church, de Havilland’s reputation was made and he was entrusted with the next ambitious project — the construction of St. Andrew’s Kirk, Egmore. He was thereafter a consultant of sorts for any church in the city and used his powers to good effect when he was asked to approve the designs for St. Mathias in Vepery. He had lost the contract for that shrine to John Law, a rival. On discovering that its steeple could be higher than that of St. George’s, he declared it could be a security threat to the Fort and had it shortened!

Sadly for de Havilland, his wife Elizabeth was the first to be buried in St. George’s. The yard lies at the rear and many an important personality of this city rests within its enclosure. The railings were once made of musket barrels, pikes and other arms abandoned in the last battle against Tipu Sultan in 1799. But that interesting relic has since been replaced.

St. George’s became a Cathedral in October 1835 when the Diocese of Madras was created. It is a building that is full of history and worth a visit. Before you go in, pause at the gates — this was from where Edward Francis Elliot, then Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, Madras, eloped with Mrs. Isabella Napier, a mother of three, on January 22, 1838.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated April 25, 2015

Know Fort St George – 1. Its Topography

April 23, 2015

Dear Friends,

On this day, April 23, 2015, which also sees our Fort completing 375, I am beginning this 25 part series on Fort St George. This is chiefly an effort to document it as a monument so that everyone can appreciate its heritage better. I look forward to your feedback, support and encouragement in this task.

Happy Fort St George Day!

Sriram V

It is difficult to describe Fort St George in its entirety. Though it does not look as impressive a structure as other historic ones elsewhere in the country, it is nevertheless a large enclosure, making up in expanse what it perhaps lacks in height.

The Fort encompasses an area of 100 acres if you include the outworks and fortifications. The area within the walls is 42 acres. The entire precinct is on a north-south axis in which direction it runs for 620 yards. Its length along the east-west axis is 330 yards. In terms of location, the Fort looks out on Rajaji Salai (formerly North Beach Road) on its eastern face. To the rear it is encompassed by what was Band Practice and now Flagstaff Road, which joins Sir T. Muthuswamy Aiyar Road, the two together forming a crescent that connects with Rajaji Salai at both ends.

A bird’s eye view of the Fort would reveal it to be what H.D. Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras describes as ‘half an octagon’. In its time it has changed shape at least four times – from the very tiny square of the 1640s to what Love writes of as the ‘quadrangular bastioned enclosure’ from the 1670s to the early 1700s, the half decagon of 1746 and, finally, the present shape that dates to the 1780s. That last construction was mainly executed by Paul Benfield, the notorious engineering contractor who is also credited with building the Chepauk Palace. His deeds ideally merit a book by themselves but suffice it to say that it was partly due to his lending money to the Nawab of Arcot at usurious rates that the whole of the Coromandel eventually became the nucleus of the British Empire.

Whatever Benfield’s negative traits, it cannot be denied that he built a Fort that would last. This has been proven time and again – when several of the outworks were demolished in the 1870s and now, when despite minimum maintenance and much neglect, most of the Fort has endured.

The British were forever chopping and changing the contours of the Fort but what is amazing is that the original core, constructed in 1640, is still standing, though now completely hidden and out of bounds, well within the Assembly building. We will have occasion to refer to this building in a later part of this series. The core is a continuing thread from the beginning of our city. Keeping track of all the modifications that went on over the years is tough but our task of explaining is made easy thanks to Lt. Col. D.M. Reid. One of the Directors of Beardsell & Co in Madras, he in 1945 penned The Story of Fort St George, a slim volume that ends with a series of maps that trace the development of the Fort from 1639 to 1939. A selection of the maps from the book is provided with this introductory article to help us in understanding the changes that happened.

As it stands today, the Fort’s periphery is younger than much of what is inside it, with the maximum number of changes happening in the 18th Century. This was to coincide with a fairly high turnover of the men in charge and so the changes in that phase reflect the influence of many hands and minds. Madras Rediscovered by S. Muthiah traces these changes and states the greatest construction phase began in 1749 once the French had left the place. The original plan, made in 1750, was by Benjamin Robins, FRS, mathematician and the Company’s Chief Engineer. He, however, died a year later and work was divided between Frederick Scot and John Brohier for the planning and the engineering respectively. But with Calcutta becoming a greater attraction and, therefore, needing a bigger fort, the latter left for that city in 1757, leaving his assistant John Call to continue with Fort St. George.

This was when the Comte de Lally besieged Madras and destroyed many of the buildings in the Fort and much of Black Town, which lay just outside the north walls of the Fort. Following the lifting of the siege, Call and his assistant Benfield began working on the reconstruction. When Call retired in 1770, he was succeeded by Patrick Ross who gave the Fort its present shape. Benfield, by then an independent contractor, did most of the building, at a cost of Rs 7.5 million. When completed, the Fort had four major bastions, six gates, four ravelins and 12 lunettes. The last named were all demolished in the 1880s. We will have occasion to write about the gates and bastions as we proceed on this journey into the Fort, but it is interesting to note that each has a name. The entrances taken clockwise from the front are the Sea, St Thomas, Wallajah, St George, Middle and North Gates. The four bastions are named St Thomas, Wallajah, St George and Royal.

Fronting the Fort on its western side is the glacis – essentially an earthwork that slopes away from the structure proper. On this has come up much of the army housing which hides that part of the Fort from view. This is indeed a pity, for it is on this face that we can see the formidable works that Benfield constructed to protect the Fort from enemies who never came! The last great attack was by Hyder Ali in 1781 when the defences were still unfinished. And when they were completed, there were no wars on the horizon.

The eastern front is the most easily visible as you walk or drive along Rajaji Salai. It is worth your while stopping there for some time to reflect that the sea was much closer than what it is now – it practically lapped the walls of the Fort during high tide. Somewhere on this eastern face is a stone that was once known as de Havilland’s Benchmark. In 1821, Major Thomas Fiott de Havilland published the first authoritative study on Madras tides by installing a tide gauge on the northeastern corner of the Fort. He then marked the highest levels reached by the water which became the benchmark for all subsequent tides. The construction of the harbour saw the sea receding in the 1890s. But its enormous distance today from the Fort is thanks to active reclamation in the early 1900s when Sir Francis Spring put into action a complete revamp and expansion of Madras Port. The ornamental park and the area for parking all visitors’ cars that lies across the road have all come up on reclaimed land.

The proximity of the sea to this face of the Fort for many decades did not mean it could be left unprotected. A wet ditch was dug and this over time became a moat that runs all around the Fort. Once filled with water, it is now overrun with weeds and is a convenient garbage tip.

Standing in front of the Fort, certain buildings can be viewed very easily. Taking in the view from the left you can see St. Mary’s Church, the tall flagstaff, the ornamental gates through which Government cars go in and out of the Fort, the Assembly building and, finally, the distracting concrete and glass multi-storeyed Namakkal Kavignar Maligai. Each of these has a story to tell as we shall see as this column progresses over the next year.

to be continued

You may want to read these other stories on the Fort:

Why not give the Fort its due?

The Fort at 375!

The sorry state of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began

Why not give the Fort its due?

April 22, 2015
Fort St George

Fort St George

Column after column has been written on how Fort St George is one of the most historic locations in our country. And yet when it comes to being a tourist attraction, it falls far behind the more popular destinations. Why is this so?

The answer to this is not far to seek – there is a commonly held perception that the Fort is out of bounds to most visitors. This is far from true, though it also being the seat of Government of a State does give it that image. The place is open to all, provided they abide by the security guidelines in place – you need to get your bags scanned and be ready to have your person tested by a metal detector. But this is common practice even at railway stations and airports, and we don’t complain there, do we? Once you are within the Fort, certain areas have restricted or no access, but these are clearly marked and so can be avoided. Once again this is not different from what prevails at the Red Fort, Delhi, for instance. But what is rather peculiar is that the Department of Tourism, Government of Tamil Nadu, does precious little to popularise Fort St George as a tourist destination.

There is an unfortunate reason for this. Many in the Government believe that the Fort is a symbol of British imperialism and so it goes against the grain of present political thought to highlight it in any significant way. But what is conveniently forgotten is that the Egmore Government Museum is also a British creation and yet it receives more than its fair share of publicity in all tourism brochures! And this from the very same Government that thought it fit to raise an arch to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the Legislative Assembly, once again an institution set up by the British. We also forget often that the War Memorial to which genuflections are done each year on important occasions is a monument primarily to the Great War. And what about Napier Bridge that is maintained so well and at enormous expense? Another relic of our British past, no less. The list is endless and the logic of the Fort being a hated reminder of our colonial past is a weak one. And if it was so, the present Government conveniently overlooked that argument when it chose to relocate to the Fort from the newly built Assembly-cum-Secretariat on Mount Road.

Let us not forget that six years from now will mark the centenary of the beginnings of Indian governance. And that start was at the Fort. It was in 1921 that the Justice Party was invited to participate in the administrative process with a Prime Minister and two other ministers taking on Cabinet responsibilities. Since then, the Fort has seen a number of pioneering moves – the first Government in India to enact legislation for reservation (the Communal GO of 1921), the first legislature to have a woman member (Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy in 1927), the first elected body to decide on an industrial estate (Guindy in 1958), the first Assembly to moot mid-day meals for school children (both by Kamaraj and MGR Governments)… the list is endless. Can all of these not be highlighted? After all, each one of these Acts was passed at the Fort.

It is time we shed certain preconceived notions that we have and which we bring to the fore whenever it is convenient to us. The achievements at the Fort, both before and after 1947, are many and commendable and are impressive enough to bring in visitors in much larger volumes. It is necessary for the various agencies in control of the Fort to realise this and take steps to ensure that the Fort becomes a popular place to visit and a worthy heritage attraction of our city. They also need to ensure it looks its best, being the heart of one of the most progressive States in the country.

Other stories on Fort St George

The Fort at 375!

The sorry state of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began

The father of the Fort Museum

The Fort at 375!

April 21, 2015
The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

One year after the city turned375, it is time for celebrations once again. Attaining that landmark age this year is Fort St George, for the first fortified enclosure there was completed on April 23, 1640, St George’s Day. This is the core from which our city grew. And much of the practices and institutions of modern India did thereafter. Such a venerable precinct deserves a proper commemoration for reaching this milestone in terms of age, though whether anyone in power is planning that is most doubtful. But we at Madras Musings are not going to let this year go by in such a tame fashion.

Regular readers of this publication have responded enthusiastically to the series that we carried over much of last year on certain forgotten/hidden/lost landmarks of our city. Encouraged by this, we have become somewhat ambitious. We plan on a 26 part series on Fort St George, wherein each issue of Madras Musings in this financial year will carry a detailed story on one historic structure/landmark/feature of the Fort. Through this effort we plan to not only highlight the history of the Fort, something that every Chennai-ite ought to be proud of, but also draw attention to its present condition. This is our small tribute to our beloved Fort.

What prevents the authorities that are in charge of the Fort from doing something for it? Multiple ownership claims, with plenty of rights and largely no responsibility towards maintenance are the main reasons. Various parts of the Fort are controlled by various agencies – the Tamil Nadu Government and Secretariat, the Assembly, the Army, the Navy and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Ideally speaking such a historic enclave ought to be entirely under the control of the last named body at least as far as maintenance and structural modifications are concerned but then nothing in India is so simple. Not that entrusting anything to the ASI would automatically mean proper maintenance. As we proceed on this detailed study of the Fort, we will be able to show you plenty of ASI controlled spaces that deserve much better upkeep. And once again, before the ASI takes offence at that statement, let us assure it that the other agencies at the Fort are no paragons either when it comes to heritage conservation and protection. Certainly, the first impression that any casual visitor gets is that much of the Fort has been made over to the elements.

The Fort is also a victim of a shocking lack of awareness about its historicity among the people who function from there. To them it is yet another Government office space that is meant to be used. As a consequence, you have every undesirable feature of any Government controlled space in the Fort also. A couple of weeks ago we sent in a letter to the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, highlighting these flagrant violations of heritage norms (not that we have any) – uncontrolled and haphazard parking of Government vehicles, rampant construction and demolition activity, erection of makeshift structures, mushrooming of canteens and toilets, no specific garbage disposal areas, putting up of posters and banners, and in one specific area an informal bazaar where you can buy anything from flowers to plastic goods.

All this is an indication of a complete lack of vision. While we hear of efforts being made to attract tourists to the city, it is indeed a pity that its historic core should be so neglected. There is plenty that can be done to make it a vibrant orientation centre for visitors, a first port of call on their tour itinerary. We trust that our yearlong effort will help in bringing about this awareness.

But in the meanwhile, here is a toast to our Fort and here’s wishing it many centuries of existence and success!

The Mylapore Mess

April 21, 2015

Each year the Lord Kapali comes out in procession in all his finery and progresses around the four Mada Streets of Mylapore. The Man from Madras Musings never misses the event and is usually present on all the important days. But as the years advance, MMM cannot help wondering as to what Lord Kapali must be noting as he goes triumphantly by.

View of North Mada Street on Arupathumoovar day, 2015

View of North Mada Street on Arupathumoovar day, 2015

True, his heart must be filling with pleasure on seeing the tank full of water. But he must certainly also know that the tank is essentially out of bounds for most people, chiefly because they cannot resist the urge to throw waste of various kinds into it. Also he must have sadly noted that the level of cleanliness on the streets is continuously plumbing new depths, even as the waistlines of His devotees are expanding to new circumferences thanks to increased prosperity. The latter has also meant a sharp increase in the number of people wanting to distribute food, water, fruit juices, buttermilk and aerated drinks. The reality, however, is that those who line up to accept these freebies do not actually need them. Gone are the days when such free kitchens were set up to cater mainly to the very poor and those who came for the event from the mofussil. Now it is all the local populace and very well to do ones at that. As a consequence, most people accept the refreshment on offer, take a sip or a spoonful out of it and then simply throw the rest away. As the photograph featured below does show, most of Mylapore was awash with food waste, plastic plates and cups, and other kinds of refuse (pun intended) as the event progressed. Lord Kapali must have certainly been saddened by it all. Perhaps it is time for him to knock some sense of hygiene and cleanliness into his faithful flock.

While on the same event, MMM wonders if Lord Kapali notes the slow but steady replacement of all heritage buildings in his vicinity by concrete monstrosities. It is, for instance, impossible to photograph his temple without getting the neon sign of a famed garment retailer also into the same picture. This anagram of the saree has managed to position its advertisement almost cheek by jowl with the temple. Good commercial sense, no doubt, but what about good old plain aesthetics? MMM is fairly certain that Ichabod is the expression that springs to Lord Kapali’s lips each time he passes by, high on his mount.

Farewell to the prepaid auto service

April 20, 2015

You know what it is like to get off at an unearthly early hour at the Central Station after a terrible all-night train journey and then having to face the auto drivers all of whom imagine that you have been created only for one purpose – paying them what they demand. The Man from Madras Musings is what you may call a frequent traveller, though MMM must admit that if he were of the flying variety he would have been a privileged, pampered passenger (PPP) of some airline or the other by now. The Railways, of course, could not care less and MMM remains a mere TTT – Tormented, Troubled Traveller.

MMM is not so sure about all of you, but he follows a fairly time-tested practice when he alights at Central. Keeping his head down and not making eye contact with any of the soliciting autorickshaw drivers, he makes his way straight to the prepaid queue. There, too, he does not lift his head till he reaches the counter, for, the autorickshaw men are a hopeful lot and keep badgering you to board their vehicle. This goes on until you have handed over the prepaid fare at the counter and they realise it is too late. Then, having cursed you briefly they move on to whoever else their trained eye tells them is a classic mug.

So it was this time too. A week ago, MMM found himself, after a night of terror in the company of a mouse and several cockroaches, deposited on the platform at Central at a time when milkmen had not yet begun making their rounds and the cockerels of Korukupet and other surrounding areas had not yet crowed. He collected his bags and bearings and was walking towards the prepaid counter when he overheard an autorickshaw driver telling a prospect that the facility was now a thing of the past as far as Central Station was concerned. It would be no exaggeration to state that MMM’s heart sank into his boots. But he chose to disbelieve what he had heard and walked on. This came in for some frank derision from the savari hopefuls who at once labelled MMM a ‘customer of death’ and referred to him in other local terms of endearment.

MMM trudged along bearing his luggage rather like the old man who bore amidst snow and ice the strange device Excelsior. Conceive his shock and horror when on reaching the prepaid counter spot he found no such counter. It had folded its tent like the proverbial Arab and had vanished into the silent watches of the night. The throng of autorickshaw men who had followed MMM belted out a collective “We told you” kind of laugh. One of the elders among the tribe then explained to MMM that with the metrorail work in progress, the railways had decided to axe whatever it felt was not essential to its functioning in order to make space.

MMM looked around. Clearly the railways felt that the ornamental palm tree some of whose lights worked was more important than the prepaid auto counter. It was still there and flourished. So too did the lawn on which a whole lot of vagrants spent the nights. Also doing very well was the miniature Rialto bridge that hindered rather than helped passenger movement between the various bays in the drop-off area. Several tiny shrines were pictures of health as though the powerful ones controlling them had been fed on energy drinks that helped them grow by the hour. None of these could be done away with and so the prepaid auto counter had to go.

MMM could do only one thing – surrender to the autorickshaw drivers, meekly accept whatever fare they demanded and go home. Ruminating on this experience later at home in the company of his good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, MMM searched for a single word that could sum up the whole experience. Tamil was the winner and the mot juste was Ayyo!

When Madras froze over

April 18, 2015

Tambora wind route

Our city has only three seasons — hot, hotter and hell. Given this, would people believe me if I said that the temperature once dipped below freezing in our city, and that too, in the sweltering month of April? It would probably be dismissed as an April Fool’s Joke. And yet it happened exactly 200 years ago, in the last week of April 1815. The morning temperature was 11 degrees Celsius on Monday, April 24, and by Friday, April 28, it had dipped to minus 3 degrees Celsius. There are unverified reports of snow falling too but that may be an exaggeration.

The cause of this freak phenomenon was the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in distant Indonesia. At that time, this was the tallest peak in the archipelago which formed that country, rising to a height of 4,300 m.

Lava burst forth from it on April 10 and 11, 1815, with such ferocity that the explosion killed around 12,000 people and was heard 2,000 km away. It holds the record for being the largest volcanic activity ever in world history till date.

What followed next is best described in Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood — “Tambora’s dust veil, serene and massive above the clouds, began its westward drift aloft the winds of the upper atmosphere. Its airy passage to India outran the thousands of waterborne vessels below bent upon an identical course, breasting the trade winds from the resource-rich East Indies to the commercial ports of the Indian Ocean. The vanguard of Tambora’s stratospheric plume arrived over the Bay of Bengal within days”.

Madras was perhaps the first to feel it two weeks later, with the temperature dipping to freezing point, thanks to the aerosols in the volcanic cloud absorbing heat from the sun and the earth. Given that our public dons monkey caps and earmuffs in December each year, what was the fashion statement in freezing April 1815? There is, however, not one East India Company record that notes the reactions of the colonial masters or the people to this freak occurrence. There is also no mention of a tsunami. Pumice stone, however, washed up on the coast for a long while.

What followed thereafter was not as pleasant as the cold weather. The ash cloud spread globally, making 1816 the ‘year without summer’. In Madras, and the rest of India, it also meant a year without monsoon. Crops failed, as they did internationally. Famine in India was followed by cholera, which is now directly attributed by scholars to the volcano. Over 70,000 people perished globally, due to Tambora.

In August 1815, the brig Catherina — the first vessel from Java after the eruption — arrived in Madras. The Madras Courier interviewed the craft’s master for an eyewitness description of what happened. He also brought with him a bag of volcanic ash, which was forwarded to Calcutta for further analysis. But nobody linked the big freeze in Madras to the volcano!

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 18, under the Hidden Histories column.

TN’s Global Investors’ Meet – Cosmetics as usual

April 15, 2015

The State Government appears serious at long last about conducting its Global Investors’ Meet. After two postponements last year, now scheduled for May 23rd and 25th this year, the plan is to garner Rs. 1000 crore in investments within these two days. This may seem ambitious, but in a vastly urbanised and industrialised State this can be achieved provided the planning for the event is right. There are, however, many rumblings at ground level that indicate the usual slap-dash, and last minute efforts are the order of the day. The question is: Are global investors not going to see through it all?

Take for instance the question of city beautification. Can this be done in a matter of two months? And yet that is what the Corporation hopes to achieve. You would have noticed a sudden proliferation of bollards along footpaths and medians. On the anvil are road-sweeping machines and a wall art initiative. The former, incidentally, are to be used only along specific roads – those on which the delegates to the investors’ meet will be driving to and from their places of stay. What of the rest of the city? Well, that is not going to be seen by these visitors from overseas, so why bother?

The wall art initiative, good though it is in intention and deserving of encouragement, can never be a success unless we educate our political class, the cinema world and the Tamil Nadu printing industry that wall spaces are not meant for posters. These are the worst offenders, apart from petty advertisers hawking quack cures. Taking a cue from these role models, the average man on the street has also begun putting up posters, commemorating anything and everything from births and deaths and thereafter to first, second, third and nth anniversaries. Can wall art really make an impact in a city whose populace is so insensitive to it? Let us also not forget that Corporation Councillors, past and present, are themselves not above putting up posters and covering walls with political graffiti. The recent arrest of an octogenarian activist who tried to remove banners and posters shows where the sympathies of the administration truly lie.

The powers that be need to realise that, unlike in the past, the world is extremely connected today. With the social media being what it is, no city is really an unknown entity to a newcomer. The investors who come in are likely to be almost thoroughly clued about the real conditions in Chennai. Considering that the Investors’ Meet was originally scheduled for 2013, we have had ample time since then to plan a proper event, with the necessary infrastructure in place for it. But we have gone about it in an all too familiar fashion – bringing about cosmetic changes when our core remains as weak as ever. After all, a Dubai that began working in 2014 to prepare itself for its Global Expo 2020 cannot be very wrong, can it?

There are a couple of other aspects of the Investors’ Meet that merit introspection. Firstly, is May really the best time of the year to present our city? Or is it driven by the logic that once you showcase the city at its worst, everything else will appear better anyway? Secondly, the local industrial houses seem to be completely unaware of the event. A casual survey reveals that Chambers of Commerce have not even been involved. Would not a potential investor want to engage with those already present here to assess risks and opportunities? Lastly, given that land prices in Chennai have made investment in large industries completely unviable unless the Government subsidises the purchase, would it not have been better to have showcased a Tier II city such as Coimbatore?

A Chola Gift to Chennai

April 11, 2015
Veeranam Tank

Veeranam Tank

The lake that you see there is not within the geographical bounds of our city. But though it is 235 km away, it would be no exaggeration to state that it is Chennai’s lifeline, supplying roughly 50 to 180 million litres of water to the city every day. Nothing prepares you for its vast expanse — 11.2 km in length and 4 km in width (as per Wikipedia), and when full of water, it is an awesome sight. I allude to the Veeranam Lake, located in Cuddalore District.

We need to thank the Chola prince Rajaditya for this. In the 10th century, he assigned his men the task of excavating this tank, to collect the surplus waters of the Kollidam River. When completed, Rajaditya christened it Veeranarayana, after one of the many names of his father Parantaka Chola I. This is now Veeranam. Kalki R. Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, opens with the hero riding along and admiring this lake.

In the 1830s, (later Sir) Arthur Cotton, the engineer who later harnessed the waters of the Krishna and Godavari, studied the tank in detail. He noted that there was no serious defect in the tank (this, 900 years after it was constructed) apart from the narrowing of the mouth of the Vadavar River that connected the lake to the Kollidam and the tendency of the bund to breach when filled to the brim. Interestingly, Cotton’s report is full of anglicised Tamil terms — totie (thotti or tank) and calingula (from kalingu or sluice) being two commonly used words.

In 1967, C.N. Annadurai, then freshly elected Chief Minister of the State, mooted the idea of supplying water to the capital city from Veeranam. He died in 1969 and it was left to his successors to execute the plan. The project, estimated at Rs. 21 crore, was then the biggest to be sanctioned in independent India. The contractor put up a plant at Tirukazhugukundram in collaboration with a Greek firm for making the pre-stressed concrete pipes.

What happened next reflected no credit on any of the parties involved. There were allegations of corruption, delays in sanctioning foreign exchange and quality issues. With the DMK government being dismissed in 1976, the matter was taken to court, and in the middle of it all, the contractor suddenly died. The pipes were abandoned all along the Cuddalore-Madras route and were put to good use — entire families were raised in them and some others became latrines.

The project languished thereafter for over three decades only to be revived in 2000, and by then, the cost had ballooned to Rs. 720 crore. The local ryots were none too happy at the metropolis guzzling their precious resource, but water began flowing into Chennai in 2004.

Standing on Veeranam’s banks a couple of weeks back, I wondered at Rajaditya’s vision and what he could achieve. Then I pondered over what he must be thinking about us present-day people. But that is best left unexplored.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated April 11, 2015

Disappointing budget from the Corporation of Chennai

April 8, 2015

The Corporation of Chennai has gone through the motions of presenting yet another annual budget. The financial plan has disappointed on many counts – the cut in expenditure on necessary civic infrastructure being the most important issue. What is worse is that the Corporation has not delivered on several plans that were included in last year’s budget. That makes for a very poor performance and will definitely have an impact on the quality of life in the city.

Last year we had reviewed the budget in this publication and given it a rating of A. The most commendable features concerned the focus on non-motorised traffic. Pedestrian zones had been planned in Mylapore, T’Nagar and Chepauk. Granite footpaths were to be laid along 100 bus routes. A seven kilometre cycle lane was to connect Fort St. George to Foreshore Estate, the route going along the Marina. Cycles for these users were to be available on hire at various places en route. The scheme was to be extended along the Metro and MRTS corridors to provide last mile connectivity.

The next praiseworthy inclusion was the scheme to set up 100 new parks and the introduction of rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation in all the parks in the city. Solar energy was to be tapped for public lighting. Public fixtures for civic hygiene were to be washed regularly. The Corporation also pledged to look into the matter of parking fees and the possibility of collecting a congestion fee in places such as T’Nagar, the money so accruing to be used for civic projects.

Not one of these schemes has seen the light of the day. The only one on which some progress has been made is the laying of footpaths along a handful of arterial roads. According to the Corporation’s own admission, 165 of its planned schemes are yet to be acted upon! The civic body’s honesty in admitting this is to be commended, but that is not going to take it far.

These worries apart, what is also causing concern is the Corporation’s financial position. 2016 being an election year, it has been decided that property taxes will not be revised. This is a myopic stance, considering that very few property owners really vote in any election, civic or otherwise. The Corporation is, therefore, faced with falling revenues and is resorting to borrowings on a large scale to fulfil its promises. The loan component has increased from Rs. 546 crore the previous year to Rs. 1020 crore in 2015-16. The interest burden has jumped from Rs. 14 crore in 2014-15 to a whopping Rs. 105 crore in the coming year. Given this situation, it is but natural that the civic body is cutting down on all capital expenditure – roads, bridges, lighting, parks and stormwater drains. Now what does a city corporation exist for if it is unable to cater to these needs? And how does Chennai hope to be an international city if it does not spend on the upkeep of its infrastructure?

Apart from stagnant revenue, the Corporation’s finances are in poor shape because it has had to contend with a vastly increased area. The new zones have had to be brought to some level of parity with the older areas of the city and so have swallowed a significant portion of the money available. The slew of welfare schemes, beginning with the canteens, have not done much good to the bottom line either. Lastly, you would have expected that a civic body that confessed in the High Court that many buildings in the city are illegal (George Town alone had 90 per cent illegal structures) would have some significant incomes from fines, wouldn’t you? Well, the net fines collected under this head for the year were Rs 1000! That’s the way it goes.


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