The great composer Tyagaraja in one of his songs speaks of the futility of decking a corpse with gold jewels. That is exactly what came to mind on reading a headline in one of the city newspapers recently. The Government it said aims to complete beautification of the Buckingham Canal by October this year. To what purpose this sprucing up when the core issue, namely the lack of flow of water in most parts of the waterway and continued pollution and degradation in places where it does flow, is not addressed?
As per the newspaper report, the entire stretch of the canal adjoining Rajiv Gandhi Salai (OMR) will be beautified. This will comprise the usual suspects if we can be pardoned for using such a term – a pedestrian plaza, a Miyawaki forest (the latest craze in civic administration in Chennai after red granite, polished flagstones for pavements and hanging gardens) and a children’s play area. There are some other inclusions which indicate that our city is advancing in thought, though may be not in action. On the anvil is an open-air performance space (just next to the deafening roar of traffic on the OMR), a sculpture court (!!!) and ‘well-maintained’ public conveniences – so certified even before they have been put up. All of these will come up under the smart city initiative.
We are not being dogs in the manger by criticising these plans. It is just that none of these will last beyond the day of the inauguration given past history. If the T Nagar plaza is anything to go by its equivalent in Adyar will end up choking the already existing carriage way and also become a haven for hawkers. While we are not against hawking per se we would like to point that this needs to be disciplined and the administration has time and again proved inept in this regard. As for sculpture courts may we ask those in charge to please reflect on the fate of what happened to a similar facility planned under the RK Salai flyover? The installations vanished within a few days and the only advantage has been that the space so vacated has become a night shelter for vagrants. One of the reasons the Corporation has given out for the beautification exercise is that the canal is being subject to continued dumping of waste and debris. How is this sprucing up of the banks expected to solve that problem? And does the Corporation seriously imagine that children should be using a play area that is next to a stagnant waterbody which is nothing more than a drain?
All this beautification may have still been acceptable had the condition of the waterway also been paid some attention. Of course, the Greater Chennai Corporation will immediately take shelter under the plea that its jurisdiction ends with the banks of the canal while the actual waters come under some other department. While that may be a convenient excuse for inaction, may we remind the authorities that they can if needed get all their agencies to work together? As far as we know the canal involves the PWD, the railways (because of the MRTS), the River Water Authority and also the Corporation. Surely it would not be too much to expect these to get going on cleaning up the waters.
The smart city initiative though commendable in its overall mandate, has sadly degenerated into a series of cosmetic makeovers with no long-term sustainability in focus. Unless core issues are tackled, all these steps will amount to nothing. In the case of the Buckingham Canal, the water has to flow and it has to be free of sewage. That is really the first and biggest challenge. The rest will automatically fall in place once that is done. In the absence of a will to see that through what we have is only a case of decorating a bier as Tyagaraja so aptly described.