Water crisis
An RTI reply reveals that between 2015 and 2018, the CMDA has reclassified at least four water bodies in and around Chennai as commercial, residential or institutional zones.
Under-construction police station at Shollinaganallur

Over the last four years, Tamil Nadu’s capital city and its neighbouring districts have struggled with a devastating flood, followed by three years of crippling drought. A common reason for both calamities is the city’s shrinking surface water bodies due to unchecked encroachments. The Madras High Court, NGOs and several citizen groups have cried themselves hoarse to emphasise the need to save our lakes and prevent unauthorised constructions.

But information unearthed by TNM on encroachments reveals that one important department in the city is not onboard the fight to save our water bodies – the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).

An RTI reply received in June from the CMDA reveals that between 2015 and 2018, at least four water bodies in and around Chennai have been reclassified as commercial, residential or institutional zones by the development authority. Reclassification essentially decides how a piece of land can be used and involves the filing of an application with the CMDA, which takes the final decision.

However, the process of reclassifying water bodies is in violation of the Tamil Nadu Protection of Tanks and Eviction of Encroachment Act, 2007 and also in clear contempt of the Madras High Court which has termed the State a mere trustee of water bodies.

The order copy from November 2015 reads, “The vesting of these lands and water bodies with the Government is to benefit the public and any attempt made by the Government to act in a manner derogatory to the object for which the land was vested, has to be held illegal... it is beyond the power of the State to alienate or reclassify the water bodies for some other purposes without compensating the effect of such water bodies.”

But the RTI reply in TNM’s possession reveals that the CMDA has failed the residents of Chennai over and over again.

The encroachments

In May this year, Sri Muthukumaran Medical College and Research Institute at Mangadu in Chennai made its way to the front page of newspapers as it stood to lose its affiliation following unauthorised construction. The CMDA had issued a lock, seal and demolition notice to the institute’s management over the building of seven additional blocks without permission.

The development authority made it clear that there was no question of regularisation of the buildings when the college had no permission to build additional blocks in the first place.

However, while the CMDA may attempt to come off as a stickler for rules, this is classic case of pinching the baby and rocking the cradle.

In 2015, two pattas of 0.49 hectares and 0.02 hectares that carried a water channel were reclassified as an institutional use zone by the CMDA.

From here, the offences only grow graver.

In 2016, a complete water body in Sriperumbudur taluk of Kancheepuram district was converted to a primary residential use zone based on an application from one N Neela Reddy.

Following this, in 2017, the body meant to curb unauthorised construction, reclassified a zone marked as ‘primary residential use zone and partly water body’ into a residential use zone. Two pattas of 1.08 hectares and 1450 sq km at Kundrathur in Kancheepuram district were reclassified at the behest of an applicant named Arun Kumar.

And finally in 2018, in a case that the government now seeks to deny, a water body in Shollinganallur was reclassified as an institutional use zone. The application ironically was made by an inspector of police with the intention of building a police station in the land that was classified as a water body. Two pattas of 1378.5 sq km and 0.24 hectares have been mentioned in the RTI.

Public not informed?

To make matters worse, ToI’s Yogesh Kabirdoss reports that between 2017 and 2019, the CMDA admitted five applications for the reclassification of water bodies. The latest among them is an application to convert 10.2 hectare of a water body in Ambattur into a residential use zone for ‘carrying improvements to the existing tenements’ constructed under the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project.

A senior official with the CMDA, however, denied the allegations and claimed that the reclassified lands were initially labelled wrong.

“CMDA does not reclassify water bodies which are on government land. Only lands belonging to individuals wrongly classified as water bodies is corrected. So a government owned lake cannot be converted to houses by CMDA. But sometimes in the master plan, the adjacent patta lands are wrongly classified as water bodies and in those cases correction is carried out. That too is done after inviting objections through newspapers, taking a no objection certificate from revenue authorities and the Public Works department,” says the official.

Activists, however, allege that the process of getting the public’s view on the reclassification is a sham. While applications for reclassification are available on the CMDA’s website, they do not inform the public of the final status of the request.

“The information is put up on the website so that the public can oppose or support. We are expected to write to them within 20 days,” says David Manohar, a social activist. “But when the final decision is taken, only CMDA, PWD and local body officials are present. Those objecting are kept in the dark after that. It is all a complete eyewash and the public is not involved in the decision making process.”