Infrastructure
Experts blame the governance structure of the mega-city, and citizens’ ignorance, for the mess.

Chennai’s water crisis is bringing to fore the heavy mismanagement in building infrastructure in the city. The city has only 35% of the storm water drains required for a city of Chennai’s size and population, according to an RTI reply by the Storm Water Drain Department of Greater Chennai Corporation.

According to the response to an RTI filed by Sattapanchayat Iyakkam, a Chennai-based citizen activist group, Chennai has around 1,900 kilometres of storm water drains. The RTI response also reveals that the length of storm water drains constructed every year in Chennai decreased sharply till the floods in 2015, after which it picked up. In fact, in the year of the floods, the Corporation constructed only 13.54 kilometres of storm water drains in the city after the floods in 2015-16.

Immediately after the December 2015 floods – in the year 2016-17 – 165.34 kilometres of drains were constructed; and in 2017-18, the figure stood at 212.65 kilometres.

What do storm water drains do?

Storm water drains help prevent roads from getting waterlogged during rains. The drains should ideally be designed in such a way that they carry the water collected from the road to a waterbody like a lake, where they recharge the groundwater table. So, after draining out excess water from the city’s roads, storm water drains play an active role in emptying the water into the right place.

Speaking to TNM, KP Subramanian, former professor of urban engineering in Anna University says that a city should ideally have storm water drains twice the length of its roads. Chennai corporation maintains around 2,700 km of roads in Chennai city. This means that there must be around 5,400 km of storm water drains in the city. However, the length of storm water drains in Chennai, as of December 2018, was just 1,900 km – 35% of the total requirement.

Chennai, normally the land of dreams, turns into one of nightmares if it rains well for a few minutes. This was witnessed even just two weeks ago, when rains brought a much-needed respite to the residents, who are going through acute water scarcity.

The storm water drains that are there must be maintained properly, says Subramanian, adding that people throwing plastic on the road will end up clogging the drains and blocking the way of water.

Change in structure of governance important

The deficit of storm water drains in the city not a result of lack of intent, says MG Devasahayam, a retired bureaucrat and urban planning expert.

“It is just horrible governance. A lot of money was sanctioned for Chennai Corporation to plan and build storm water drains in the city. But it didn’t happen. Chennai corporation, the way it is structured right now, does not have the capacity to do it for a city that has expanded a lot over the last few years. The governing body has not changed to suit the changing needs of the city,” he says.

Accusing those in power and those who get contracts to lay storm water drains of being behind money and not public service, Devasahayam says that the manner in which such infrastructural works are carried out are kept chaotic just to encourage corruption.

“Now what will happen is they will ignore storm water drains and then go for sea water desalination, which is a disaster in waiting. The corporation does not have the capacity to build these. Corruption makes it worse. That’s the simple thing,” he explains. 

The only way, according to him, that this can be resolved is by completely restructuring the governance model of Chennai. “All city-related issues must come under the city governing body. Now in Chennai, water is with the state government, sewage is with the state government, underground drains are with state govt. only small roads and storm water drains are with the corporation. Most of the critical things are not with the municipal corporation. This should change,” he says.