Despite multiple assurances of improving the city’s infrastructure to prevent a mishap like 2015 floods, mismanagement of Chennai’s stormwater drains ensured that the promise remained on paper.

A representative picture of a stormwater drain being cleared
news Chennai Rains Saturday, November 13, 2021 - 11:27

Roads inundated, water entering homes, lakes overflowing – the recent Chennai floods brought back nightmarish memories from the 2015 rains for residents of the city. Despite multiple assurances of improving the city’s infrastructure to ensure that a tragedy like 2015 doesn’t occur again, the mismanagement of Chennai’s stormwater drains once again meant that the promise remained only on paper. Several stormwater drains, some even newly constructed, were seen overflowing, with outlets blocked. 

One of the reasons behind this is the delay in initiatives to build stormwater drains. A slew of projects initiated by the previous AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu have been stalled due to several reasons. In December 2020, for instance, an integrated stormwater drain network project was announced at a cost of Rs 3,220 crore in north Chennai. The project aimed to build integrated drains under the Kosasthalaiyar Basin Project spanning over 770 kms. Apart from construction of primary, secondary and tertiary drains, the project also included renovation of 170 km of existing stormwater drains. But the project did not take off for at least six months due to delays by contractors. And after it commenced in June-July 2021, several hiccups caused further delays. For example, the construction of drains in Madhavaram had to be stopped after several complaints of poor quality of work were raised by residents. The delays and unplanned digging has resulted in sewage water getting collected in the dug up pits alongside roads, causing roads to get inundated during excessive rains. 

On the other hand, a Rs 1,300-crore project was sanctioned to build stormwater drains in south Chennai’s Kovalam basin on the East Coast Road. Questions were raised over the need for stormwater drains in coastal areas where, experts say, the sandy soil will soak up 40% of the rain received. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed the construction and said that the required environmental clearances were not obtained and several eco-sensitive areas, like the Olive Ridley turtle nesting site, could be harmed.

Unscientific planning of stormwater drains

Jayaram Venkatesan, the convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, a Chennai-based NGO that works on exposing corruption in the Chennai Municipal Corporation, says that the construction of stormwater drains in the city is both unscientifically planned and riddled with corruption. “They initially had an integrated stormwater drain system within the city on which Rs 2,000 crore were spent. And then, instead of charting the missing links between the stormwater drains and connecting them, they only did reconstruction of the existing drains which was unnecessary,” he says. This reconstruction was part of the Rs 170-km renovation project announced in December 2020.

“If you look at the entire beach stretch on the left of the Neelankarai area, there will be no issue even today because it has sandy soil and water will automatically abate. And in the coastal area, they have come up with a Rs 2,400-crore stormwater drain project that is now being executed. And in many elevated areas, like Madhavaram Milk Colony, stormwater drains that are not required have been constructed,” he says. 

Jayaram says the design and the construction is illogical in many places and this leads to flooding even where stormwater drains are newly constructed. He alleges that in places where the drains are required, the ones constructed do not ensure that water goes into the canals. “For example, in the T Nagar area, where a lot of the smart city funds have been spent, we see flooding on Giriappa Road and other streets due to structural errors, disconnected drains and blockage of outlets. The Mambalam canal is nearby, yet, we saw floods,” he adds. 

Damaged tail end of the drainage system

Pooja Kumar of Coastal Resource Centre says that even if the stormwater drains carry the excess water, if the final discharge area is encroached upon or blocked, then flooding will continue - just that it will happen at another location in the city. “The new integrated stormwater drains planned in the Kosasthalaiyar river basin can be effective in bringing water to the tail end of the larger drainage system but we have seen in places like Ennore that the tail end is damaged and encroached upon. So even if the drains carry the water, the health of the tail end is critical for these systems to work,” she says.  

The focus of the Chennai Corporation has largely been on building new drains instead of maintaining and linking the existing ones, experts allege. And blocked drains are the prime reason why water-logging continues in places like Ennore. “Maintenance of stormwater drains is very critical. It has to be ensured that the drains are desilted, do not act as a conduit for sewage, and that debris and garbage is not dumped into them,” says Pooja. She adds that the half-constructed drains in the Kovalam basin pose the threat of bringing in sea water inland. The stormwater drains in the coastal areas, like the ones in East Coast Road (ECR) that open up into the beach, can bring water inland if the waves are strong during high tide. 

Greater Chennai Corp justifies delays

Gagandeep Singh Bedi, the Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner told TNM that he had insisted on changes to be made to the stormwater drains’ design. “In the Kovalam system, one issue was raised by the NGT and we will comply. But after I took over, I insisted that the designs should be vetted by our engineers also and only then we will proceed. Now they have vetted those and have made several changes. We are yet to call for tenders. We have to go only with the designs that are beneficial for the public, not the contractor” he said. 

He said that in the Kosasthalaiyar River basin, work had already begun when he took over as the commissioner. “But I stopped the work and asked them to study for two months. We have made many changes to the design, many of the drains have been deleted from the blueprint and many others have been modified. Wherever required, we should modify it. The flooding now is not because of stormwater drains but because the system itself is strained. The Buckingham canal as well as the feeding canals were full, which is why it took time for the water to drain out,” he said. The Buckingham Canal runs parallely along the coast, from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh to Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. In Chennai, it runs parallel to the coast, perpendicular to the Adyar and Coovam rivers and most of the storm water drains open into the canal. 

Allegations of corruption

Activists also allege that the Corporation continues to lack transparency and even the maps of the stormwater drains have not been made available on the public domain so far. This, despite several demands for the same over the last five years. “So, as citizens, we do not know which drain connects to the other; whether there is any gradient or not,” says Jayaram.  

Jayaram alleges that 40% of the drains are ready-mix concrete structures and while the market price is Rs 5,000 per unit, the corporation has been awarding tenders for Rs 10,000 per unit. 

He says that corruption at multiple levels means that the tenders for building and maintaining the stormwater drains is a huge stumbling block. “We have released evidence to show how in 2019, out of Rs 400 crore stormwater drain project, many of tenders are prefixed for contractors and how the contractors’ family members compete for tenders using the same IP address,” he says. This is allegedly done to show on paper that multiple bids were evaluated by the Corporation before awarding the tender, but it is members of the contractor’s own family that send in their bids. Activists allege that the tender process in many cases is, thus, fraudulent. 

“These tenders are always handed to a syndicate of contractors who have a huge number of contracts; thus causing a delay in execution,” Jayaram adds.

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