Kochi grappled with the issue of urban flooding in October 2019 like never before in its past. A day-long downpour massively inundated the city, bringing economic activities and public life to a standstill for days. With the southwest monsoon predicted to hit the Kerala shores on June 1, and the flood mitigation measures still incomplete, the city is likely to witness inundation in the coming monsoon.
Operation Breakthrough, a project started to tackle the urban flooding of Kochi, has been stalled since the nationwide lockdown commenced. Though plans are being mooted to restart the project by the Ernakulam district administration, a final decision is yet to be taken.
When Kochi city faced widespread flooding in October 2019, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan convened a meeting with Ernakulam district administration and Kochi Corporation officials. Operation Breakthrough was mooted in that meeting, as a replica of Operation Anantha which tackled the inundation of Thiruvananthapuram city a few years ago. Operation Breakthrough is being implemented by Ernakulam Disaster Management Authority, headed by Collector S Suhas. Few engineering officials of Kochi Corporation are also part of the task force of the project.
According to officials, the project was aimed to fix clogged drains, widen canals and construct new drains to allow water to flow out to the Vembanad Lake. The project designed to be held in two phases, started on January 1, with the declaration that it will be completed within 90 days, that is before the commencement of the year’s monsoon. But as the country went into a lockdown on March 25, the works were stalled.
But the project received criticism that it was going at a snail's pace even before the lockdown. Even officials part of the project admitted that the first phase could not be completed over the course of January-mid March (before lockdown).
Sources part of the project told TNM that this happened mainly due to a financial crunch.
Operation Breakthrough works before lockdown
“Funds were not being sanctioned from the government. Even workers could not be properly paid. Though initially concreting old drains was planned, Kochi Corporation was later asked to take up the works on its own. And hence phase 1 was changed only to widening canals and fixing clogged drains,” said the source.
“From what I came to know, most probably phase 2 has to be cancelled and now we have to stick with only completing phase 1 before the monsoon,” added the source.
Phase 2 includes construction of drains that will connect water to Vembanad Lake.
Meanwhile, speaking to TNM, District Collector S Suhas said that the works could have been completed if there were no lockdown.
Pre-monsoon works of Kochi Corporation on the anvil
Kochi Corporation, the local body of the city is facing many jolts to start it's pre-monsoon works.
From financial issues to lack of workers, the hurdles are many.
"We could not start the pre-monsoon work because of the lockdown. But again if we do not start the work, things will go out of hand during the rains. We have sought permission from the state government to start the pre monsoon works," said PM Haris, Chairman of the Standing Committee for Works of Kochi Corporation.
On Thursday Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that local bodies can start the pre-monsoon works and that lockdown will not be a hindrance for that. But Harris said that the Kochi Corporation also faces the problem of contractors not showing interest in taking up the works.
"Normally it would take about two to three months for a bill to be sanctioned by the state government. In the present scenario it might even take longer. So most of the contractors are not showing interest to take up the tender. The only option which is in front of us is to try requesting a contractor who is financially stable so that that person can adjust the delay in payment," said Haris.
He also adds that the local body will soon convene a meeting with contractors for this.
Criticising the local body Dr D Dhanuraj, Chairman of Centre for Public Policy Research, a think-tank based in Kochi, said that the Kochi Corporation is yet to make an effective plan to tackle the problem which had been brewing over the last many years.
"This is not a new problem. Kochi's urbanisation and unscientific construction, including the drainage system, is the basic reason behind this and as a local body, Kochi Corporation has not been successful in tackling this over the years," said Dhanuraj.
With Operation Breakthrough yet to complete phase 1 and the Kochi Corporation struggling to start pre-monsoon works, the chances of preventing inundation appear bleak.