Can you imagine a city of villages? How would it be to have a cluster of villages with the right amount of open spaces, right amount of built and the water in the purest form? Well, Chennai or more aptly – Madras was one such utopian idea before urbanisation stole its innocence to make it into yet another threat.
Chennai has the oldest municipal governance in the whole of the sub continent. The City Corporation here was set up by the British in 1668 which distributed the land along the fort of Madras to form a dense community. Even then the ‘city’ was sustainable interacting efficiently between the urban centre with the fort and the trade, villages, ‘karacheris’ or squatter settlements and the colonial suburban estates in the periphery. With the evolution of housing patterns in the city and with the ever increasing population, the corporation started using these open lands and water bodies to fill the needs. One can trace down the development of the city built on these ever increasing ghetto housing projects, constantly building over water bodies and lung spaces.
One such leverage in this monopoly of land has been The Buckingham canal. It is a salt water tidal canal running from Peddaganjam in Andhra Pradesh to Marakanam near Pondicherry. It was built by the British and most of Madras and present day Chennai has grown with the canal. The canal initially was shaped to serve the trading interests of the elite British businessman and over the years occupied by the economically weaker sections of the society.
Currently, the part which runs in the middle of the city of Chennai is camouflaged by the sewage outlets from its sprawling surroundings and the width of the canal ranges from 40 to 50 meters in the outskirts of the city to 4 to 5 meters inside the city. The canal passes through the city of Chennai for about 40 km and one can notice the varied land use patterns along it. The stretch from Ennore creek to Central station is more of industrial and houses the main transit hubs, harbour and thermal power stations of the city. The second stretch from the Coovum River till Thiruvanmiyur, crossing the Adyar River is majorly residential and commercial with few institutions here and there. The latter part of the canal after Thiruvanmiyur retains its ecological character but is slowly being taken by rapid urbanisation. The canal connects most of the natural backwaters, rivers and lakes along the coast. Thus, even though man made, it is an essential part of the ecosystem.
We identified the first walk along the Buckingham canal from Kotturpuram to Mylapore – one of the most prolific neighbourhoods of the city. The walk was designed for self exploration of what did the canal mean to the people and how was it being perceived by the general public. The walk commenced from the Kotturpuram MRTS station to the joining point of the canal to the Adyar River as a group and then split into three groups to explore the canal along the stretch only to return with varied experiences and questions about the city and ourselves.
The entire stretch along the canal here has the sub urban railway network right on the canal. The Kotturpuram – Mylapore stretch has four major stations;- the Kotturpuram station before the river, Greenways road, Mandaveli and Mylapore stations after crossing the Adyar River. Adding to the chaos the neighbourhoods along the canal is a juxtaposition of well to do houses and the slum settlements on the banks facing their backs to the canal.
The questions and observations from the participants centred around the possibilities of MRTS and its huge and unused stations and the vast amount of residue spaces along the banks of the canal which act as a conflict spaces which are seldom put to use. The MRTS line is definitely a visual barrier which hides the canal from the view of people and thus, out of mind.
MRTS (Mass Rapid Transport System)
In a means to expand the existing suburban rail network in Chennai, a survey by the Madras Area Transportation Study Unit (MATSU) was conducted, which was set up by the Planning Commission during 1968–1970. The Metropolitan Transport Project (MTP) was established by the Indian railways in 1971. The surveys and studies identified eight important transport corridors, including the 39-km north–south-eastern rail corridor along the Buckingham Canal. Since the rail line passes through congested parts of the city, an elevated rail system with an alignment along the Buckingham Canal was selected, as it would avoid land-acquisition problems.
The Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System is a state-owned metropolitan elevated railway line operated by Southern Railways. The line runs within the city limits connecting the central business area of old Madras with the IT corridor from Chennai Beach to Velachery with an average daily ridership of 100,000 commuters a day but having a potential capacity of 425,000 passengers a day. Much of it can be attributed for the gigantic stations built to accommodate shopping malls but the construction was never completed. These stations sit on the canal let alone beside it. In the places we walked there were areas where one could not see the canal just to find it hidden below the humongous stations. The MRTS brings with itself a varied range of residual spaces which gets used in many ways directly impacting the canal. One of the major residual spaces is the MRTS stations itself which are large, dingy and seldom put to use. The drop in the use of this railway line can be partly attributed to this.
The canal has constantly been a source for vandalism in terms of taking in the city’s sewage flowing through the MRTS. The width here in the stretch between Coovum and Adyar River has reduced to the width of MRTS stations such that in some places the canal needs to be searched to see if it exists.
The rate of pollution has increased considerably since 1995, majorly after the MRTS was built. The MRTS has decreased the flow of water and has become an obstacle in retaining the canal. Adding to this the MTP has built concrete walls along the sides of the canal which makes it even more like a drainage channel where people throw their garbage. The flood plains of the canal have been encroached time and again forming parking, platforms, slums or concrete walls which hide the whole canal and it becomes a residual space for people to throw their waste, squat and for other illicit activities.
Another striking thing about the people along the canal is their irresponsibility towards it. One rather very interesting observation made by the teams on this was how the people’s view of their surroundings is very reductionist and they do not care about their surroundings let alone the future of the planet. They readily accept the impact they have created for the canal and are complacent about it, seldom realising that it is also their waste that is floating in their backyards.
Surely it is not an ideal place to live with all the sewage and garbage strewn around, the quality of the water is so bad that one cannot even stand at the place for more than few minutes. But the people do not want to move either as their livelihood depends on odd jobs in and around the city. The housing settlements provided by the government are much away from the city, thus making the commute very difficult.
Besides, the canal banks have hidden historical treasures which almost always are covered with garbage and clutter. One of the sharing that came along was from the famous Kutchery road where there were these old set of steps that lead to the canal. These steps were used to reach the water and the villagers then used to bathe and wash clothes. The canal was a visual treat with boats and people. The banks had trees and bushes acting as a flood plain. The canal banks had boat jetties and lock gates from point to point.
The Canal – River relationship
The canal links with the Adyar River in two places both had old brick and iron flood gates which are nowhere to be seen. The canal was built for navigation of goods by the British and since it is parallel to the coast, it does not have a slope. And thus to retain the water, these flood gates were built. Since the disuse of canal, the gates also were left without maintenance. Currently the sewage from the canal pollutes the river as well.
One of the locals here narrated a very interesting story where he depicted a scene where his father who has grown up in this neighbourhood, used to catch fish in the Buckingham Canal during the high tides. The water levels used to rise for about 2 meters and the canal would be alive with fishes and other backwater species of aquaculture.
The whole idea of this water walk was to make people aware that such a canal exists in the city, much of it in good condition but outside the city limits. The city has time and again been favouring its built fabric, more than the culture and its ecology. What is the future of the Buckingham Canal? Can it be revived? Well, of course it can! But are we ready to even see it having a chance of coming back to life? In a follow up article we will share experiences recorded by the various participants on this walk.
Project Head, Agam Sei
The Chennai City Water Walk was conducted by Prithvi Mahadevan (Agam Sei) and Udhay Rajan (WeBe Design Lab). The City Water Walks initiative aims to introduce the urban dweller to the basics of the local water infrastructure, affording an insight into where does water come from, what happens to it and where does it finally end up. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in doing a Water Walk in your city.