River Beautification

CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) recently released the 2026 Chennai Master Plan. The central theme of the Plan is Chennai’s transformation into a global city. In preparation for this identity, the Cooum River—one of three water bodies that runs through Chennai—is slated for two major development projects: the creation of an elevated express way and river beautification

The Cooum’s present condition as a dead ecosystem is due to the social, physical, and economic changes India underwent during the mid to late 20th century. The Green Revolution, an industrial agricultural scheme introduced in the late 60’s to make India more self-sufficient, has had a lasting impact on soil and water bodies throughout India.

Although the Green Revolution was a success in the first decade, by the 1980’s, crop yields were no better than pre-Revolution. Meanwhile, the industrial farming (which requires more water than small-scale farming) outside of Chennai depleted the Cooum’s water levels. Run off water contaminated with fertilizer was fed back into the river. This, compounded with physical growth and the absence of a citywide drainage system, were the major contributors of the Cooum’s decline.

Walking through central Chennai, you smell the river before you see it. And, when you finally come to it, the sight is as overwhelming as the smell.

Theoretically, neither of the Cooum development projects are bad. No one would argue against beautifying the river. The irony of waterfront beautification is that the impetus is seldom environmental and almost always real estate. River beautification in the case of the Cooum refers to a slum clearance project.

Architect and urban advocate, Charles Correa argues that proximity to resources is more important than newer, better housing (i.e. high-rise apartments). His work in the 1970’s New Bombay slum communities illustrated that informal housing will always develop where there is access to work and infrastructure.

At present, the Cooum itself is no resource, however, it is physically located along side other resources such as construction jobs, Fair Price Shops, schools, and buses.

The 2001 census estimates that 19% of Chennai’s population lives in slums such as those along the Cooum. The 2026 Master Plan  calls for slums eradication in the next 30 years, this is to be done through relocation and housing schemes for the urban poor. History however has shown that relocation outside the central city, where transportation and resources are limited, does little if anything for such populations. The Paris banlieues and favelas of Rio de Janeiro are examples of housing systems that further isolate already marginalized communities.

The Cooum River Beautification project promises a future waterfront full of shopping malls, luxury housing, and water recreation. But will the Cooum be more beautiful? Data from early 2001 found that pollution going into the Cooum could be broken down into the following categories:

Sewage Treatment Plans 49.62%

Sewage Pumping Stations 42.42%

Storm Sewage Drains 6.32%

Commercial 0.97%

Industries 0.50%

Slums 0.14%

Relocating slums outside the central city will not make “a cleaner community.” It will not restore the Cooum River’s ecosystem, nor will it eradicate working class poverty.

“Paris has another Paris under herself,” states Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. The underground Paris he is referring to is of course the sewer system, the “slime minus the human form,” that inevitable discharge of the built environment.

Although it is admittedly more difficult to market the creation of a large-scale waste disposal network then it is the clean up of a polluted river, removing 20% of Chennai’s population from the urban core is no beautification project.

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Comments
2 Responses to “River Beautification”
  1. Hi,

    Can you please tell me where you obtained your data from? Thank you.

    Srinidhi

    • morganfrances says:

      Hi Srinidhi,

      Sorry about the delayed reply and that I can’t provide you with specifics. The data came from a public lecture I attended one day. I was invited through CAG: http://www.cag.org.in/
      They are an amazing advocacy group based in Chennai and might be able to help you much more than myself.

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