Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2018
Kalaignar Karunanidhi and members of his cabinet enjoy a boat ride on the Cooum.
You just could not deny it – Kalaignar Karunanidhi was a go-getter and an achiever. The various accusations of corruption apart, the man was known for his speedy implementation of any scheme that took his fancy. That he came a cropper in some, the Veeranam Water Supply project being the foremost, did not really deter him. There were several others that came to happier conclusions. One that sadly did not, was the Cooum Improvement Scheme.
C.N. Annadurai, who had once declared the Cooum to be a blot on the face of Chennai, was all for this pet project of Kalaignar. Largely at the latter’s prodding, the first phase of the project was launched by Anna, in his capacity as Chief Minister, on September 19, 1967. “On completion of the improvement scheme, the Cooum will bring Madras city a place of pride like the Thames of London,” declared Anna. He then went on to add, that his “younger brother Karunanidhi has been pressuring me for financial provision when our first budget was under preparation. He could not rest assured on my statement till he himself saw the finance allocation.” The Kalaignar was then Minister for Public Works.
A. Srivathsan, writing in The Hindu in 2009, has recorded that it was only by the proverbial whisker that the Cooum escaped being blocked and covered up in 1960. A scheme was proposed to divert the river at Chetpet and link it with the Adyar. The rest of it was to be closed. Fortunately, this scheme was rejected by a high-powered committee. A fallout of this was the need to improve the river and hence Kalaignar’s scheme. Budgeted at Rs 118 lakhs, it was launched with much fanfare by Anna.
Karunanidhi as PWD Minister was most enthusiastic about the project. The river, he declared, would be maintained consistently at a minimum depth of eight feet and soon big cargo boats and motor boats would sail on it. The project became a talking point for him and in most press conferences and Assembly sessions of the time, you find him repeatedly bringing up the subject and speaking on it most enthusiastically. The scheme involved narrowing the width of the river and casing its sides with concrete, this being a necessity for increasing the depth of the water. Incidentally, this is now being done in Ahmadabad for the Sabarmati River Project.
Certain proposals made by earlier Governments were also made part of the project. Noteworthy among these was the construction of several facilities just off the Marina – a gymnasium, a swimming pool, canteen facilities and, most importantly, a boat club. The entire project received a further fillip when, following the demise of Annadurai in 1969, Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister. The Corporation of Madras began issuing enthusiastic reports of the progress in the river improvement scheme.
The Marina Boat House, with a happy family enjoying a cruise in the foreground, 1973.
Dredging of the river was taken up as Phase 1 of the project and this was flagged off by Karunanidhi in 1967. In 1970, steps were taken to evict all slum dwellers on the banks of the Cooum, this being necessary to carry out strengthening work on the banks. Next came the installation of a regulator and a sand pump at the mouth of the river. This was an absolute necessity given that the Cooum lay south of the harbour and so was a victim of littoral drift, the phenomenon that causes accretion of sand. Eight boating jetties were built all along the river. These were in the best PWD style – modernist with concrete pillars holding up a roof comprising several small arches. The Boat House on the Marina was far more grandiose. It had more than one floor, large verandahs that afforded a grand view of the mouth of the river and a boating jetty. The boathouse on the Marina was completed by 1973. In many ways, these were the most visible elements of the river improvement scheme. Most significantly, the plan did not envisage cleaning the water in the river or plugging the various outlets of untreated sewage that emptied into the waterbody.
The regulator and pump were in place by 1970. A vast team of workers descended on the Cooum to clean the river of all rubbish. Rowing boats, power boats and paddle boats were procured. A gala inauguration of the Cooum Pleasure Boat service took place in February 1973 with the Chief Minister and cabinet getting into boats and sailing on the river. But alas, nobody had contended with the volume of sand accumulating at the mouth. Technical difficulties soon arose with the pump. The boat rides that took place between Napier Bridge and Chetpet, had to soon be given up.
The project may have received due attention had not the DMK Government been dismissed during the Emergency. The rival ADMK did not want to pay attention to a project so closely associated with its bête noire. Thereafter, with no functioning Corporation Council owing to the muster roll scandal, and the newly formed Madras Water Supply and Sewerage Board working on other pressing issues, the Cooum was given up. There were several schemes to improve the river thereafter but none caught the public imagination like the boat service.
Today, all that remains are a couple of abandoned boat jetties that are visible from the bridges over the river. For a brief while, they were the cynosure of all eyes with the public queuing up for rides. Now, as the Times of India wrote, they appear to be waiting for the boats that will never come.
Rather ironically, Kalaignar was interred very close to the Marina boathouse.