Auroville's Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants, a commercial unit of the Auroville Foundation, has been awarded the contract to make a Master Plan and to execute the work for the ecological restoration of the Adyar Creek in Chennai.
The Adyar Poonga Master Plan. Click 0n image to enlarge.
Chennai, the coastal metropolis of South India , has a network of six main waterways crossing the city. Two of them, the Adyar and the Cooum, are natural rivers flowing eastward and draining into the Bay of Bengal . The other waterways are man-made. One of them is the Buckingham Canal , which runs from Andhra Pradesh to Marakannam, and cuts through Chennai from north to south, intersecting both rivers.
Once upon a time the Adyar and the Cooum were in pristine condition with balanced eco-systems and beautiful environments.
A mural at the Adyar Poonga exhibition centre shows the wealth of fauna of the original Adyar estuary
As late as the 1960s people fished and bathed in the rivers. Today these waterways are heavily polluted by the indiscriminate dumping of solid waste, by unchecked discharges of untreated industrial effluents and domestic sewage and by the extensive slum encroachments along their banks. Accumulating large volumes of organic sludge, Chennai's polluted waterways have become both an eyesore and a source of disease in the city.
The Adyar estuary
A unique feature of the Adyar River is the estuary at its mouth. It covers an area of roughly 358 acres and extends from the Thru Vi Ka bridge to the sand bars at the edge of the sea. Part of it, an area of 58 acres, is called the Adyar Creek. This estuarine wetland, which is part of the ‘green lungs' of the city, provides a habitat for migratory birds and aquatic animals.
Adyar area and the corresponding map showing land use.
The Adyar Poonga area is marked in green.
But like the river, the estuary too is heavily polluted and its banks have been encroached upon. The languid stream of the Adyar feeds the estuary with pollutants; and what flows out to sea returns with the tides. A large part of the Creek has moreover been filled-in with construction rubble. What could be a place of great natural beauty in central Chennai, located between two of the most-used public spaces in the city, the Marina and Elliot's Beach, is a site of neglect and decay.
Satellite image of the Adyar area
The sorry state of Chennai's waterways has not gone unnoticed. In the mid 1990s, the Consumer Action Group, a city-based NGO, filed a public interest petition to maintain Adyar Creek as a wetland. The Government of Tamil Nadu also contemplated the situation. Merely dredging the estuary and the river had proven to be only make-shift solutions. The problems had to be tackled more drastically, in order to restore the health of the entire ecosystem of the Adyar.
“Auroville got involved with this project in August 2004,” says Joss who heads Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants. “A group of Aurovilians was approached by the former CEO of the Tamil Nadu Road Development Corporation, Mr. Rohit Modi, who was responsible for constructing the East Cast Road . Rohit knew about Auroville and about our environmental work, but he felt that Auroville was ‘a bit hidden behind the trees'. He said that he wanted Auroville to come to the middle of Chennai to help restore the estuary, starting with the Adyar Creek.”
This was the beginning of developing ideas with a large nimber of Aurovilians which included representatives of Auroville's Future, Kolam, Pitchandikulam Forest and Aurofilio, an expert in coastal management. “The meetings soon involved Chennai city and Tamil Nadu state officials as well as members of environmental action groups and other private citizens who were concerned about the issue,” says Joss. Before long they were exploring the idea of creating an Eco Park at the Creek, not only to restore a part of the estuary, but also to serve as a centre for environmental education.
“The Park was to be a showcase of the ecosystem of the Coromandel Coast with fresh water ponds, brackish areas, mangroves, mud flats, dunes, and islands. An information centre would invoke a ‘watershed consciousness', reminding people that we all ‘live downstream'. It would be a focal point for information showing technologies that could be used to clean-up Chennai's waterways and encouraging the public to become involved. Hoardings in and outside the park would show pictures of the original flora and fauna. It should be a place where children can come to watch the Creek's birds, turtles, reptiles and other animals. The Eco Park would help creating ecological awareness in a city of more than 7 million people,” says Joss.
View of the Adyar Estuary and Creek
But in December 2004, the tsunami struck. A large volume of sea water surged upriver, creating havoc in Chennai. Many dwellings surrounding the estuary were destroyed. The Government suddenly had pressing concerns, and the Adyar project was put on hold.
“It was a difficult time,” says Joss. “Auroville's Future, Kolam and Aurofilio withdrew from the project. We from Pitchandikulam Forest decided to get more acquainted with the ground realities. We walked the area and contacted individuals and institutions who could help us understand the issues involved. This included Dirk Walther of the Centre for Environmental Studies of the Anna University of Chennai, a specialist in water resource management; the firm of Godrej, which has extensive experience restoring a large mangrove wetland in Mumbai; as well as the Consumer Action Group which had recently won a case against the Chennai Corporation when it proposed to build a bus depot in the area. The Pitchandikulam team visited ecological restoration sites in India and abroad to establish professional support networks if the project was ever to manifest.”
Slowly the incredible complexity of the issue became better understood, and with it, many questions arose. To build an Eco Park is a very attractive idea, but how could it be protected from the rampant pollution? Should it be cut-off from the rest of the estuary? If yes, how could it be a meaningful demonstration site? Could the Eco Park be made environmentally sustainable? A Master Plan for the entire estuary had to be developed, and the problems had to be tackled at the source; upriver. All of Chennai's waterways had to be cleaned up. The magnitude of the problem is staggering, as there are hundreds of thousands of people living on the banks.”
A wetland inside the Adyar Creek
In July 2005, initial plans for the ecological restoration of the entire Adyar Creek were presented to the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. J. Jayalalitha, and other officials. The ideas were approved, and it was decided to create a special trust for the project. However, state elections were looming in Tamil Nadu, and before the project could start, the Government changed.
In the middle of 2006, the new Government re-activated the project. “We made presentations to many officials, amongst whom the Chief Secretary, Mr. L.K. Tripathy, who is familiar with Auroville as he has been Secretary of the Auroville Foundation. Their response was overwhelmingly positive,” says Joss. Meetings with Mr. M.K. Stalin, Minister for Local Administration, and with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Shri M. Karunanidhi, followed.
The government decided to give the project high priority. A decision was made to restore the entire Adyar estuary and to set aside an amount of Rs.100 crore (US $ 25 million) for the work. In October 2006, the Government created the ‘Adyar Poonga Trust', headed by the Chief Secretary, and transferred to it the 58 acres of the Adyar Creek. It appointed the Chennai based Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Limited (TNUIFSL) as the project's implementing agency.
The ball is set rolling
Subsequently, TNUIFSL appointed Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants as the Lead Consultants for developing the Master Plan of the 58-acres Adyar Creek. It specified what the Master Plan should contain: a feasibility study; the preparation of a detailed project plan; park usage patterns; a traffic plan; infrastructure linkage plans; water management plans; flora and fauna habitat mapping; the conceptual landscape and architectural designs; a communication and education strategy; a park maintenance plan; and the way in which the plan should be disseminated to all interested groups and stakeholders in Chennai so that their comment could be integrated into the final version of the Master Plan. After years of preparation, the ball was finally rolling.
Why Auroville? “We are neutral,” says Joss. “The officials know that we have no vested interests, we are not doing it for the money, and we are not even seen as hard-core environmentalists who say ‘no' to any development. Somehow we are trusted, and that trust is being enhanced by the long list of reputed specialists we consult and employ in the fields of water management, environmental education, flora and fauna habitat mapping, social impact studies, alternative and appropriate technologies, architecture and landscaping.” The list includes the Centre for Environmental Studies of the Anna University, Chennai; the Madras Christian College; the Zoological Survey of India; Idea Design (Cochin); House of Consultants (Bangalore); SCD India Ltd (Chennai); Ceres (Australia); and from Auroville architects Ajit and Shama and AuroRe, Auroville Botanical Gardens, Auroville Earth Institute and Sound Wizard.
In March 2007, preparation of the Master Plan started. “The cooperation of the Government has been admirable,” says Joss. It instructed officials of the Chennai Corporation to fence-off the area and remove encroachments around the Creek. The Slum Clearance Board was directed to provide alternative tenements for the approximately 300 families living there. The Public Works Department was instructed to clear encroachments in the entire estuary and remove debris. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board was instructed to ensure that all sewage and wastewater would be treated before being let into Adyar Creek. Most importantly, all departments and organisations that have plans that may impact the Adyar Creek project or the estuary have been requested to coordinate their activities in accordance with the Master Plan. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Shri Karunanidhi, laid the foundation stone for the project in August 2007.
Opposition to the plans
But it was too early to rejoice. The Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group and other groups went to Court against the concept plans of the Adyar Poonga, stating that the project would adversely affect the estuarine wetland. “Instead of adopting sustainable methods to protect eco-sensitive areas, the Government has embarked upon an unsustainable project that will ensure the destruction of the Adyar Creek area,” said the Action Groups. They also objected that the restoration should be restricted to one portion of the creek instead of including the entire estuary. What followed were four months of intense meetings with special committees of experts debating each aspect of the plan. “We reprinted the Master Plan five times, and presented it in the famous and extremely beautiful Court No. 1 before the Chief Justice. During this time, 15,000 people visited the exhibition of the Master Plan and the site itself including students from more than 50 schools,” says Joss.
The Court asked the parties to come to an agreement. “That was reached on the last day of December 2007,” says Joss. “The High Court then validated our agreement and declared the revised Master Plan dated January 1, 2008 for the Adyar Creek as final. It also set-up a monitoring committee for the project, consisting of members of the Adyar Poonga Trust and representatives of governmental and non-governmental organisations. This committee will monitor the implementation of the project on behalf of the Court. In April this year, TNUIFSL appointed Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants as the contractors to execute the Adyar Creek project. The works are scheduled to take 2½ years.
View of the Adyar Estuary and Creek
And now, to work
The Pitchandikulam team, understandably exhausted by the complexities of the process, feel relieved that this stage is over but are sobered by the reality that the actual work of transformation of a garbage dump and a cess poll into a beautiful garden and restored wetland must now begin.
“We often say it is a dream project in hell,” says Joss. “It is a heavy responsibility to have not only been given the opportunity to draft the Master Plan for the Adyar Creek, but also to have been charged with its implementation, but we are encouraged that there is a real willingness to do something for the environment. In Europe, it has been possible to clean big rivers such as the Rhine and the Thames . The Tamil Nadu Government has now committed itself to clean out the Adyar. The cleaning of other waterways in Chennai is sure to follow. If we can keep up the enthusiasm from both the government and from the citizens, then this ‘mission impossible' might well become a success.”
All images courtesy Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants