As the community outreach team at CAG is closely following the developments related to the Cooum River Eco-restoration project, the team attended another hearing of the case related to the project at the southern bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Chennai on 18th November 2015. The counsels of the petitioner, the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT), the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), and the industries charged with polluting the Cooum (namely, Ennore Thermal Power Station, Chennai Petroleum Corporation, and Madras Fertilizers) were present in the court for the hearing. As before, the slum dwellers were not represented before the NGT even as decisions that would have imminent consequences on their lives and livelihoods were made. During the hearing the bench raised several questions about the on-going works of the project and the action taken on industries that were charged for polluting the river. In response, the government was only dragging its feet and trying to buy time. Interestingly, for a question on the status of removal of encroachments, pat came the reply that the encroachments will be removed as soon as the on-going work to demarcate the river boundaries is completed by December 2015. To me this attitude only confirms the doubt and justifies the mistrust that civil society has about the government’s intentions in undertaking ‘river-cleaning’ projects in Chennai.
A large storm water drain-like outfall discharging fetid and murky water into the Cooum at Vanagaram.
The following is a brief summary of the proceeding of the case at NGT on that day:
- The counsel to CRRT submitted the project status report and said that the de-silting work had started along some stretches of the river and added that so far 1990 metric tonne of solid waste had been removed along the Cooum banks. The counsel also said that two meetings had taken place under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary with all concerned departments as directed by the Tribunal. The counsel also added that the demarcation of the river boundary will be completed by December 2015.
- The judge asked the counsel about the status of the removal of encroachments along the river and the counsel responded saying that the encroachments will be removed after the river boundary demarcation is completed.
- When the judge asked about the timeline fixed for each of the sub-project, the counsel said that it was explained in detail in the report submitted before the bench.
- The judge also questioned the counsel for CRRT about the fund allocation to each department to implement the project. The counsel responded saying that out of the total proposed fund of Rs. 1646.54 crores, Rs. 604.77 crores were already allocated to various departments. When the judge asked about the funding that each department received, the counsel to CRRT said that he would need time till the next hearing to furnish the details.
- The judge asked the counsel for TNPCB about his earlier direction to do a repeated inspection of the three industries that were identified as polluters of Cooum river. The counsel to TNPCB said that the inspection is over but the report could not be submitted as the concerned official who had to sign off on the report had gone on a long leave. The judge sternly warned the board for being careless and added that if the concerned industries fail to submit the action taken report during the next hearing then he would not hesitate to order the closure of those industries.
- Finally, the bench passed an order saying that the work status report submitted by CRRT as directed by the tribunal was satisfactory and that during the next hearing the CRRT should submit further progress reports and the details of funds allotted to each department. The order also directed the TNPCB to submit the inspection and action taken reports during the next hearing which is scheduled for 22nd December 2015.