Red Hills Reservoir is in the news again. As per news reports, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) had accepted an application from the Small Industries Development Corporation (SIDCO) to allocate around 54 acres of land in the Red Hills catchment area for the construction of a women’s entrepreneur zone.
This land is designated as ‘Redhills catchment area’ in the Master Plan 2026; that is, no construction or development activity is allowed here. But once the project is approved, the land use will be changed to ‘industrial’. The move has elicited criticism from citizens of Chennai, reeling as they are under severe water shortage.
Now, it is not clear what the outcome of the application is. A few news reports have stated that the Public Works Department (PWD) has started desilting work at the reservoir to prepare the land for the entrepreneur zone. There were also reports in newspapers, that the reclassification application had been kept in abeyance since SIDCO and CMDA had not adhered to due process in the application process.
Why is the land use reclassification drawing flak from Chennaiites? The answer is clear: CMDA was not transparent in granting permission for the project on the environmentally-sensitive land at Red Hills Reservoir.
CMDA’s opaque and insidious reclassification procedure
In our previous articles on zoning, we have explained the procedure to be followed for reclassification of land. The procedure followed by CMDA to reclassify the Red Hills land (survey numbers: 44/1, 45 and 175/1) is illegal, our analysis suggests.
|Mandatory rules to reclassify land||Did CMDA follow it?|
|Publishing the reclassification request in newspapers||Yes. On 3 August this year, CMDA published an advertisement on the seventh page of an English daily.|
|Seeking responses from the general public||Yes. The published advertisement asked citizens to write to the planning authority. Several citizens did write in, and received an acknowledgement from CMDA.|
|Examining responses/ objections||No. The CMDA misrepresented, in response to an RTI application, that it did not receive any objection.|
|Organising public consultation||Not organised|
“CMDA’s move to ‘develop’ the Red hills catchment area comes at a time when Chennai is witnessing a cycle of floods and drought. What is shocking is that the department lied outright to get the work done. This shows the department is only following these procedures as a formality,” said Prashanth Goutham.
Organisations like Arappor Iyakkam and Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), had also filed their objections with CMDA, requesting a reversal of the decision. “Whether CMDA intends to entertain our objections will be known only when they pass an order that the reclassification attempt stands cancelled and no further reclassification attempts of any kind on water bodies and associated lands will be attempted in the future,” Goutham said.
A self destructive move
Red Hills Lake, with a storage capacity of 3300 mcft (million cubic feet) is an important reservoir for Chennai. It holds rainwater, and the excess water reaches Kosasthalaiyar river.
The catchment area of Red Hills is already encroached – one can see a cattle breeding centre and a forage development centre (both maintained by Tamil Nadu government) encroaching upon the pre-catchment part of the water body.
“The development control rules of CMDA do not permit any sort of development in the catchment area. However, a lot of godowns are set up here. Industrial effluents contaminate the fresh water in the lake,” said S Thirunavakarusu, retired engineer, PWD.
How would development on the lake affect citizens? “The survey numbers of the land where the women’s entrepreneur zone has been planned is a pre-catchment area of Red Hills. Rainwater reaches the pre-catchment area directly. Encroachment in such areas would alter the characteristics of the lake, including water storage, tree cover and topography. It will eventually lead to the reduction of water storage levels and aggravate the city’s water crisis,” added Thirunavakarusu.
“The reservoir is also a victim of official inaction, as one can see heaps of garbage dumped and occasionally burnt at its fringes. The boundaries of the lake are not earmarked either, due to which there is unabated encroachment,” said Harris Sultan, a civic activist.
Officials from the nodal agencies — CMDA and PWD — are unwilling to comment on the issue. It is the duty of the citizens of Chennai to stall development at this important reservoir by filing a petition at the National Green Tribunal. Only a citizen movement can get authorities to rethink their decision.