Chengalpattu, the first rural district out of Chennai had been referred to, a hundred years ago, as the lake district because of its numerous water bodies. Despite reclamation of several of them for illegal settlement by people, a large number of lakes remain. They are not well maintained and would profit from desilting, but at least they hold their place as well-entrenched geographical entities.
Madurantakam, the next big town to the south of Chengalpattu, has one of the largest rainwater holding tanks in north Tamil Nadu. It is adjacent to a highly regarded temple. About 15 km away, in the village of Jamin Endathur, where pointReturn is, there is a vast irrigation tank too. In Peruveli and Netrambakkam, the two adjacent villages also have large rainwater holding irrigation tanks. A range of hillocks and their foothills form the watershed for all the three village tanks.
Ideally, the watershed should have been groomed to prevent violent run off, the tanks’ feeding channels kept clear and the tanks themselves desilted periodically and their banks held in good repair. The prefix Jamin in front of Endathur indicates that until Independence, there was a Jamindar, or a local lord. In the Jamindari days it was common for each land holding household to contribute a given number of man-days of labour per year, for maintaining the water system. In addition, the Jamindar also employed landless labourers on wages to assist in the annual routine. It was good business all around because villagers gained paid employment and the Jamindar gained higher tax revenue because of the greater irrigated acreage. Everyone felt a sense of ownership about the village tanks as their lives meshed with them.
Soon after Independence, the Jamindari was abolished and good riddance too; but with the bath water as it were, went the baby as well. The government took charge of all village tanks, which were at once no one’s baby but the government’s. With that disconnect came neglect of traditional practices of water management. Now central planners, government engineers, sleazy contractors and party cadres would manage water resources.
The consequences were soon on display: untamed run-off, silted up canals and ponds, created wastelands [-such as the pointReturn site], flooding, water shortages and droughts. Even if our merchant princes are waiting -and they are not- to dig ponds, they cannot without the state’s nod. What they can do is dig ponds on their own lands but oh my, whoever has heard of such inanity as this! Isn’t providing water the government’s job? And so it went. And it went too far.