A city where sewage odour is an iconic smell and vet hospitals replace libraries, Nityanand Jayaraman imagines Chennai as the national capital through news reports
22 July 2010, Chennai: The city ranked a dismal fourth out of seven national capitals in a TEHELKA survey of South Asian countries. Its smelly water bodies and infamous auto drivers contributed to the slide despite its superior performance on criteria such as local culture and cuisine, education, safety, recreation, and political and economic stability.
Thimphu, Bhutan, was far ahead of its rivals. Blessed with perennial rivers — the Adyar and the Cooum — sandy beaches and the Bay of Bengal to the east and low hills to the west, Chennai has the natural infrastructure to take on Himalayan cities of Thimphu and Kathmandu. But that was not to be.
Decades of neglect have turned the rivers into sewers, and their odour into the iconic smell of Chennai. “Ancient Tamil texts talk about Tamil culture’s respect for water. But the modern Tamilian is seemingly anti-water. If there is a water body, we will either urinate, defecate or construct engineering colleges,” says S Boothalingam, a chronicler of Chennai’s growth from a cluster of fishing hamlets to the Indian capital. Ironically, Boothalingam says he feels homesick every time he smells sewage.
Besides the foul-smelling rivers, a cross-sectional survey revealed a near-unanimous sentiment that Chennai’s auto drivers are a blight on the city’s reputation. “They not only cheat you. They make sure you know you’re being cheated. They’ll abuse you and drop you halfway in pouring rain,” says K Sivaranjani, a homemaker who recently bought a scooter on loan just to avoid engaging with auto drivers.
Kathmandu and Malé, Maldives, ranked second and third, while Dhaka ranked just below Chennai. Islamabad and Colombo tied for the last place, pulled down by their poor ranking on the criteria of political instability, safety and security issues, and multiculturalism.
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22 December 2011, Chennai: Regional parties from across the country banded together to protest against Indian PM Selvi Kumari’s penchant for undoing her predecessor and archrival Koo Maa Naruna – kidhi’s ‘pet projects’. Staging a march around the currently used Parliament building in Fort St George, the predominantly north Indian Parliamentarians slammed the All India Dravidian National Front (AIDNF)-led Untied People’s Alliance government’s move to convert a newly constructed Parliament library into a super speciality veterinary hospital. The protest was sparked by an aborted self-immolation bid by a Narunakidhi loyalist.
The new library houses the world’s largest collection of books on law and governance, conference facilities and a comprehensive braille section. Housed beneath a dome inspired by the great Chola temples, the library was built by Narunakidhi’s Dravidian National Front (DNF) government at a cost of Rs 800 crore. “The ego battle between DNF and AIDNF can’t go on at the cost of taxpayer’s money,” says Sukhvinder Singh, the leader of the Alliance of Neglected Non-South Indian Political Parties. Singh also says, “It is not as if there are no worthy dynasties in the North. They sho uld be given a chance too.”
In a move to dissipate tensions with her north Indian colleagues, the PM announced that more than 250 Central government buildings, airports, streets, housing settlements and government schemes bearing the names of leaders of the Narunakidhi family will henceforth be renamed to reflect the contributions of north Indian post-independence dynastic rulers.
Jayaraman is an environmental activist.