The white blanket: Foaming on Buckingham Canals

Chennai: Driving down the rickety path towards the Buckingham Canal in Perungudi a pungent smell fills the air. Looking around one can see heaps of garbage and human feces on the roadside. Adjacent to these heaps, small industries and shops are set up.

Further down the broken road the stench increases. Crossing the main road, the blackish green water of the Buckingham Canal comes into view. White foam blankets the filthy water. A similar blanket of foam was witnessed on the Bellandur Lake in Bangalore which caught fire. The environmentalists believe that this occurs due to the large quantity of heavy metals in the lake water.

The canal runs for about 796Kms. Out of which, it runs for 10 kms in the south of the city of Chennai, Perungudi being one of the most affected areas as the canal is adjacent to the Industrial estate. It is one of the few navigation canals in South India. It starts at Kakinada in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, and ends at the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu

Abhijeet Bhaumik an environmentalist in Bangalore during a telephonic interview said, “Froth formations like the one at the Bellandur Lake are results of various activities. These include garbage disposal on the banks, toxic waste being disposed into the water body, sewage waste being disposed off on the banks, and also the disposal of domestic, that is, household waste into the water.”

The industries claim that the canal has been contaminated due to the sewage system. An anonymous government source stated the opposite, “The canal is affected by poor sewage only to a percentage of 10%. The companies in the industrial estate have a notable role in the contamination,” the source said while hurrying for lunch.

The maintenance of the canal within the city came to a standstill in the seventies. The entrances to the canal from the North and South Chennai have been polluted by sewage and industrial waste, thus it cannot be used.

Major automobile companies like Mercedes Benz, Ford and Maruti have their service centers in the industrial estate. Speaking to these companies an astonishing fact came into light. There were a few companies who treated their waste before disposing, while there were others who disposed it into the canal.

“We treat our water and waste at the Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP). In this process two tankers are used, one takes away the slug to the plant flowed by another which gets the treated water from the plant,” Veer Raj, manager of the Ford service centre said as he folded his arms and placed them on the table.

This was not the case at the Maruti service centre. The service advisor of the service centre said that the company uses 3mm polish for its daily activities. He also stated that the water was not being treated. They are in the midst of establishing a water treatment system.

This was not so for small scale companies like Ranganath Scrapers. “I am not very rich like the big companies; thus I am not in a position to get my waste water treated before being disposed. I find it easier to dispose it into the canal, for I have seen companies doing it for years now” the scrap shop’s owner Ranganath said while wiping his greasy fingers with an equally greasy and torn cloth.

Contrary to Ranganath’s justification, the provisions of Section 24 of the Water Act, 1974 states that no individual or organization should knowingly be the cause of or permit any polluting matter that violates the standards laid down by the State board to enter any stream, well, sewer or land. The section further states that no individual or organization should hamper the flow of the stream that is likely to lead to a substantial aggravation of pollution due to other causes.

The act also penalizes the violators with an imprisonment of six months to upto six years. Municipal corporations, companies and government departments can be prosecuted under section 47 and 48 of the Act.

Saikiran Chandha, a chemical engineering graduate of SRM University, Chennai, batch of 2016, said “The froth formation that is seen on the waters of the Buckingham Canal is usually a result of the presence of a large amount of lead. Articles that are made of silver usually tend to turn black in this kind of environment.”

On the other side of the canal is a residential area, it has over 1000 houses. There are families who have seen the canal going from clean to unbearable. There are a few who are concerned of the state of the canal, where there are others who have adapted to the filth and stench.

Although the canal is cleaned every month, it continues to be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The cover of white foam over the water is alarming as it has led to other allergies among the people.

“There are a few cases of rashes and red spot allergies. There are times when the stench gets unbearable, but nothing can be done,” said Pushpa who lives on the banks of the canal. “The government does try to clean the canal every month, but there has been no improvement. There is abundance of water right outside our homes and we still have to buy water from the Metro Water” she added with a worried expression.

Few residents,like the industries,believe that the reason for the canal’s filth is the Perungudi sewage system.

Rajesh a resident and a third year automation engineer from a government college said that before 10 a.m the water that comes into the canal is clean. He added, “We have been living here for a long time; I do not believe that it is just the industries that are responsible for the canal becoming dirty. Few of us throw our garbage into the canal and also the waste water from our homes goes into the canal.”

A blame game is on between the residents and the industries over the pollution of the canal. Where the residents are blaming the industries for releasing polluted water without treating, the industries are shifting the blame on the sewage system.

Government chemical testing labs refused to test the water sample from the canal and nor have they commented on the same. A private chemical testing laboratory agreed to test the sample. The results of the test are yet to be received.