A mighty river – Kosasthaliyar flowed close to Madras but then it was mostly bone dry. However to its credit, it did flood like a herd of rampaging elephants for atleast a week every year and all that water went waste into the bay.
A serious drought in 1939 made citizens whine about the inactive corporation. The Mayor in the subsequent year, Congressman Sathyamurthi, (himself from the arid kingdom of Pudukottai) knowing the travails of a water inadequacy put forth a proposal for a new flood storage.
The concept of a reservoir 50 kilometers northwest of Madras was conceived as an insurance against water scarcity. In a way it also heralded a new era in the civic amenities of the city as well as sponsored a migration boom in the decades to come.
A masonry regulator with steel shutters was planned to impede the Kosasthaliyar river. An earthen bund for 2½ miles connecting the hills on either side would impound 2500 million cubic feet of water to form a 12.5 sq mile lake. A compensation of 22.5 lakhs was paid to the displaced of the eighteen villages submerged with an advice not to spend that money wastefully but invest in other lands.
The historic temple of Thiruvenbakkam too would be completely submerged within. People noticed an eerie co-incidence. The temple had been visited by the Saint Sundara in 8th century (after he was struck blind for uttering a lie.) Religious people inferred that since Sundara himself could not see the temple, nobody else could thereafter.
For a wartime outlay of 60 lakhs, Sathyamurthy expected a huge uproar in the corporation council. To assuage them, he sent a senior engineer – Englishman Dowley (an irrigation engineer and unconnected with the project) rather than the young executive engineer Ananda Rao who could be browbeaten by the councilors. It worked.
The technical investigation took only three months and the project was launched well within Sathyamurthy’s one year term as Mayor of Madras.
On the inaugural day, the road leading to the head works was decorated with flags and festoons. A slight drizzle symbolically seemed a good omen. Sathyamurthi the initiator of the project was lustily cheered when he rose to speak. Laughter rose when he mentioned the founding father of the city – Francis Day, but wondered why he founded the city in a place of perpetual water scarcity. Explaining the project, he mentioned the last two years of water rationing and how it saddened him to see women crowding around water taps with their earthern pots. “It would be a sight of the past” Sathyamurthy assured.
“Even when the city grew to a million in 1968 or even if monsoons failed for 2 consequetive years, upto one million people would get their 30 gallons per day.” He added “soon the Madras city would be strewn with lawns and swimming pools.”
But in the end he had a barb for the British Governor seated nearby. Sathyamurthy lamented “even when the future of my country hangs in doubt, I have no doubts on the civic future of my city”. Sadly Sathyamurthi would die before seeing either the dam or freedom achieved.
The Governor Arthur Hope said. “A lot of credit goes to the mayor and my government. Inspite of the wartime, such a large project has come in vouge and hope I see it through before my five years in office .”
True to his word, on June 15, 1944 the Governor declared the reservoir open. When there were attempts to name the reservoir after Sathyamurthi they were effectively blocked. There was even a measure to name it after the Governor Hope to counter the Congress demand.
Predictably Congress councillors were conspicous by their absence in the opening ceremony of the dam. During the inauguration none of the speakers, the commisoner, Mayor Syed Niyamullah or Governor Hope even mentioned Sathyamurthi. The government had decided to give the reservoir a neutral name – that of the village it had submerged. Poondi
Only after freedom was Sathyamurthi given his due credit and the lake that he conceived and thus quenched the thirst of millions was named after him.
The Thiruvenbakkam temple was removed block by block and reconstructed near the dam. Its basement can still be seen when the Poondi lake dries up.