A mismanaged city


More than rain, the unplanned development and flawed government policies are responsible for the Chennai flood

chennairainThe midnight of December 2nd will be etched in the minds of Chennaites forever. For it was on that fateful night that the city witnessed its biggest disaster in the last hundred years. Unprepared and ill-equipped, the entire city succumbed to the fury of nature. But can all the events of the weeks that followed simply be termed as a natural disaster or did man have any role to play in unleashing the chain of tragedies?

The answer is obvious. The role that man played in the scheme of events was a lot more than that played by nature’s fury. Years and years of unplanned development and inherently flawed political and economic policies were largely responsible for the catastrophe that the nation witnessed. The government’s complete lack of sensitivity in handling a disaster of such great magnitude showed all that is wrong with the vote bank politics.

The inability of government to act in the face of adversity will continue to nag the conscience of the city in times to come. The signs of the impending danger were clearly visible for the last many years. Every time a low pressure area forms in the Bay of Bengal, Chennai gets incessant rains because of which the educational institutions remain closed and people have to wade through the flooded streets. But none of these were viewed seriously by the authorities and the problems that rain bring with it every year became a part of the city’s culture.

The official stand that the ruling AIADMK government took was that it was the unprecedented rainfall that led to the difficult circumstances and the situation was well under control. But the panic that ensued after the gates of the Chembarambakkam dam were thrown open pointed to an entirely different reality. The rain-fed reservoir located on the largest lake outside Chennai in the Kanchipuram district of Tamilnadu supplies water to the city of Chennai. A lake which was till then the lifeline of the city became the cause of its greatest sorrow. The heart wrenching stories of people who were caught unawares in the night battling death with no support from any quarter show how little human lives are valued by those in power. The rains were heavy from 23rd November and the International Weather Forecast issued a warning of what was to come on 28th November. This means that the authorities had enough time to hold consultations and chart out a plan of action. Unfortunately as fate would have it, the best action deemed fit was inaction which pushed the city into a veritable hellhole.

Unanswered questions

The first question that arises in the mind of anyone is why was the water of Chembarambakkam released at midnight and how could the engineers take such a callous approach in evaluating its consequences? The rains were pouring continuously and it was only logical for them to consult the experts and institutions at the national and international level on how to release the water without endangering the lives and livelihoods of people. The argument that the water had reached the dam’s full capacity of 3,396 million cubic feet and hence the only way out was to release it into the Adyar River does not hold ground.

Even after the taking of the regrettable step, there was still time to alert the people and move them to safety. The 25km distance that the water had to traverse to reach the city meant that a warning could have been issued to all if all departments of the state government were taken into confidence. But that also did not happen.

Another fact that appalls a layman with no idea of urban planning and architecture is the way in which building permits were issued. An application of a little bit of common sense would have made the authorities see the dangers of construction on a dried up lake bed or too close to a river bank. The areas of Manapakkam and Nadambakkam suffered the most as permits were issued to builders to construct high rise apartments on the riverbank. The blocking of natural channels meant that there was no place for water to drain out; resultantly it clogged the city. A report by the Chennai Metro Development Authority has stated that more than 300 water bodies in the city have disappeared due to unplanned constructions. The city’s wetlands which would have absorbed a good amount of water have also been encroached upon. Instead of taking cognizance of this matter, the concerned authorities chose short term goals over long term ones.

The existing storm water drains pose yet another problem. Most of them are either concretized or filled with silt. The ones that aid in the flow of water are allegedly linked to the drainage pipes which render it ineffective when the rains become heavy. None of the successive governments in the state found it necessary to address this issue and on top of it took pride in announcing new constructions like the Rapid Mass Transit System built on the Buckingham canal.

It is natural for any city to grow and develop as the rate of migration increases. Being a metropolitan city, the pressure of expanding was more on Chennai. Sadly, the unscientific planning of the outgrowths meant that the natural ecosystem was permanently damaged and even a minor natural phenomenon was bound to translate into a big disaster.

The case of Velachery, a low lying area in South Chennai where every year the rains make life miserable is a classic case of unscientific development.

The reason why the state government never made any strict rules in the permitting of building licenses is an issue worth pondering upon.

Learning from the mistakes

The road to complete rehabilitation stretches very long. But there are a few lessons that can be imbibed from this disaster. Just the way the youth of Chennai taught the whole nation that a little empathy is enough to cross the sometimes thin line between life and death.

The foremost lesson would be for all the political parties in the state. The time has come to move away from the strategy of pleasing the voters and start investing in projects that would address a citizen’s everyday concerns. There must be coordination among all departments of the state government and it must be seen that decisions are not taken unilaterally.

detailed city planning
To avoid such disasters in future, a detailed city planning will be required

There is an urgent need to bring in more rules and regulation for the issuing of building permits. It should be made mandatory for any construction to have environmental clearance. This should also be made applicable to the satellite towns surrounding the cities. The state should constitute a separate body of urban planning experts to give timely advice.

Another issue that has come to the fore is the lack of a state-level task force to deal with the disaster. It has to be kept in mind that some amount of time will lapse before the armed forces work out the logistics and reach an area. In many cases, precious hours are wasted in this wait solely because the state police forces are not trained to deal with such challenging situations.

Lastly, the citizens should take it on themselves to urge the government to make transparent policies and should become pro-active members in the process of governance. The ordinary citizens of Chennai were able to prove to the world the real power of social media in rescuing many lives. In his recent visit to India, Google’s CEO Mr. Sundar Pichai emphasized on Project Loon which will use helium-filled ballons to provide data connectivity in remote areas. Technology will definitely be the focus in facilitating participatory democracy and every stakeholder should see to it that the unity witnessed in the face of the disaster does not wither away with time.

The words of Mr. Arun Krishnamurthy, an environmental activist credited with the cleaning of 17 lakes in the country and founder of the NGO, Environmentalist Foundation of India based in Chennai best sums up the testing two weeks and what to expect in the future, “Aimless development and complete disrespect to natural environment was the primary reason to the recent floods in Chennai. An urban arrogance with which we took our waterways for granted and eventually paid a price for it. There is lack of awareness and disinterest in conserving our lakes, marshlands. This has to change; we as a society have a larger responsibility now in conserving what is left and recovering whatever is possible. Environment conservation is common sense and we in Chennai have realized it is no longer a choice. Clearing and securing our water bodies is the first primary goal followed by large scale public outreach to sensitize people on Conservation, Calamity preparedness etc to prevent future incidents.” It is not that we Indians are incapable of learning of how to prepare for and cope with natural disasters. Both the states of Odisha and Gujarat have put good cyclone and heat wave predicting and handling systems in place which has ensured that the death of people from such natural calamities has come down in recent years.

However, for achieving such successes, a concerted effort from political leadership is required which could then percolate to bureaucracy and operational levels.

Unfortunately, in most of cases, the unplanned human intervention stifling natural systems have ultimately turned unpredictable natural accidents into human catastrophes. Only a couple of years ago, the flash floods in Uttarakhand led to extreme loss of lives and property in Kedar Nath and now in Chennai, a situation which was perfectly avoidable was allowed to develop thanks to years of neglect and unimaginative crisis management.

We need immediate attention on both fronts. The sooner leaders wake up, the better, for people that is.