Chennai floods: Has it anything to do with climate change?


For a megapolis, Chennai is possibly among the few cities the world over to have evolved on its own and otherwise, without a substantive source of water. With the historicity of the city’s Madras/Chennai twin-names from less than 400 years borrowing from only folklore, the accidental evolution of ‘Madras’ factory on the one hand and Madras Presidency on the other, were both historic accidents. With the result, when the city and suburbs, lying in a rain-shadow region, to say, gets flooded with an occasional heavy rains, explanations and excuses are sought from elsewhere, without anyone wanting to address the core issues that are at best political, not profitable.

It may thus be timely and fashionable to blame this year’s unprecedented rains and floods in Chennai to ‘climate change’, coinciding as it does with the Paris climate conference. Historically again, the north-east monsoon, that quenches the city’s thirst and also those of the outlying northern districts of Tamil Nadu, is possibly more irregular than the south-west monsoon, which covers much of the rest of the nation. Worse still, this time, the Bay depressions that feed Chennai’s rain clouds, did not develop into a cyclonic storm, and with that take away death and destruction even more to Andhra Pradesh or Orissa, West Bengal or Bangladesh, as used to be the case mostly. Even the first course that hit coastal Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry was not a cyclonic storm in the traditional sense of the term, as the locals had experienced in the past – and may do so in the future, as well.

Chennai and suburbs have suffered from at least one major rain every decade – and around the same time, mostly – before the stormy winds moved up north as a cyclone. This year, the rain clouds remained near-static, and so did the State administration. For reasons yet to be explained, no pre-monsoon preparations were known to have been made. Over the past couple of years, the local media too had seemingly shied away from reporting monsoon time weather forecasts with the seriousness they deserved – until the worst took over them all. Less said about the national media the better. They did not move until the Centre and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had moved – satisfying their near-complete coverage ‘exclusively’ of the latter’s overseas NRI tamashas and/ or the ‘Sheena Bora crime-thriller’ and worse.

Too much, and too late

Tamil Nadu had been under water almost for a month before the nation woke up one morning and wanted to know more. State authorities at the district-level upwards were keen to have the marooned people, particularly in the villages and city slums, back home and have children back on the slushy and water-covered premises, if only to prove a (political) point or two. Whatever the administrative reason or politico-constitutional justification, the Centre that had announced Rs 940-crore interim relief for the State and also despatched an official team to evaluate the damage a week and more earlier — after both became an internal political issue in the sensitive south Indian State facing Assembly polls in May next year — did not take ‘charge’ until after it had become too late.

While the services of the NDMF and the three arms of the armed forces did a commendable job without exception, even there inherent lacuna showed. Given their own weather prediction facilities and expected coordination with the Met authorities, the Services and the NDMF could have readied themselves for any anticipated eventuality of the kind that they were later tasked to address. Thus it was not until after the Chennai rains and floods had made national news, that too on the third or fourth day, the Railways generously offered one-lakh bottled drinking water to the flood-affected (when the armed forces had rushed similar help to neighbouring Maldives, where capital Male faced an unprecedented drinking water crisis in early December last, within hours).

To the extreme patience of the flood-affected should go the credit for still queuing up before toll-gates in the only motorable (?) road into the city for hours on end and from Bengaluru side without breaking the law and the toll-gates. The Union Transport Ministry’s belated decision to waive toll-collections only till 11 December is as unimaginative as the district administration’s decisions on early school reopening and the like. It’s another matter that affected populations in various parts of north Chennai and elsewhere in the State had targeted officials, and more so ministers and legislators, when flood relief (in kind and/or in cash) was either very/too late in coming, or did not at all come.

North-South divide

The current floods comes with its own baggage of North-South, elite-non-elite and urban-rural divide. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee raised a bogey when PM Modi allotted two tranche of interim relief to Tamil Nadu – the latest when he made a helicopter-survey of the affected areas — after her demand for some for her State, that too at a personal meeting with Modi as early as August. A parliamentarian of her TMC left a bad taste by appealing to the authorities in the House for ‘rescuing’ six of his relatives stranded in Chennai Airport, where thousands were caught unawares as the rest of the State and its populace. The elite-non-elite divide became prominent to the affected people in real terms when Air India and the rest thought it wise to evacuate the marooned airport passengers to safety across the country without bothering in equal measure to the plight of those holed up in railway stations, bus stations, marooned villages and colonies across the State.

That way, districts like Cuddalore and Kancheepuram, and much of the rest of the State, barring the western districts (Coimbatore, Salem, etc) had suffered worse rains through three weeks before the TN floods hit the nation’s conscience. Within Chennai, the northern parts and suburbs had been marooned for days and weeks – as has been the case for years and decades now — before the floods, caused by (repeated) unannounced opening of sluice gates of lakes emptying water into the Adayar river flowing through much of the elite, urbanised southern parts of the city, made it all ‘national’ news with international, investment ramifications. Even when the earlier rains marooned the city’s famed IT corridor and tenements of their highly-paid staff, apart from the usually rain-hit industrial suburbs, the world did not know – or, did not take as much notice.

Preparing for the future

Specific reasons can be assigned to the current floods. Avoiding recurrence may not be difficult, thus. The unplanned urbanisation, and not just of Chennai, in what is the fastest-urbanising State in the country, has meant callous violation of building rules and construction with politico-administrative collusion, maybe the main culprit. Successive State Governments have been found wanting in sincerity and application to implement a succession of Supreme Court and Madras High Court orders, on urban building law violations, particularly in Chennai’s commercial areas, for years now. Whether a court-induced probe into land-use violations, on the lines of the HC-appointed Sahayam Committee (possibly the first to be headed by a serving IAS officer), would be of help thus remains to be seen.

A constant complaint of the affected people this time, as always, was the non-availability of official alert, information and help even hours and days after the event. The first possibly owed to an overwhelming desire not to tell the people and the politicos alike, what they did not want to hear, or happen. The second flowed from the first, as policemen and fire men, electricity and water supply staff, apart from civic scavengers with their equipment and vehicles, had neither been organised or alerted in the first place, for them to be readily available for despatch, whenever and wherever required. If they too were stuck in their marooned homes, the absence of early and continual alerts meant that the ultimately affected populace could not shore up their stocks and/or energies for eventualities.

The third is the poor and improper maintenance of the State-owned road transport fleet and electricity sub-stations and supply-lines over the past several years, again in the name of poor-funding but mainly due to high corruption at all levels, leading to otherwise anticipated break-downs at the wrong time and in wrong places. Though yet to the be studied, the possibilities of staff not wanting to take risk with their career and the people’s life at the same time might have discouraged some of them from going ahead with what they were expected to do otherwise.

To this should be added an earlier Government’s order barring local communities from undertaking de-silting of neighbourhood lakes, tanks and canals, in the name of preventing caste and other forms of group clashes. The alternative official mechanisms to date have proved ineffectual and corrupt, with the result, there is no proper accounting or accountability for the kind of work that had been allotted and undertaken under the Centre’s 100-day-work programme, similar to the ‘food-for-work’ programme of the erstwhile ‘socialist’ regime. Scratching off the scheme would not help, proper implementation would, instead.

Concurrently in Chennai city, the sewage blocks owe to poor rains for years together and poor water supply even otherwise — with the result the discharge lines are clogged for months on end, to be able to come alive when the population require. An earlier attempt to wash the city drainage system by pumping in sea water throughout had to be reportedly abandoned, fearing salt-water seepage into sub-soil strata of whatever drinking water sources that remain. No alternatives are known to have been studied or thought of, thus far.

Last but not the least may be the GenNext’s trusting of plastic money too much than the real currency, with the results when ATMs are inundated, they do not have money to pay for a packet of milk, or candles and matches, or to pay the exorbitant charges that a risk-taking auto-driver is likely to charge. Even a star-hotel that’s round the corner is miles away when you do not have a boat to travel the roads – and a boat-ride does not come cheap, considering that the fisherfolk that own them have paid for a truck to ship them out there!

Today, reconstruction of broken lives is going to cost as much as it takes to repair broken roads, rail-lines and power stations. Tens of thousands of daily wage-earners have lost everything that they have, and may not have jobs and incomes for additional weeks and months together. Land prices can go up or down, depending on how speculators behave and politicians collude with them, and with that the fortunes of individuals and corporate alike. The FDIs, or whatever was promised and/or expected after the much-publicised TN Global Investor Meet (GIM) earlier this year may be delayed, pending the May polls on the one hand and the pace and space of post-floods reconstruction. It is unlikely that IT majors and other industries now in the State might wind up and go, but their work-pace and profitability would suffer – so would their employees’ earnings and spending capacities, and thus possible additional revenues to the Governments, both in the State (more) and of the Centre (relatively, less).

Yet, massive investments in civic, agriculture and industry infrastructure(s) across the State, supportive of one another or independent, either by the Governments, or through joint ventures with big-time domestic and/or foreign investors, could create more demand and jobs all across. But then there is a price to pay, all across. Whether political and business leaderships, would want to take the attendant risks ahead of the upcoming elections is another question for which there are no ready answers, either.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

Courtesy: ORF- Chennai floods: Has it anything to do with climate change?