Chennai received record breaking amounts of rainfall in 2015 as the city was hit with the worst floods in decades. Having half-submerged, the blame-game began and most experts seem to agree that El Nino, along with the strong upper air divergence and high moisture content at low levels heavily affected the year’s winter monsoon. But one wonders whether the real cause lies in more man-made reasons. As chaos prevailed among the terror-struck citizens, authorities were forced to release a massive 30,000 cusecs from the Chembarambakkam reservoir into the Adyar river over two days, which caused it to flood its banks and submerge neighbourhoods along the river-side. The situation was similar for the Poondi and Puzhal reservoirs, and the Cooum river which weaves through the rapidly growing city. The rivers have seen huge amounts of encroachment over the years as development projects took over; filling up of lowlands and choking of storm-water drains that are fundamental to flood management, and all of this only worsened the situation. Illegal construction, blocking of water exits and badly planned or umimplemented projects play key roles in Chennai’s poor urban planning that’s been held responsible for the vanishing of over 300 water bodies. The Indian Express cites a report submitted by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority to the Madras High Court that states there are over 1.4 lakh illegal structures.
Mother Nature hit back with immense force and the entire nation applauded the commendable efforts of the Indian Armed Forces, the NDRF Battalions, the Paramilitary Forces, and more importantly, the citizens of the flood-ravaged city who came together in amazing relief missions. Chennai is now slowly piecing its life back together, and the amount of damage sustained to people’s homes and loss of personal property and belongings, including occupational goods and tools of the trade, is yet to be accurately charted. Government property that’s been damaged will be rebuilt and big businesses will slowly regroup as compensation goes out, but what about the common people? A group of concerned citizens who were involved in post-flooding relief work undertook a sample survey of 610 households across the city to assess their losses.
The survey, published by Counter Currents, states its purpose "to identify the exact quantum of losses sustained by the population and to direct government to compensate the populace for damages/loss accruing on account of the floods.” The places that were included in the survery were Eekaduthangal, Jaffarkhanpet, Saidpet, Kotturpuram along the Adyar flood plains; Mudichur, a badly affected suburb, Semmencheri, Perumbakkam, Kodungaiyur and Ponneri. An astonishing 95 percent of the people surveyed claim that they didn’t receive prior warnings regarding the imminent catastrophe. People were left with huge amounts of personal loss; damaged certificates, household articles, including kitchen utensils and electronic hardware, lights, fans; personal items like children's books, cycles and in some cases bikes and scooters, most of the things irreplaceable and irretrievable. Total losses sustained by households ranged from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 75,000, including loss of wages in the time of the flooding and cost of damage to homes.
The survey calls for the State government to undertake an official enumeration of losses, with due compensation to be calculated and paid within a fixed time frame.; for the purpose of compensation, migrant workers need to be treated the same as non-migrants and accorded the same rights. “It is clear that rampant real estate growth, unviable building sanctions, and enchroachment on water bodies by powerful business and state interests have rendered urban flooding inevitable. The city of Chennai was utterly unprepared for disaster. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s Report had pointed out that the State as such was unprepared...in spite of radar information pointing to a pattern of heavy rain and flooding, the city had not put in place a system for gradual release of water from overflowing water bodies. Since the government of Tamil Nadu had not sought to mitigate flood-related damages in spite of such damages being foreseeable, it must accept culpability for losses sustained by the people.”
It has become clear that Chennai failed in maintaining an effective storm-water drainage system, the increasing amount of garbage being dumped in the water exits are causing blockages and the dire lack of timely desilting have had devastating consequences on the local people. Could the extent of the flooding have been drastically reduced? Perhaps. We can’t play judge, but what’s certain is that the floods did definitely expose the weak spots and incredible vulnerability of urbanising India. City after city, Mumbai, Srinagar and now Chennai, are wrecked by deluges, and in almost every incident, unplanned urbanisation in the race for modernisation, without a thought to the consequences on our natural surroundings turns out to be a common denominator. It’s time we all heed the warnings, government officials and citizens alike. With the combination of the topography and dense population, India is a disaster prone zone, evinced by The National Disaster Management Authority in the following statement on their website: “disaster risks in India are further compounded by increasing vulnerabilities related to changing demographics and socioeconomic conditions, unplanned urbanization, development within high-risk zones, environmental degradation, climate change, geological hazards, epidemics and pandemics.” The authorities are aware of it, though how unprepared they are in terms of infrastructure seems pretty clear by now.
Words: Sara Hussain