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Chennai: Nature’s fury, man’s failures

  By Vijay Darda | 07-12-2015

When India’s fourth largest metropolis comes to a complete standstill – no flights, no trains, no phone services, no electricity with people dying in hospitals as the generators have stopped functioning – then you have the definition of a total collapse. When this happens for days, without any relief from the crisis as it happened in Chennai, then the verdict is a damning indictment of all involved, right from the local self-government to the apex of the national government. We can safely say that all our well-laid plans for disaster management have come to a naught.

Nature’s fury did strike Chennai and this November was the rainiest calendar month in its history with an unimaginable 47 inches of rain and then misery piled in the first week of December with a wettest Wednesday raining another 11 inches – 34 times the normal amount. But then it did not happen all of a sudden. It is now on record that SR Ramanan with his official designation as Director, Area Cyclone Warning Centre, Regional Meteorological Centre, Chennai, has been continuously issuing accurate warnings that have helped people in the cities and fishermen on the coast stock up on essential commodities and prepare for the worst. But still the government agencies were caught napping and we had this multi-dimensional crisis that ultimately cost more than 450 lives and paralysed a metropolis that has become one of India’s primary information technology and health care hubs.

Such floods are not new to Chennai and as “Rain Ramanan” has been telling local television channels these have occurred in1903, 1943, 1978, 1985, 2002, and 2005 but the difference this time is that there was a complete breakdown of communication channels and all the mobile and landline networks collapsed. Weather experts believe that this crisis has been triggered by an enhanced northeast monsoon boosted by a record-strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean and the record-warm Indian Ocean. Though a linkage with climate change is denied, but it is quite likely that the enhanced evaporation is linked to the global climate change. But there is no such dispute over the man-made contributions to this tragedy.

Like megacities in many developing countries, Chennai suffers from all the chronic ailments that have dogged urban misplanning. It has encouraged unplanned flyovers, roads, and construction works. Its marshlands have shrunk for instance the Pallikaranai marshland that covered 50 sq km in 2001, is now just 4.3 sq km and the Maduravoyal lake has shrunk from 120 to 25 acres. Over 200 water bodies have been paved over for malls, homes, theatres, offices. Buildings like the Sathyabama University, Phoenix Mall, Chennai airport, Koyambedu bus terminus, knowledge corridor were all built on drained lakes, the Adyar flood plain, drainage canals, or marshland. Little wonder that the excess rain had nowhere to drain and the streets were looking like rivers with water climbing even up to the second floor of the buildings. As if these defects were not enough the metro has to also put up with the problems of chemical overuse that is turning soil non-porous. Then the city has also suffered from long spells of droughts and this has led to poor sewerage, blocked storm drains. So, man’s greed has compounded nature’s fury.

Everyone was not sleeping on the job in 2010. The Chennai Metropolitan Development Area (CMDA) had predicted heavy damage during floods and recommended steps like increasing storage capacity of reservoirs, widening of river beds, check dams, expanding lakes, and taking river basins — not just rivers — to be taken into account during planning. But on the ground, the opposite was done.

The worst part of this scenario is that Chennai is not alone to suffer the consequences of a phenomenon where humans have become a geological-scale force of nature. We have seen this too often in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Mumbai to ignore the warning signals. We can be sure that there would be repeats of the same ‘natural disasters compounded by human greed’ in different places, and it is a matter of sheer chance. It could be heavy rains, flash floods or even earthquakes. Without being unduly alarmist, there is an urgent need to take a look at the urban and rural infrastructure all over. Before we start pouring in resources to make smart cities, let us ensure that our current chaotic cities become disaster proof.

It is also customary to talk about the human spirit of sacrifice and service that comes live at such critical times. The people always rally round each other, and this time we have seen the extensive use of social media and internet that has enabled people from far flung areas to contribute to the relief work. Laudable as this personal spirit of service is, the fact remains that it cannot be a substitute for the systematic work that has to be carried out by a National Disaster Management Agency. This was supposed to be in ready shape for handling any disaster at any place within a short notice. Unless, the NDMA and its hierarchical structure come to a point where there is zero tolerance for any casualty and suffering in such times, they would not have served their purpose. It is worth mentioning that with airports, trains, and phones suspended for days in the first week of December when the crisis was building up since November it is obvious that no effort was made to take up this challenge.

The other unpleasant side is to use even such tragedies as events of self-promotion with the state government branding the relief items with the chief minister’s photograph. The Central government too makes grand announcements about the aid package, but then there are issues with regard to its reaching the affected persons. The story in such tragedies is always the same. Once the urgency is over and the immediate crisis on hand is tackled, then the people are left to fend for themselves. The promised relief either does not materialise altogether or becomes a case of too little and too late. Let’s hope that Chennai teaches us the right lesson, there is a workable deal on Climate Change in Paris and we move in the direction of minimising the damage caused by such abnormal weather events.

Before I conclude…

Our Mumbai lad – Ajinkya Rahane has joined the select club of batsmen who have scored a century in each innings. He completed this feat at the Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla ground against the South Africans. Others who have achieved the same feat are the illustrious Vijay Hazare, the original little master Sunil Gavaskar, the mister dependable of Indian batting Rahul Dravid, and the current skipper Virat Kohli. Sunny has done it thrice and Rahul has done it twice. Rahane seems to be living up to his first name “Ajinkya”- the one who cannot be conquered as he gets out to bat for the team.


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Chennai: Nature’s fury, man’s failures


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