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A metropolis in deluge

The recent floods in Chennai were the cumulative outcome of governance failure and the lack of emergency planning response action


FOR once, Prakash Javadekar has spoken as a true Union environment minister. Though couched in diplomatic language, he has made one point clear–the recent deluge that devastated India’s fourth largest metropolis with a population of 10 million plus was neither caused by nature nor was it a ‘climate change event’ as being touted by the Government of Tamil Nadu and its cohorts.

Javadekar said in the Rajya Sabha that the Chennai floods were due to heavy rain and the excess water released from the reservoir at Chembarambakkam which inundated the floodplains of the River Adyar. He went on to say: “In this case, three days’ advance warnings were issued for placing emergency planning response action by the local authorities.” According to him the “non-climatic reasons” for flooding in cities and industries located in high-risk locations include lack of proper urban planning, demographic pressures, improper sewage disposal and drainage systems, and encroachment of land. What he implied is that the deluge was the cumulative outcome of failure in all the above and the lack of emergency planning response action. In sum, it is a case of failure of governance, both civil and environmental.

Yet, the Government of Tamil Nadu has chosen to call this deluge as “a rarest of rare natural calamity.” The Merriam Webster dictionary defines calamity as a disastrous event marked by great loss and lasting distress and suffering. ‘Disaster’ is something that happens suddenly and causes much suffering or loss to many people. While the second part of the definition is true for the recent deluge in the Chennai metropolis, the first part is not applicable. While it caused much suffering and loss to many people resulting in great loss and lasting distress and suffering, it neither happened suddenly nor was it caused by nature.

Chennai did have some excessive monsoon in November and December 2015–rainfall of 1,608 mm–but this was less than the 2005 downpour of 1,984.5 mm. Yet the inundation was much more severe, widespread and devastating. There are three reasons for this. One, the delayed, excessive and unannounced water release from the Chembarambakkam reservoir and two, the near-absence of any disaster management or emergency planning response action. These are due to the style of administration in Tamil Nadu wherein there is extreme concentration of power, authority and decision making at one centre, which has drained out suo moto actions and initiatives from officials across the board.

Three, this time around Chennai had to bear the brunt of excessive rains in the neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram (1,815 mm) and Thiruvallur (1,466.4 mm). This is due to the marauding urban sprawl–the unplanned, uncontrolled spreading of urban development into rural areas–of these two districts which are on the periphery of Chennai city, caused out by greedy land grabbers and real estate mafia facilitated by collusive and corrupt government machinery. This had choked and blocked nature’s ‘right-of-way’ and storage for the rain water–lakes, ponds, rivers, rivulets, marsh, wetlands.

First things first: There was a complete mess-up regarding the release of surplus waters from the Chembarambakkam reservoir, the city’s main water storage tank, into the Adyar river which runs to the Bay of Bengal almost through the centre of the city. On the evening of December 1, 2015, the Adyar was already in spate due to incessant rain in the catchment areas. As against the warning issued around 5 pm that 7,500 cusecs of water would be released from the lake, around midnight four times that (29,000 cusecs) gushed out. All hell broke loose and flood levels rose to 12 feet in some areas as the river unleashed its fury.

Why did this happen? There was specific advance warning from the Meteorological Department about very heavy rainfall in the week beginning November 29. Even the quantum of rain was forecast. The Chembarambakkam reservoir was filling up fast and the Public Works Department engineers were agitated. They dare not open the sluice gates without the green signal from the Chief Minister. So they wrote to the PWD Secretary who in turn sought instructions from the Chief Secretary. In Tamil Nadu under the present dispensation, even the Chief Secretary cannot approach the Chief Minister directly. By the time the maze of bureaucratic red tape was cut, it was past midnight of December 1 and the water level had crossed the threshold. The released surplus waters rushed into the swollen Adyar without any warning for the people living downstream and most of Chennai city was deluged, resulting in huge destruction and killing 280 people that night. Even now water-turned-sewage is stagnating at several places in the city, spreading disease.

No attention was given to the emotional and psychological side of the victims, most of whom were traumatised by the devastation and humiliated by the ‘alms-giving’ attitude of the officials. To make things worse, political workers and politicians of all shapes and sizes descended on the scene, indulging in blatant ‘rent-seeking’ from the tragedy

FACED with severe criticism, the Chief Secretary admitted that the Controlling Officer of the Chembarambakkam reservoir is the competent authority under the Rules for Flood Regulation to regulate flood discharge.The Chief Secretary states that as heavy rain was forecast, senior Supervisory Officers of PWD were also present at the site, personally monitoring the situation. True indeed, but the engineers will not dare to use their authority because in the Tamil Nadu government, every activity should be carried out only under the orders of the “Honourable Chief Minister”. Ministers ‘worshipfully’ invoke her name multiple times in every sentence they speak. Even under disaster conditions, this holds true. Officers coordinating relief work publicly stated that they are doing so not as their duty but only under CM’s orders. Even the directly elected Mayor of the city distributes food packets only on the orders of the CM.

‘War-footing’ is the word used when major disasters are to be managed. This term describes “the condition or status of a military force or other organisation when operating under a state of war or as if a state of war existed”. This was not so in Chennai. Firstly, the organisations responsible were not in a state of readiness to act. During the initial hours critically affecting the safety of the citizens, there was no systematic operation or emergency mobilisation for rescuing the marooned victims. There were only patchy and disjointed efforts put in mostly by volunteers and some officials. Even the limited relief efforts were only targetted at the physical side of the victims like moving them to ‘relief centres’, providing food packets, old clothing, etc. No attention was given to the emotional and psychological side of the victims, most of whom were traumatised by the devastation and humiliated by the ‘alms-giving’ attitude of the officials.

Untrained government officials found it difficult to seek out the victims and offer spontaneous relief/assistance. To make things worse, political workers and politicians of all shapes and sizes descended on the scene, indulging in blatant ‘rent-seeking’ from the tragedy. These worthies and busybodies, having no knowledge of relief management, elbowed out the government agencies and voluntary groups to display that they were the only people to stand by the masses! No wonder that none of the international and national NGOs trained and equipped to deal with such ‘disasters’ made their appearance though many of them had rushed in within days of the tsunami that struck the Tamil Nadu coast on December 26, 2004. The NGO-hounding indulged in by the Central Government of late also contributed to this indifference!

IGNORING these realities, government sources talked of mega-operations by central and armed forces including warships, army boats and helicopters. Such interventions have only limited impact unless the political leadership and civil administration remains nimble-footed, capable of taking quick decisions and acting upon them. Rescue, relief and rehabilitation involve nuts-and-bolts jobs, local knowledge and an awareness of the local topography/demography. In the Chennai context, the Mayor, Corporation Commissioner, District Collector and Police Commissioner are the ideal sources of information, requirements and solutions. But all were waiting for “orders from above”.

This led to lack of coordination between the local authorities and the National Disaster Management Force as well as the Army rescue team. This was so because the Tamil Nadu government has not set up functional state district/city Disaster Management Agencies as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, 2005. In the event, the Madras High Court had to step in suo moto and seek an explanation from the state government.

The Union Minister for Urban Development, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Parliamentary Affairs, M Venkaiah Naidu, meeting the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, to discuss the flood situation and its management in Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil Nadu government has not set up functional Disaster Management Agencies as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, 2005. In the event, the Madras High Court had to step in suo moto and seek explanation from the state government for the lack of response and coordination

Now to the urban sprawl. This is due to the predatory ‘development’ model and two catastrophic decisions of the UPA I government in 2004: one, to liberalise extremely the Special Economic Zone Rules, and the other, allowing 100 per cent FDI in the real estate business. With the pumping in of a massive quantum of black money, the property market boomed and land prices within city limits hit the sky. Unscrupulous elements and real estate sharks moved to the outskirts of the city and grabbed agricultural and low-lying land of all shapes and sizes which constituted the natural rainwater storage and drains that are ‘ecologically sensitive areas’.

The Chennai Master Plan-cum-Development Regulations notified in 2008 prohibited construction in these places. Following up the Master Plan, at the request of the Corporation of Chennai, an expert group, including this writer, submitted the “Revised Chennai City Development Plan—2009,” (CDP), suggesting rehabilitation of the city’s waterways to ward off threat of floods to the city. The purpose of the plan was to guide development of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) through the year 2026 and to make Chennai a prime metropolis “which will become more liveable, economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable and with better assets for the future generations”.

CDP mapped and identified the ‘ecologically sensitive’ areas of CMA and suggested a macro-level growth strategy with “strongest steps to maintain critical environmental assets in the CMA by further discouraging sprawling town and village growth and continuing a high level of development support to priority peri-urban areas.” It recommended nil construction in waterways, water bodies, rivers and marshes, low-rise-low density construction in adjacent lands and medium to high-rise-high-density construction at other places. As a solution to ‘demographic pressures’ CDP suggested sustainable ‘neighbourhood development’ and satellite townships with well-designed transport corridors to the city.

In the battle between the planners and the real estate mafia, the latter won hands down. What is worse, both the central and state governments chipped in with large infrastructure and other constructions in these very eco-sensitive areas. The Elevated Expressway from Madras Port to Maduravoil is being constructed over the Cooum river, a natural drain; the Mass Rapid Transport System, a concrete monster, runs above the Buckingham Canal, the longest man-made drain; a wide highway with IT skyscrapers split the vast marshland of Pallikaranai. As to private development, Phoenix Mall, the largest in the metropolis, sits right on the Velachery lake bed.

The world class, multi-specialty MIOT Hospital is perched on the banks of River Adyar. Global Hospital of the same class is deep in the low-lying paddy fields. Large engineering colleges and private universities have come up on marshes, water bodies or floodplains, mostly on encroached or puramboke land. The posh high-rise MRC Nagar, described as the Manhattan of Chennai, has blossomed on the prohibited Coastal Regulation Zone near the high tide line and the estuary of the Adyar. All these constitute a recipe for disaster.

We need to have a look at the growth pattern of CMA to understand where the metropolis is heading. Population density has gone up from 769 persons per sq km in 1971 to 2,109 in 2011. During the same period, built-up area has gone up from 1.46 per cent to 18.6 per cent. Since 1991, area under vegetation has gone down by 22 per cent and open spaces, marshy land and floodplains reduced by 18.14 per cent. At this rate, by 2016, built-up area will increase to 36.6 per cent of the total city mass while open spaces and eco-sensitive areas will shrink to just 33 per cent!

THE Chennai deluge is a combination of greed, corruption and disaster leading to destruction and death. No estimation has been made so far, since the central fact-finding team that made a brief appearance after the first bout of rains has not reappeared even three weeks after the real deluge. Undaunted, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has made a pitch for about Rs. 26,000 crore and wants the central government to bankroll the entire amount because: “The costs are very large and it is very difficult for the State to meet the cost, particularly after the huge loss of Central tax devolution and transfers suffered by it consequent on the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations.”

Despite tall talk of ‘development’ and ‘governance’, we are back to square one. Governance failure and ‘destructive development’ were responsible for the deluge and the taxpayers, the victims, will have to foot the bill. What a travesty!

The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: deva1940@gmail.com

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