The scenes out of Chennai are devastating. People are dying, the airport is shut, the city is under water and infrastructure has been destroyed. And the scary part is that this is far from over — the weather department has predicted heavy rains in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry for next 4 days.
There are two things that spring to mind instantly: One, the people of the city are doing everything in their power to help other citizens survive the ordeal and two, why was the city so unprepared to cope with the natural calamity?
Over 197 people have died due to rainfall since October and that is the kind of toll that should have had placed the administration on high alert. But the fact that they have been unable to cope with the rains again shows that they just don’t have the infrastructure in place. These are not things that you can deal with at the last moment.
The Chennai area — even though it is supposed to receive two monsoons — is historically water-starved. It is in the shadow of the Aravali mountain range and that forces the south-west monsoon to usually give the city a miss. But the North-East monsoon, which strikes during the second half of the year usually brings some relief. This time, it has combined with the low pressure in the surrounding areas and unleashed hell above the city.It doesn’t help that the terrain of the city is flat. The average level of the land in the city is only 2.5m above the Mean Sea Level (MSL) — which means that water literally has to be forced out of the city and the only way to do this is through the storm water drains.
Storm water drains are the answer
That would work as a solution only if the storm water drains would have been cleaned and if they would be connected to a network. If they are standalone then they serve no purpose. In the last 10 years alone, Chennai has spent over Rs 5000 crore on the project and now it is perhaps time to ask where that money was spent.When the Met department alert in September 2015 warned of an above normal rainfall and the same was conveyed to the government as well as to the city authorities. But, according to the Indian Express , the corporation of Chennai did little to prepare for the situation.
“Making tall claims of preparations, the corporation issued statements detailing the quantity of silt already removed from drains and boasted of super suckers, jet-rod machines and desilting machines used to clear water off the roads,” the Indian Express report further added.Those claims are now responsible for the deaths of hundreds. Who shall have to answer for this?
Sometime in July 2014, a Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) engineer wrote a letter of confession to his boss detailing how his superiors executed a multi-crore storm water drain project at Koyambedu without concrete reinforcements or cement but with just quarry dust. Imagine that — quarry dust.
Of course, the politicians in Chennai might point to the record amount of rainfall that the city has received. The last time Chennai took such a heavy blow in 1918 which recorded 108.8 centimeters rainfall. This time round, the city has already received around 119 cm. But that should never be an excuse — you need be prepared for everything. One example that Chennai and other cities in India can learn from is The Netherlands.
One of the most densely populated countries on the planet, 60% of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding. But they have countered this by building dykes, canals, lowering floodplains, widening rivers and side channels. And it isn’t always easy but it needs to be done.
Chennai and many other Indian cities, on the other hand, prefer to wait for a calamity to strike before they take any action. That strikes us as the saddest bit.
Grand plans but basic failures
In 2012, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa announced her grand plans for the state . They included among many other things — taking the state to one of the three top investment destinations in Asia, an investment of Rs 15 lakh crore, an increase of the state’s GDP to 11 percent, a six-fold rise of the annual per capita income to an envious Rs 4.5 lakh, an addition of 20,000 MW of power capacity and so on. The state will also largely be free of poverty, the document said. And all this was supposed to happen by 2023. But for now, it looks like her tall plans have been rained on. Or maybe, they never got off the drawing board.