Chennai suffers hat-trick of calamities

Chennai has grown in haphazard manner on coastal floodplains.

It is a hat-trick, a tragic one though as Chennai was hit by the third straight calamity in successive years. The flooding of December 1, 2015 will not be forgotten in a hurry. The next year had a windy horror in Vardah blowing through the city with the eye of the storm passing right over the harbour. If December 2016 was not bad enough, came the rain of Thursday (November 2) when the southern parts of the city were hit by at least 20 cms of rain while Marina Beach, the cynosure of Chennai, bore the brunt of an unprecedented 30 cms of rain in the space of six hours.

I hate playing Cassandra but worse will probably follow if Typhoon Damrey keeps its westward course beyond the Vietnam coast and brings more rain into the Coromandel Coast. Thanks to global warming, it has been known for a while now that the climate is ch-anging and bringing in its wake more extreme weather events, like the 50 cms of rainfall in under 36 hours in December 2015 and the 30 cms in under six hours last week. The point is the State did very little between 2015 and now to make the city better prepared to face the lashing. The kind of funds made available was mind boggling but very little happened on the ground.

Chennai has grown in haphazard manner on coastal floodplains. The floodplains take a battering every year from the Northeast monsoon, which may mercifully have failed last year but is making up for it by dumping more than 60 per cent of its anticipated rain offerings in the first spell since the monsoon was said to have formally set in. What were paddy fields as recently as 10 years ago have joined Greater Chennai in an explosive urban push without proper planning. Studies have revealed that the city has grown about 10 times between 1980 and now. Most of this has happened at the expense of the wetlands. Let’s face it - Anna Nagar was agricultural land when the Jap-anese expo was held there in 1967 and today it’s far more than a suburb, it's a mini city.

An unidentified mafia is invariably blamed for the real estate development in the wetlands and encroachments into water bodies and water channels. But nothing ever takes place in the building industry without the clearance coming from the highest level of the government. Don’t be fooled for a moment that a mafia controls the building trade. They get their building permits cleared at the very top of the pyramid, not today, but for the last 50 years or so. Only the land greed has grown so much in Chennai expansion that mayhem has ruled for the last few decades of Dravidian rule. All wetlands have become residential zones now and the city extends way down south past flooded Tambaram and Chitlapakkam and other areas almost to Chengalpet.

Ironically, the worst flooding in a quick-draining area like RA Puram is a corner of the road on Chamiers road through which the CM has to pass every day. The water flows there as if in a river, with the gradient obviously bringing it downwards. Why that water can’t be channeled into the storm water drains, built at a cost of thousands of crores, is an enduring mystery of our civic planning and engineering.

Do we have to endure floods every year because of poor engineering and poorer material, which obviously are the only things affordable after politicians, babus and contractors take their cut thus reducing the amounts actually spent to a mere fraction of what is sanctioned?

There is no redemption for areas built on floodplains and paddy land. The water will snake its course into such places quicker than you can say the CM’s full name. It would make sense then to deploy MNREGA funds, which are traditionally spent on giving jobs to the jobless merely to make holes and fill them up again, to set up an elaborate pumping system that would take the stagnant water either to the storm water dr-ains in the heart of the city or into the lakes and ponds and myriad water bodies that exist in the exurbs. Funds can be earmarked to dig the Earth and lay the pipes that would channel the water off residential areas and MNREGA can be used to house the rurral workers on the fringes of urban centres to help with getting the cities right because the civic engineers seem incapable of carrying out any corrective steps.

What has happened and what may take place in the rest of the 2017 monsoon season will be forgotten in a while until another normal monsoon strikes us in the next couple of years. Let’s say the rain of 2019 is as widespread as at the start of this season and what you will find then is the same problem in Mudichur, Tambaram, MKB Nagar, etc. Nothing would have changed because we simply don’t know how to bring about that change.

Meanwhile, the neta—babu—contractor troika will happily go about the redistribution of public wealth. This is the tragedy of India where governments rob the people. They are the reverse Robin Hoods.

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