Who ruined Chennai? We, the residents, did


The read-out from the ground during the Chennai floods and resulting relief measures of the past few days is straightforward: The power of citizenry has far outweighed the reaction/response of the government.

This is not to discount the efforts of the exceptions: the few good officers, the many good public servants, and the celebrities who have identified themselves with the masses through their efforts.

That said, and granting that the rains have been extraordinarily severe, questions about the government’s preparedness and response need to be asked.

Was the city’s 1600-km-long storm-water drains network adequately cleaned and desilted in the run up to the monsoon? The unusually severe flooding in localities such as Mambalam make this question pertinent – when, for instance, was the last time there was a concerted effort to remove the concrete encroachments that prevent the free flow of water along the Canal? How many concrete encroachments have been identified in other canal ways?

There are reports that the pre-monsoon storm water drain cleaning was affected because of a Court ruling on manual scavenging, and substantial time waste in getting robotic cleaning equipment from outside the city. Could this have been avoided? In fact, some news reports called out the inefficiency of the city’s storm water drains mid-November itself, much before the bigger deluge.

A further drilling down on the topic of monsoon preparedness shows that the city was probably ill-prepared last monsoon itself, but got away because of not as high a rainfall. This is an irony of the highest order given that Chennai is a city that has a history of shortage of drinking water.

The Chennai Corporation and other government agencies in the city already have a handbook on the “Disaster Management Plan” for the city. So why were the citizens caught unawares when the big deluge happened? Why were there not clear and pointed alerts issued to the areas identified as “low lying” in such reports that must have been put in place in the summer months. Don’t the government have resources like boats stored near the areas the could face such problems?

Was there an error in anticipating the pile up of water in reservoirs as against the rain system formation off the sea? The floods that Chennai experienced was not because of the rains that came in from the seas but because of the water that came from the discharge of water  from reservoirs and lakes. Was there a failure in managing the water storage in the reservoirs, while anticipating the rains?

Beyond such questions, however, lurks the terrible apathy of the residents themselves towards the city’s infrastructure. So before we start celebrating the “spirit of Chennai” and patting ourselves on the backs for “fighting back,” it is only fair we identify what it is that we are fighting against. And for that, we need to swallow a few bitter pills.

Political legacy

Successive governments have failed to give Chennai a holistic vision, with the result that we have only seen incremental improvements to the city’s infrastructure for a long time now.

Neither of the two main political parties has been able to able to retain a second term in the Tamil Nadu Assembly since 1991, with the result that the city has suffered an uneven vision and choppy execution of ideas. This has also coincided with cartels exploiting the situation (but more on that later).

The manner in which the political leadership has viewed the Chennai Corporation Council has dramatically changed over the past two decades.  If the DMK treated the post of city Mayor as training wheels for the party’s heir apparent MK Stalin when he was elected to the post and served from 1996- 2001, the AIADMK government that followed did away with direct elections to the post after a piquant situation arose for a few months where Stalin had to discharge his duties under an AIADMK government.

This meant a complete discontinuity of projects, with successive governments more intent on overturning the policies of the previous government than on working together on long-term policy and planning for the city’s infrastructure.

Vote bank politics

Those who volunteered on the ground this last week will agree with this observation of who saved whom in these floods: by and large, the poor saved themselves; the middle class saved each other; the para-military have saved the marooned and the rich and powerful did not need any saving.

History – of the populist announcement variety – is now poised to repeat itself: In the wake of heavy flooding in 2005, the government announced Rs 2,000 in cash, 10 kg of rice, dhotis and sarees to the most affected people. This triggered chaos; a stampede at one of the relief centers killed 42 and injured 37.

A quick summary the approach of successive governments runs thus: spend the first two years of power blaming the policies of the previous government, spend the third year haphazardly putting out a policy that will yield incremental results over the next two years, spend the fifth year in beating the drum about “achievements”.

If that is the situation with the government, what of us residents? Here, a short-list of five ailments that all of us could address collectively:

#1: We rant in private, but don’t dissent in public. We scare easily. We don’t like to associate ourselves with those who voice dissent against the government. We label the dissenters as loonies, or treat them with contempt as fringe activists who are only disruptive, and without a forward agenda.

For instance, Pallikaranai was among the worst affected areas during the flooding of the past week – and it was eminently predictable, once the government began permitting builders to destroy the marshland that served as buffer. The problem has been consistently highlighted and as consistently ignored – for instance, how many of you recall reading this report from 2005, or this more recent one, or the many reports in-between?

It is not that people have not dissented – it is that people have been browbeaten into silence. To get a sense of how dissent is addressed, look at the current AIADMK regime’s track record of filing defamation cases. Or consider the case of IAS officer Vijay Pingale, who was shunted out of his post because – wait for this – he warned that Chennai was about to be flooded.

At every such instance, we pretended that we could neither see, hear nor speak – because we didn’t want to become the next target of the government’s wrath.

In 2003, I was a reporter with The Hindu’s Chennai bureau, covering the rains and the infrastructure breakdown. The then AIADMK government filed a defamation case against the publication. It became evident that the judicial process was the weapon used to stop such reports – the sheer nuisance factor of having to go through the rigmarole of a court process often serves as an inhibitor of good reporting. Again, most of us ignored the TN Assembly’s Privilege Motion against senior journalists of The Hindu then – and we have all forgotten it since.

#2: We have institutionalized sycophancy, where earlier we merely tolerated it. Successive governments vie with the previous regime to host shows of grandeur aimed at deifying the leader of the moment. And sadly, the stars of Tamil filmdom are happy to be part of such shows, where they heap praises on the superhuman leadership qualities of those under the focus lights in the auditorium.

This sycophancy coupled with the stifling of dissent, effectively shuts out any possibility of dialogue between the people and the governments they put in place, as also any attempt to identify and call out issues so they can be addressed.

The government does its bit to further such sycophancy through its populist schemes, where the focus is not on the effective working of the scheme as much as it is on huge posters of the senior politicians “participating” in it. Consider this.

Compounding this is the reality of Chennai polity: we are forced to choose between megalomania on the one hand, and a family enterprise on the other.

#3: We are okay with cartels – the more we are affected by them, the more we pretend they don’t exist. Check, for instance, just two powerful cartels, both pertaining to our city’s infrastructure:

Even a cub reporter who has spent less than a month covering the Chennai Corporation knows that the contracts system, especially for roads and storm water drains, are rigged. There have been many reports, in many newspapers over the years pointing to this – but again, we turned a deliberate blind eye to it.

The cartel that routinely corners a bulk of the contracts for laying the city roads is powerful. Just two weeks back, media had reported how a Joint Commissioner of Chennai Corporation was transferred just three days after he fined the city’s contractors over the poor quality of roads laid.

This, too, is not new. In 2005, when I was reporting for The Hindu, I recall the paper carrying the story of a woman IAS officer, also a Joint Commissioner at the Corporation, who took on the contractor cartel. She was promptly shunted out under a cloud.

The other big cartel, that wields considerable influence not just over government but also over the media, is real estate. They not only managed drowned out calls for sustainable development, they also ensured that the only news the people ever got was benign, wrapped in gloss.

No Chennai native needs an investigative report on the major buildings that have come up where once lakes and waterways existed – it is a reality set in concrete and glass that we see with our own eyes every day. Some of the most influential corporates have added to the mess by blatantly violating the Coastal Regulation Zone within the city to set up multi-storey luxury apartments and five-star hotels.

The periodic government encroachment drives are mere roadshows. Some huts are demolished; they come right back within a few days. No lasting action is possible, or will be taken, because those who live in such constructions are captive vote banks.

Until three weeks ago, we in Chennai were used to seeing spectacular advertisements of apartments for sale along the I T Corridor and surrounding areas, with names like “Lake View”, “River View”, “Water World” etc – names that piled irony on poor planning, since such places were built where once there were lakes and waterways.

#4: We live in denial. Chennai is an unevenly developed city, with far too much attention paid to the Central and Southern parts and little to none to the North. The media, too, focusses on the ‘glamorous’ areas while largely leaving North Chennai region uncovered, with the result that the civic failings of that region remain undiscussed, and unattended.

We have world-class pavements and well cared for avenues in Poes Garden – home to the chief minister, and to the reigning Tamil superstar — but not everywhere else in the city. We have closed a stretch of Besant Nagar beach in South Chennai on Sunday mornings as a bit of tokenism for pedestrians and cyclists, but don’t care much about them otherwise.

We are fuelled by our love for cars; we want the city tuned for its free movement, but at the cost of pedestrians and cyclists. In many places, the horribly designed road medians and concrete speed breakers prevent water drainage. We have allowed our tax money to get washed away even by the smallest of rains.

#5: We are in a time loop. There is a running joke among journalists who cover Chennai’s civic infrastructure about a rite of passage: “You have not arrived yet until you report the Chennai Corporation’s plans to construct a multi-level parking at Panagal Park and unveil a new vision to decongest T Nagar,” a senior journalist told me in 2002. Senior journalists are today telling tyros the exact same thing, in newsrooms across the city.

Chennai, for all the reasons cited above and for more that remain to be listed, has become a living embodiment of the Karl Marx dictum that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.

(An edited version of this report appeared on the Scroll website on December 7, 2015. )



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