CHENNAI The reasons behind the deluge

The recent devastating floods in the capital of Tamil Nadu and the havoc that was caused have brought the focus on the pitiable state of affairs in our cities and how ill-prepared they are in tackling disasters

By: Revati Rajwade

The nation’s eyes are transfixed towards Chennai just like a mother’s concerned ones towards her child. The child is being reprimanded for the mistakes which have unleashed nature’s fury in the most dangerous form. With the media focusing on the negative aspects of the city’s planning and administration and Chennai being in the news for all the wrong reasons, let us explore the city through various perspectives and trace its journey to the deluge.

The city of Chennai is like any other Indian metro – full of life and opportunities but unable to caress all of them. A part of it is like a kite – wanting to flow freely with the wind and embrace the world whereas in reality it is tethered to a tree, thus landing up rustling in the wind. Located along the coast in southern India, the people here are more accustomed to bearing the brunt of the furious sun than the rain as in the present scenario.

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In the 20th century, the character of the city was largely hostile towards immigrants, thus turning them into intruders. The predominance of the local language and way of life disallowed a cosmopolitan atmosphere. However, gradually with the city turning into a hub of the automobile industry and other business ventures, the influx of people was finally welcomed.

Development was rapid in all sectors and this led to a rise in opportunities. Life was busy like a typical metropolis where people’s lives intersected and diverged like ants scurrying about in search of a morsel of food. The city developed rapidly with some parts turning into overcrowded zones and others being well planned and executed.

Some parts of the city like Marina beach are quality recreational spaces with proper street planning for unhindered pedestrian as well as vehicular movement. Places like these function as public spaces for cultural and religious events, naval or air shows. Unfortunately, a majority of the present urban fabric is unplanned, dense and claustrophobic. Houses are largely devoid of light and ventilation owing to the maze of residential structures.

The building typology is mundane but the past comes to the rescue in terms of the city’s architectural vocabulary with religious monuments like the Kapaleeshwar, Adeeswar, Parathasarthy temples proving to be a visitor’s delight. The rich architectural detailing, ornate gopurams and massive proportions are a marvel.

The white flourish of the San Thome Basilica is an endearing sight. The neo-Gothic style of architecture is apparent through the lancet windows and decorative forms adorning the edifice.
Chennai also boasts of a few world class healthcare centres. It is appreciative of arts and has seen the inception of a renowned Music Academy in 1928. Says M. Shrikant, who made Chennai his abode for a few years: “I lived in Chennai in 1992 and then from 2001-2005. I have seen the transition in societal behaviour, infrastructure and culture. The city provides an array of institutions for education and recreation where each street or locality has its own character.”

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According to him, changes over the past 20 years include the introduction of FM radio stations, experimentation with materials like paver blocks for pavements and the recent introduction of an elevated metro as a part of the mass transit system. “Public transport in the city always relied heavily on the shoulders of buses which they carried out deftly and economically but a little help was always welcomed,” adds Shrikant.

However, alongside all these positives, the civic authorities were unable to address one of the major issues of water scarcity. A perpetual dearth of potable water is a problem that has spread its tentacles over the city forcing most citizens to invest in bottled water on a daily basis.
The recent floods have suddenly brought into limelight the several drawbacks of the city which have always been hovering in the shadows. Chennai is still suffering, owing to a mélange of reasons – indifference towards nature, poor urban planning, overpopulation, incompetent disaster management and the apathy of citizens and the authorities.

There is a striking resemblance to the 2005 Mumbai floods. The fact remains that no Indian city is better than the other. It is a herculean task to combat nature’s rage, but it is essential to equip ourselves to minimise the devastation.

Experts have cited the main reasons for the damage as rampant illegal growth, poor storm water drainage, encroachment of water bodies and thousands of acres of swamp converted into an IT corridor. A premier school has been accused of clearing more than 52 acres of forests, including destroying thousands of trees between 2001 and 2013 as part of a major construction spree that saw 39 renovation projects and new construction in its campus.

Reports say none of the projects have local body approval or environmental clearance. Incessant rains in November forced the authorities to release water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir into the Adyar river. Had the river been as wide as its originally was, it would have housed most of the water instead of flooding its banks.

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“As cities expand and land values rise, planning agencies have allowed rapid land-use changes over areas that serve as natural drains and holding ponds,” remarks P.S.N. Rao, an urban planner who teaches at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. “Moreover, there is a lack of domain expertise in urban flood management. City planning today fails to integrate public health engineering which looks at issues such as design of water supply, sewerage and drainage lines from the health and environment perspective.”

Chennai is highly prone to floods as it is in a flat zone where water doesn’t drain naturally. Moreover, the clay in the soil doesn’t allow water to be absorbed fast enough. Hence, disasters cannot be averted, but efficient administration and drainage network can reduce the damage.

A dedicated control room with administrators having a good grasp of the city’s topography can respond effectively depending on the warnings. Chennai, as well as other Indian cities, have a long way to go in order to be able to avoid a wreckage of this magnitude if nature is to strike again.