The Big Picture – Rains in Chennai
The life in Chennai has been brought to a grinding halt because of flooding. The city received overnight rain that was the worst in a century forcing the state government to release water from overflowing reservoirs and lakes around the city. All the services have been badly affected by the flooding. In Chennai, also known as India’s automobile capital, life has come to a standstill.
While officials at the India Meteorological Department have said the exceptionally strong El Nino, along with a rare coincidence of various factors, has resulted in the heavy rain, there’s no denying that Chennai has failed in maintaining an effective storm water drainage system. The recent havoc is also manifest in the failure of planners, builders, administrators and even common people to fathom the sheer power of natural events. Clearly, indiscriminate development and shoddy urban planning have led to the floods in India’s fourth most populous city.
Much of the Chennai city has grown without a plan and with no regard to water flows, and without anticipating extreme weather events. There are too many illegal constructions in the city. There are more than 150,000 illegal structures in the city, according to the city’s municipality. More than 300 tanks, canals and lakes have disappeared. Many residential areas have come up at places where waters from lakes converge and flow to neighbouring sea. Many of the city’s info-tech facilities are built on marshlands, water-bodies and water courses. The city’s famous automobile manufacturing hubs are located in the catchment area of lakes.
Plastics are another culprit. After the first intense downpour in mid-November, plastic trash washed into rivers by rainwater was pushed to sea by the swollen rivers. At high-tide, the trash was thrown right back onto the city’s beaches by the sea. The large quantity of plastics visible in the city’s beach trash exposed another gap in the city’s defences. Plastics are virtually indestructible. What doesn’t get washed out to sea tends to accumulate in water channels and storm water and sewage networks, impeding and even blocking flows.
Some experts have opined that Chennai being one of the outsourcing hub of India and a major destination of foreign investment, the current disastrous situation could affect the national economy.
Chennai hosts over 165 BSE-listed companies with an aggregate market capitalisation of over Rs 285,000 crore. The floods have badly derailed the business activity in the city as companies stopped their production activity and shut down offices with instruction for employees to stay home or work from home. According to Assocham, “the financial loss due to record-breaking rainfall in Chennai and several parts of Tamil Nadu may even exceed Rs 15,000 crore mark as Chennai has come to a virtual standstill and is in the grip of fear and panic.”
Once rescue and relief operations are complete, the state has to set up a task force that reviews all on-going construction activity in the city and its suburbs. Given the magnitude of the floods, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority must review permissions that have been granted and review plans in accordance with the city’s master development plan.
In Chennai and elsewhere, the approach to urban governance needs to change. Routine aspects of city administration like building and maintaining water, drainage and sewage systems, mass transport facilities, etc are often ignored. Civic bodies need massive infusions of funds, skills and technologies if cities are to become liveable urban spaces.
It is quite usual for politicians and civic officials to blame so-called unprecedented rains for the civic and humanitarian crisis each monsoon brings, and decouple development from disaster. But unprecedented rains occur quite regularly in Chennai. The floods are a wake up call for India’s teeming cities that were built with the expectation that the environment would adjust itself to accommodate the need for the city to grow.