Lessons from Chennai

December 09, 2015

People are transported on a boat through floodwaters, in Chennai last Thursday (AFP)

As the southern Indian city was battered by rain that threatened to snuff out life in the metro, humanity emerged from beneath the rising waters to keep hope alive. As did some valuable lessons...

At first glance, it may appear that we have all been horribly spoilt by our dependence on technology. There were not just a handful but, possibly, lakhs and lakhs of people who were struggling to keep in touch with their near and dear ones because the cellular networks had just crashed.

More than ever before, this was a time when the need for functional cellular networks was felt the most as southern India’s biggest city, Chennai, was drowning under a record spell of rain not seen in a century. The city received 300mm of rainfall on just one day when it normally receives a monthly average of 191mm. But, then someone could well turn around and say a lot of things fail just when it is not expected to, so why are people grumbling and pointing fingers.

Technology, as is well known, has always been a great leveller. So were the rains. They changed the approach to life of many if one goes by the responses of people on social media as well as the stories of determination, valour, self sacrifice and, not to forget, the truly amazing story of how humanity emerges from the rising waters that are chin-deep for a Indian of 5 feet 8 inches. That was what happened to a friend caught in the rising waters of a city that he has grown up in.

This was the guy, who, while wading through water for more than 5km, suddenly realised well past midnight that somebody heard him talking to his colleague about his worst fears when the water level was rising up to his chin, and was shouting at them to move towards a building where the ground floor was almost submerged in water.

That unknown guy himself was a guest who had been provided shelter by the house owner who, in turn, did not hesitate to provide some clothes to the new guests to change into for the night. That unknown guest also walked with this friend and his colleague for almost 3km the next morning in water that was chest deep only to show the way to their locality and go on to his own house in the opposite direction. It was humanity that, in more ways than one, came to the rescue of a city that some had assumed, like many others in the concrete jungles, had lost its soul. It was not only the Parisians who opened their doors after the latest terrorist attack.

The people of Chennai also did in hundreds and thousands as not just the low-lying areas, which are normally the worst affected when heavy rains lash the city, were flooded. It is true that the rain on the following day was not as intense and the flooding happened more because of the release of water from a reservoir, 29,000 cusecs in all! But what caused the extreme weather event just like the one at Uttarakhand a couple of years ago, was a typical pattern whose emergence has been well researched and established globally.

The extreme weather event is followed by a very hot summer like it happened in 2005 and is happening exactly a decade later, almost close to a month. A record 32cm of rain had been received on October 25, 2005 and about 27cm on November 12/13, 2005. A similar battering by the rain gods happened on November 11, 2015 (357mm rainfall when the monthly average was 407mm) and December 1, 2015.

The summer of 2016 is already forecasted as very hot. It does conform to the concept of El Nino but, experts say, that there is, as yet, no concrete study as far as India is concerned. That brings us to the causes of such a response or, in other words, why the city failed to brace up to the battering of rain. In the first place, the planning for this coastal city was done like it was in the plains. It could not have grown towards the north because the boundary line of the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh is just 70km away.

The growth should have taken place on the west of the city but the powersthat- be preferred to see growth in the south which was the home of lakes and wetlands. Over the years, the land use policy never changed, possibly, from the time of Sir Thomas Munro, the representative of the East India Company. It was the same policy that the political class utilised to provide patronage, possibly on a quid-pro-quo basis, to construction of massive housing and apartment projects.

So, when it rains the water naturally flows towards the wetlands and the lakes. The rulers obviously did not realise that water finds its own levels and it washes away all their dirt in public, exposing in its wake the human beings hungry to build and those crazy to own a portion of the concrete jungle.

The lessons from this experience are not necessarily confined to Chennai, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. But all the urban centres in the country, including metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata as well as other cities.

Fundamentally, it calls for a change in the land use policy that, over the years, has been twisted out of shape because there is no better multiplier of wealth than real estate. Call it avariciousness by all and sundry, but the message that is coming out loud and clear is that people need to use simple common sense to understand nature. Constant tinkering with nature leads to a permanent dent in the lives of lakhs of people. And, water is very fair. It does not differentiate between the rich and poor.

Driving away pollution

Events of the last week have, unwittingly, focussed attention on something that hurts the present to the point of killing the future. The most critical of decisions on curbing pollution in the national capital, Delhi, has made the local government, headed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Common Man’s party, the butt of many a joke.

One of them crudely suggests in a matrimonial advertisement that the man would prefer a woman having a car with a number that was an even number, of course, with all other chauvinistic demands, because the male has an odd number for his car. The joke is really about a serious matter.

The number of four wheelers has risen in the capital like in any other part of the country in big numbers just as the pollution levels have. So, the maverick of a party government has come up with a decision that has shocked many and sobered down an equal number. The Common Man’s party has recommended that the vehicles with odd numbers alone will run on one day and the following day only those with even numbers will run on the roads.

Purely from a long term perspective, given the gigantic task of curbing pollution, the decision has been received with a large pinch of salt. But, the fact remains that somebody had to take the call. It may succeed or it could just crash out.

Sometimes, a maverick idea does click, especially in the absence of any concrete solution coming from AAP’s critics to curb the menace of pollution. And, it got some unusual support from the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice T S Thakur, who was prepared to set an example to brother judges as well as the rest of the country to curb pollution by participating in a car pooling exercise. The effort to protect humanity appears to be getting rather desperate.


Social media was put to the most constructive use during the man-made calamity that struck Chennai. It helped in finding volunteers as well as providing help and hope to lakhs of people. It also gave an inkling of the change that occurs when a tragedy hits a human being.

Here is one such message that hits you between the eyes. Tweeted under the name of Chennaites, the message read: ‘I am Prasanna Venkatram working as a system analyst for an American software company in Chennai. Presently drawing R1.6mn (RO9,220.8 approx) per annum, proud owner of a three bedroom house in a suburb of Chennai.

Today I have two credit cards with more than R100,000 (RO576.31 approx)credit limit and a bank account of R65,000 (RO374.6 approx) in my account. But due to heavy water logging I am not able to move out of my house. All I need is water and food for my survival.

Till last week I was worried about my appraisal and was expecting at least a 15 per cent hike, but today I am standing on my terrace waiting for a food packet. Nature is the Best Teacher’.