Home/ Politics / Policy/  Chennai rains: what went wrong in the city?

Chennai: The city on the coastline of the Bay of Bengal woke up to a clear sky on 17 November after a week of incessant downpour that threw life out of gear. The disruption of normal life in Tamil Nadu’s water-logged capital for a week poses important questions on the city’s basic infrastructure.

“The master plan itself has been put together with absolutely no thought to hydrology," said Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist and writer.

No stranger to heavy rains

Chennai received its highest rainfall in the last 10 years, recording 246.5mm rainfall in 24 hours on Monday, breaking the November 2005 record of 142.4mm, the meteorological department said. The city had the highest rainfall of 452.4mm in November 1976. Cuddalore, Kanchipuram, Thiruvallur and Vellore are among the districts that received heavy rainfall.

However, Chennai is no stranger to heavy rains, say experts. Being in the high-energy east coast, the city has often faced cyclones and heavy rains due to low pressure in the Bay of Bengal.

But Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa cited unexpected downpour as the reason behind the chaos. “When rains that should have been realized in three months lash within a few days, any number of preventive measures will not suffice as stagnation and resulting damage are unavoidable," she said on Monday.

Her statement drew criticism over the handling of the rains and floods. “Even if it was six months of rain on a single day, the administration should have been ready to tackle it," Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) state president Tamilisai Soundararajan said in a statement on Monday.

M.K. Stalin, treasurer of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said: “She (Jayalalithaa) is merely covering up for the inefficiency and incompetence of her government. There was no preparedness even after the meteorological department predicted excess rainfall during this year’s northeast monsoon."

The chief minister also announced 500 crore towards the relief and rehabilitation of the people affected in the state where the death toll due to rains touched 79.

Lack of infrastructure

Water-logged roads and subways, sewerage lines mixing with the drinking water and lakes breaching their banks are just a few of the problems that Chennai faces every rainy season, and it just got worst last week.

“The magnitude of the incident was blown up by the mismanagement and lack of adequate infrastructure," said Alamu Rathinasabapathy, a research fellow at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

According to Satyarupa Shekhar, director of Citizen consumer and Civic Action Group, an NGO based in Chennai, “The lack of enforcement of planning rules has resulted in rampant building violations, such as encroaching roads and pavements, illegal connections of sewerage lines to storm water drains and construction on ponds, lakes, marshes and other natural catchment areas."

The city lacks an adequate drainage network. “Despite several crores being allocated (in the Chennai Corporation budget and JNNURM) to the construction of storm water drains (SWD), only a fraction of Chennai’s roads are accompanied by SWD," said Satyarupa

“Every year, the monsoon clearly exposes the flaws in the city’s infrastructure. But hardly have we found any difference each year. This year, it was the worst though," said a resident of Anna Nagar, situated around 7km from Jayalalithaa’s RK Nagar constituency, where the chief minister reviewed the situation from her air-conditioned vehicle on Monday.

Shrinking wetland, lack of planning

Velachery, a residential area next to Pallikaranai marshland, gets flooded almost every November and was among the worst affected this year too. Wetlands are important as they help reduce the impact of storm damage and flooding, but these are fast shrinking.

“Some 40 years ago, Pallikaranai was a 50 sq. km marshland and now it has been reduced to a tenth of its size. 90% of the marshland is lost to construction of IT corridors, gated community, garbage dump, sewage treatment plant, etc," said Jayaraman.

Shekhar pointed out other areas, including MRC Nagar, built on the Adyar estuary, the Mass Rapid Transit System, built almost wholly on the Buckingham canal, Koyambedu Bus Terminal, the expressway and buildings on the Old Mahabalipuram Road, that are examples of blatant encroachments on waterways and water bodies.

“We require more than just good infrastructure. It will require good data and maps, sound planning practices and enhanced accountability of public agencies that are responsible for the way our city is shaped," concluded Shekhar.

Lack of preparedness

Ironically, when the meteorological department warned in September of excess rainfall, the Chennai Corporation issued statements that it was prepared for the monsoon, claims that have now fallen flat. Last month, the civic body even released a statement on the quantity of silt removed from drains across the city.

In October, Chennai mayor Saidai Duraisamy credited himself for the work done in the city. Presenting what he called a promise-delivery rating, Duraisamy gave a bare pass score of 41 out of 100 to his predecessor M. Subramanian, while giving himself a score of 93.55, The Times of India had reported.

Meanwhile, some voices on social media praised fire servicemen, policemen, National Disaster Response Force, Indian Air Force, Indian Army and the public transport drivers. While these men require their due respect, a proper desilting infrastructure would have reduced the impact of the retreating monsoon.

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Updated: 18 Nov 2015, 05:15 PM IST
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