4 min read.Updated: 02 Aug 2019, 02:54 PM ISTKavitha Rao
Krupa Ge’s account of the 2015 Chennai flood paints a bleak picture of urban apathy and mismanagement
Based on personal experience, interviews and journalistic investigation, the book warns of disasters waiting to happen
Is there a more terrifyingly titled book in 2019 than Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember? At first glance, it sounds nostalgic, sepia-toned, even pretty. But the truth is the opposite. The rivers refer to the Adyar, the Cooum and the Kosasthalaiyar—the triad that engulfed Chennai in 2015.
“We didn’t think they would remember. But they did. It was as if nothing had changed. We displaced them, disallowed them from entering their own turf. And then we built on top of their homes," Ge writes. Rivers Remember reveals that the deadly Chennai floods were entirely man-made, and that they are likely to happen in other cities too. Even jaded readers no longer surprised by government apathy are likely to be horrified at just how callous Chennai’s urban planners were.
Who: Ge is a writer, editor and fervent Chennai lover. This is her first book, and a very personal one. She writes with searing fury about her beloved childhood home being destroyed suddenly by the floods as her parents—neck deep in greasy sewage water—fled in the nick of time, with no warning at all. They were the lucky ones. Hundreds died, though no can agree on how many exactly.
Only a few days after the flood, a shocked Ge decided to write this book to find the answers to questions that plagued her. “Why did Chennai flood? Was it really because of a once-in-a-hundred-year rain, as the authorities claimed? Why was there no warning?"
She spent over three years interviewing victims, sifting historical archives, filing and chasing RTI (right to information) queries, speaking to journalists and reading disaster management plans. It was the hardest three years of her life, she says.
The toughest part, she says, “was the emotional toll" of revealing her personal life to readers. “When you are a journalist, you are taught to stay outside of the story and not put yourself in it. I have been asked if I would have written this book if this had not happened to me, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know’. Or maybe I would have written it differently."
What: You may have read coverage of the floods in the papers, or not, given that the Chennai floods were largely ignored by the national media. By the time the media woke up, Chennai was underwater.
That, of course, is the point of the book: to shock people into demanding action from public servants and prepare for the next catastrophe. The most chilling revelation is the unprecedented speed of the floods; people went to bed with no warning at 10pm and woke up drowning in the middle of the night.
Ge describes, in brutal prose, the slow deaths of a retired army man and his elderly wife in a ground-floor house. They were heard crying for help by their neighbours, who could not get to them. “The two of them would first stand on the table in their bedroom and shout for help. Later, they would add a chair to the top of the table and sit on it. All along they would be on the phone to their daughter. Ankle...hip…neck…and then the cries would die." She concludes, tersely. “So would they."
This could have been an overwhelming book, given the harrowing tales of death and damage. But Ge intersperses tales of the flood with calming histories of the Adyar, the Cooum, Buckingham Canal, and Chennai as a whole. This is not your conventional non-fiction book: Sometimes it reads like a memoir, sometimes like history, sometimes like Tamil poetry.
Ge has a wonderful eye for the absurd, especially peculiar to Tamil Nadu. Writing about the Chembarambakkam reservoir, which also flooded the city because water was let out too late, she snarks, “The opening of reservoirs and the act of providing water for drinking or irrigation have been spun by politicians as acts of individual grace and bravado."
Why: Read this book for a deep dive into the terrible state of urban planning in India. Ge discovered that the floods were caused by years of inaction by the government. Before the 2015 floods, the Chennai disaster management authority, which is required to meet every quarter by law, had met just once. During the floods, it did not meet at all. One of Chennai’s biggest sources of water, the Chembarambakkam Reservoir, followed a rule book for flood management which was over 30 years old.
Her RTI application, which dragged on for a year, finally unearthed the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG’s) report, which laid the blame squarely on the government: for allowing illegal encroachments, not taking desilting work seriously, and permitting unauthorized construction. The word “failed" appeared 38 times in the report. Given that people have been killed for RTI queries, Ge may still face a backlash. “My lawyer friends have told me, ‘Don’t think you have gotten away with it.’ But I think I have."
Even Ge’s RTI could not unearth plausible figures on how many died. The government claimed 38 people died, but eyewitnesses saw many more bodies, with the toll likely to be in the hundreds. As Ge says: “Many migrants from other states, whose families can’t speak Tamil, may have been killed. No one knows."
If there is hope in Ge’s book, it is from the accounts of residents and volunteers who helped, with the fishing community acting as “the first responders", rescuing over 30,000 people. But Ge holds out little hope of change in urban planning.
“In 2016, the state came up with a disaster relief plan," she says. “But they copied it from Himachal Pradesh. A mountain relief plan copied by a flat coastal city!" Another plan has been now floated, but Ge says it still does not address the numerous issues posed by Chennai. Meanwhile, slowly, inexorably, another flood looms.
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and author. (Disclaimer: Her first book was published by Westland, of which Context is an imprint.)