Close Encounter with the Chennai Floods: How it shook the Middle Class conscience

Every year, during November & December, Eastern Coast of India faces heavy downpour either due to monsoon rains or with the help of Cyclone. While cyclonic rains come along with winds and cause heavy destruction, monsoon rains do equal damage to those who live alongside riverbanks and lakes. Come every year, we used to see the floodwater which had entered the low-lying areas of Chennai, mostly in Velachery or Madipakkam or North Chennai and the poor occupants of the small house either in tears or shouting at the government. It was just something that happened to someone somewhere, while the rest of middle class Chennai busy themselves in hot coffee. Floodwater entering the slums and homes of those who lived along river banks were just a news to us back then.

Even during the 2005 Chennai floods, when water ran in the roads for two feet, it had not entered much homes and Chennai had rarely been in the path of Vortex of a Cyclone, to face widespread destruction. Hence, it never shook the conscience of middle class. The middle class which drooled at the advertisement of apartments beyond the Chennai boundary but never cared about the lakes or rivers on which it is alleged to be built, the middle class which rarely speaks with the government or which seldom worries about the drainage system, were pulled out of their homes and were slapped until it hurt their brain by the recent Chennai floods. And I too belong to such middle class.

On December 1, when it all started, I was preparing myself to start for my work. There was a heavy downpour from morning and by 10 am, the water has already started seeping through the gaps in the tiles and cracks in the wooden door bases. This was not the first time floodwater found refuge in our home, but the third time in third week. Within an hour, water started pouring in from the front entrance and it was coming very fast such that it rose to one feet inside our home in thirty minutes. Within that short time, we had to unplug all electronic items, move them to tables and cots. Thankfully, we had a first floor half of the size of the building on the ground floor, which was used by our relative. So, we didn’t had to head out for nearby school or any other relief camp. That was one step short of facing a disaster (like how the poor people living in low-lying areas and slums had to face every year after heavy rains during the monsoon season). All nine of us were holed up in a single room, with no tap water, power, vegetables, mobile network and with incessant rains pounding all through the night. We had a roof above us, but it was terrible to think of the thousands of Chennaiites who had to sit on terrace and wait for someone to save them.

On December 3, when rains had subsided and floodwater running on our streets lost its current, I ventured out to buy some milk and vegetables. The scene that I saw with my own eyes looked straight from a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie. There were strewn wooden logs, plastic wastes on the middle of the roads. People were riding their bikes in panic, with many of them appearing to be fleeing to their hometowns with their backpacks. I could see people with long walking sticks and heavy bags coming out from other parts of Chennai, like the Syrian refugees. There was a long queue outside milk stores, no vegetables at the market and no newspaper. Buses did not ply, no autos or private cabs were on the roads, train services came to a halt except the metro and airport was closed for the first time in Chennai’s history. With no power, no newspapers and no mobile network, we felt being marooned at our own homes. My parents joked that it felt like being back to 1960s.

The scariest part was the Adyar river overflowing the Maraimalai Adigalar bridge next to Little Mount. That was one bridge which I remember from my very young age as we cross that to get to a commercial hub called T Nagar and I still commute on it to enter the City. When I happened to cross that bridge on 7th December, I could spot all the washed away huts and eroded buildings and people rummaging through them.

Adyar river overflowing the Saidapet bridge and touching the elevated Metro railway bridge under-construction.

Adyar river overflowing the Saidapet bridge and touching the elevated Metro railway bridge under-construction. Image Source: The Hindu.

It was the first time I had seen such a fury, though we all had heard about overflowing rivers and submerged bridges in other parts of India like Orissa, Bihar and Assam. It was the first time we saw food packets being dropped and people being rescued with the help of helicopter. Boat aided rescue was a common sight here though, happening every year.

When floodwater entered our home for the first time on 16th of November, we were both panicked and depressed. And with recurrence of the same event every week, we got used to it. Maybe, those slum dwellers who we saw on News channels previous years, developed such mindset too? But, it now pains that they had to lose so much of property, because we lost our belongings which could cost us in few thousands. That is why, this Chennai flood was a blow to the conscience of the middle class.

Some point to ponder from what transpired in Chennai the last week:

  • This rainfall was a record in the history of Chennai. The downfall was so heavy without leaving a gap that led to heavy flooding. Apart from blaming the government, we have to take with a pinch of bitterness that we had to face a record rainfall. That is why, middle class had to feel the blow, which it had escaped all these years. But that does not remove the blame from poor planning. The poor planning is not just restricted to the Corporation alone, but also includes us. We should had built homes leaving a considerable height, say 2 to 3 feet, from the ground level, keeping in mind the rise in road height for the next 20 years. Also, the officials must be questioned over the need for adding layer upon layer of roads instead of destructing the old layer and rebuilding a new road on it. Adding layer upon layer sends the old homes into depth resulting in those occupants to either face the floodwater in their homes or to demolish their homes to reconstruct a new one.
  • In a Democracy, governance is not just the work of ministers, MLAs and officials. Rather, it involves everyone. This was the prime takeaway from this disaster. It was great to see a chunk of people, especially youth, coming out and lending a helping hand to the affected people. This is not just Humanity, but this is what Democracy really means. We had been viewing it from the perspective of ‘for the people’, but this flood taught us ‘of the people’ component. When people get down to work instead of floating a political party or forming a NGO, it sounds like the real democracy. It was democracy alive in the streets of Chennai, when it was hurt by this disaster. It sent a message that the work of citizen in a democracy does not end with the pressing of that button on voting day.
  • Urban planning was poor. Even if we change governments and bring highly educated politicians to rule us, a very heavy rainfall is going to bring us back the whole suffering instead of just being a part of memory, because there is not much space to drain the floodwater. Chennai was originally a marsh land surrounded by lakes. Most of our prominent localities were built on lakes or marshlands. 300 years before, rainwater would had fell on those lakes causing it to overflow it to nearby marshlands making its way to the Bay of Bengal. Since we are now occupying the lands that were originally used for this water flow, there should had been a good plan to drain water, which is lacking, as evident by the current floods.
  • Move away the residential and commercial areas from river banks and lake boundaries. Instead of evacuating them and make them to face loss in properties for every monsoon season, why not implement a no-building zone near these places? We can create walkpath on either side of river or lakes, giving room for joggers, cyclists and convert it into a tourist spot without permanent commercial buildings, sealing it effectively whenever a flood alert occurs. Adyar river which flooded recently was surrounded by slums and housing board buildings on its banks. Why not move them to elevated places? If slum dwellers do not wake up and request slum clearance board to move them to safer places, they will not be facing such losses in the next floods. There should be a strict vigilance on the water bodies and encroachment should be duly punished. If possible, sealing those apartments and flats, built on lakes via illegal means and penalising everyone involved in it, might send a strong message to the middle and upper class, who will then think twice before buying any such homes in the future.
  • Every road should have a proper drainage system. Take for example, Old Mahabalipuram Road (now called Rajiv Gandhi Salai), which turns into a river if it rains continuously for three hours. If given a proper drainage, this can remove the clutter of vehicles being stranded there and ease the traffic. Chennai faced worst traffic on the night of 23rd November, when people were on road for 7-8 hours due to floodwater on the main roads. Imagine having a proper drainage system on road corners that could drain such flooding waters in few minutes, it can reduce the stress due to traffic.
  • And the last is We – We the people. When it flooded for the first time on November 16, we met the Corporation workers and nagged them to drain the floodwater. They took us to nearby drainage canals and showed us the garbage accumulated in it blocking the passage of water and diverting the excess waters into nearby homes. Just contemplate about the amount of garbage thrown into such drainage canals across Chennai and consider how much of floodwater was blocked its proper way, because of our carelessness. If only we had a foresight and disposed the waste in proper bins, the drainage systems would had worked a bit and floodwater would not be knee-deep for sure in most of the areas.

This flood is a lesson to every other Indian, who change news channels or move to Sports column of newspapers, neglecting such disasters until it knocks their home one day, like how it happened for me. I did not include Anthropogenic climate change or environmental damage angle in this article. The reason is, we are an exploding population and trying to implement heavy measures to reverse environmental damage is not a feasible option right now. We cannot keep on blaming the unpredictable weather or Nature everytime and ignore the losses. It is time we invest more in planning and reshaping our urban areas to overcome such natural disasters, rather than praying for it or writing it off as ‘a revenge act of Nature’.

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