‘Chennai is our city; let’s take control’

Wading to safety: It is increasingly clear that the deluge which displaced thousands in Chennai in 2015 was a disaster waiting to happen.   -  PTI

Almost four years after it survived devastating floods, Chennai is now dealing with a severe drought. A new book focuses on the deluge and the lessons to be learned from it

A few days after the Chennai floods in 2015, as I walked the streets I grew up in, I understood what it meant to lose something you never thought you’d ever lose. It felt as if all of my memories had been violently erased. The beautiful, quiet by-lanes where I scraped my knees learning to ride my brother’s bicycle (a cool green Streetcat), where I climbed trees, played cricket, hide-and-seek and hopscotch, made great friends and led (in hindsight) a charmingly simple life in skirts and blouses, my oiled hair in two plaits held together by white ribbons... were all unrecognisable.

That night the roads were pitch dark and the homes empty. Candle lights flickered here and there, but mostly an eerie silence enveloped me as I stood in disbelief. And then, when I walked into my home a little away from the banks of the Adyar River, I realised what it meant to lose everything you grew up taking for granted. Like the bed I’d slept in for most part of my life. Or the computer table that bore witness to my many Road Rash game sessions, and my irresponsible movie watching spree (even on the day before my physics board exam. Sorry, mom and dad!) The dining table that I always found to be too clunky, but still miss when I walk into our house nearly four years after the floods...

After we emptied my parents’ home out, for nothing the river had touched felt safe to us, we went to buy furniture from good old Mani and Co in Royapettah. A mango wood cot, a teak dining table with two chairs, and a divan. After hearing our story, a kind flooring contractor gave us a good deal on vinyl flooring. The mosaic tiles of the apartment had dark patches that refused to go away despite our valiant attempts with cleaners of all manner — mild, organic, chemical and industrial strength.

There was no time, however, to sit back and think. We had work to do. Clean, clean, clean. Replace, repair and recuperate. But slowly, as the days passed, the questions began to rise. Questions I had no answers for. In fact, no one around me did. These questions became the crux of the many RTIs I filed in the process of writing my book Rivers Remember (Westland).

Rivers Remember; Krupa Ge

 

The title came from the piece Rivers that Remember and Cities that Forget, written by Vikram Doctor in the wake of the Mumbai floods 14 years ago. The piece re-appeared after the Chennai floods, asking important questions and speaking with a clarity that appealed to me and, indeed, to many of us who were angered by the catastrophe. By August 2016, I had a book proposal ready and a roadmap to follow. I wrote a note to myself: What I would like to produce is a comprehensive account of what went wrong on December 1 , 2015, and what the water did to this city that goes parched every year in the month of May. Ironically, as the book readied for launch in June, I was flooded (pun unintended) by calls from people on the severe drought in Chennai, which has been exacerbated by political inaction, yet again.

Over several months, four of us (three lawyers and I) filed nearly a dozen RTI queries with various departments of the Tamil Nadu government, as well as the CAG, the central audit body that took stock of the floods. I wanted answers: How many people died in the floods; how did the government inform those about to be flooded that they were indeed going to drown; the number of people rescued and placed in camps; which were the areas where word went out about the impending flood; who were the government officials in the loop about the amount of water being released into the Adyar River from the Chembarambakkam reservoir that eventually drowned vast swathes of the city.

In the course of the three years it took me to write the book, I met lawyers and activists who were working on various environmental issues pertaining to our city, the rivers and the floods with passion and generosity. Their commitment and selflessness gave me hope, despite the depressing facts I discovered about the floods and the ways in which our natural resources are being laid to waste.

I read a news report about a PIL that had been filed on the deluge and went online to the Madras High Court website to track down the petitioner. Before I knew it, I was staring at hundreds of pages of precious information, court proceedings and orders, all handed to me by the advocate (who chose to remain behind the scenes for he did not want to take any attention away from the issue).

In the meantime, my RTI queries were being transferred from one department to another (I even received a blank response to one set of queries), and it took me nearly a year to find answers to even the most basic questions. Many RTI activists advised me to persist with appeals until I got what I was looking for. And I did. We filed appeals, appeared in person, wrote letters and cited legal points, until the answers trickled in slowly. And then I hit jackpot. I was granted audience to a 155-page report that was essentially an exchange between several senior government officials and the CAG, exchanging blame, denying wrong-doing and trying to evade responsibility. But to get there required great resources (that my privilege accorded me with, and which I acknowledge fully) — time, perseverance and, most of all, patience.

By the end of three-and-a-half years, I was staring at information that was heartbreaking. I had lost my home to a flood that was entirely avoidable. So many people lost their lives, livelihoods and homes because those in power dilly-dallied. However, the last four years also taught me that the flood was not made in a day. Also, a single person cannot be held responsible for it. We have been building up to this for decades. We are staring at a ‘Groundhog Day-esque’ future if we don’t act, and press upon our elected officials to act.

Helping hand: The disaster brought people together, but some social divides remained insurmountable. - K V Srinivasan   -  The Hindu

 

With Rivers Remember,I am exercising my democratic right to participate in governance. To ask questions, to seek answers, to fix accountability, to count our losses, to acknowledge the largesse of a people who came together, and to understand social divides that are not easy to transcend, especially during a catastrophe.

Writing the book has taken its toll on me in more ways than I can count. I have cried myself to sleep on occasion. It wasn’t just the loneliness and anxiety of writing, finding a publisher or going through the editing process. It also had to do with the kind of stories I was privy to. To the devastation and destruction of so many ways of life. From the small to the big, from the poor to the rich, from the young to the old... the flood may not have affected all of us the same, but it did, nonetheless. It united us in grief even if some of us were unable to see how similar we are even in the face of this tragedy. The realisation that not even a flood could erase the divides of class and caste was numbing.

Washed away: From the small to the big, the poor to the rich, the young to the old, the flood affected everyone. - V V Krishnan   -  The Hindu

 

I wouldn’t, however, want anyone to feel hopeless or despair at my story. At my city’s story. Instead, more people should join me in this simple act of taking control; no longer should we wait for disaster to strike at our doorsteps. There are many who care. For our city. For our home.

  • Rivers Remember
  • Krupa Ge
  • Westland Context
  • Non-fiction
  • ₹499

Krupa Ge is a Chennai-based writer and editor, and the author of Rivers Remember published in June

Published on July 05, 2019

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