Flood of opportunism

Swathi Moorthy | Updated on March 10, 2018

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 04/12/2015: Volunteers distributing food pockets at Arumbakkam, in Chennai on December 04, 2015. Photo: R. Ravindran   -  R Ravindran/The Hindu

As Chennai grappled with the catastrophic rains, many tales of greed, callousness and apathy went unreported

‘Chennai is the only place where there are more volunteers than victims’ read a widely shared tweet that was attributed to the Indian Army. As the city became flooded by torrential rain and water released from overflowing lakes, scores of warm, fuzzy stories emerged — people opening their houses and kitchens to strangers, bands of volunteers rushing to affected areas, and tales of heroism and communal harmony.

Yes, this disaster brought out the best in Chennai. But as the media chased feel-good stories and the city celebrated a newfound togetherness in the face of a catastrophe that recognised neither economic class nor religious denomination, it ignored a darker side. Of exploitation. Profiteering. And callousness.

Take Dhanraj Pillai. On December 2, the assistant manager of a nationalised bank was watching the news at 7pm in the comfort of his living room. Even as he listened to reports of the lashing rain, he saw rainwater creeping in around his chair. Within an hour, his ground-floor apartment in T Nagar, smack in the middle of Chennai, was flooded. Alone at home at the time, he sought refuge in his 70-year-old cousin’s first-floor apartment.

Unlike many in colonies such as Velachery, which remained without help and rescue efforts for days, Pillai was lucky. A boat arrived the next morning to escort his cousin Lakshmi and him to safety. But wait. Alongside the volunteers were a couple of people with suspicious looks.

As Pillai and Lakshmi climbed into the boat, they saw them rummage around the house. “I couldn’t help noticing them,” said Pillai. “They pretended to be part of the rescue team but were actually trying to filch my possessions.” Taking shelter at a petrol pump after the rescue boat dropped them off on a dry spot, Pillai said he can survey the damage only after he returns home when the water recedes.

Not very far away, Karuna Sekar, a slum-dweller and watchman at a middle-class housing complex, chose three auto rickshaws to shelter his wife, two children and three members of his sister’s family. Parked in a line along Venkatnarayana Road, also in T Nagar, the vehicles belong to a friend.

Rolling up the tarps to catch some light and air inside the auto, Sekar said he first sought shelter at his place of work.

“I was told we were too many and was promptly turned away,” Sekar said. “We also tried to take shelter in the garages of neighbouring apartments, but met with refusal everywhere,” he added.

Sekar’s wife was worried about the unavailability of milk and drinking water. “We got some food packets from volunteers and nearby temples, but where do we go to get something to drink?” she asked.

Side by side with the free distribution of food packets flourished an organised system of profiteering. It wasn’t just the airlines that charged exorbitant sums for nearby destinations (such as Bengaluru) or hotels that hiked room rates as demands spiked.

A bunch of racketeers resold milk at anything up to ₹150 a litre and drinking water at similarly inflated rates. On a small, dry patch at the busy intersection of Eldams Road and TTK Road, a man at the back of a tempo was besieged by people looking to buy milk. He had no compunctions charging ₹75 for a half-litre packet, and no one complained as they jockeyed to get closer to the truck. One of them said philosophically, “What choice do we have? It’s a seller’s market.”

As shops downed shutters and essential goods became scarce, the Tamil Nadu government did a splendid job in keeping one service open — the sale of alcohol, the State’s biggest revenue earner. Outlets of TASMAC, the government liquor retailer, were open in many parts of the city, including some on roads where every other establishment was shut.

Outside a wine shop on the arterial Anna Salai, bystanders helped push-start a massive SUV stuck in the water. Three inebriated men in colourful lungis soon joined in. Job done, the drunk men forcefully demanded money from the SUV owner, chartered accountant K Vanchinathan, who later said, “I had to part with ₹500. I am sure the money found its way to TASMAC.”

Most taxis and auto rickshaws stayed off the roads and the few that plied fleeced hapless commuters. Suhashini Madan, a Besant Nagar resident, shelled out three times more than what she usually pays to get home from Anna Salai. She was lucky. Others paid even more.

The opportunism of the transport sector was most visible in the private boat services that ferried people from severely waterlogged areas like Velachery. The going rate was ₹600 a person, a very tidy amount considering the ride was only till the nearest dry spot, after which the rescued were left to fend for themselves or just wait for further help.

More volunteers than victims? More than one volunteer was a victim. Some examples were really close to home. A BusinessLine journalist was manhandled by some teenagers as she was taking supplies to slum-dwellers on Kodambakkam High Road. The brother of another BusinessLine journalist had his wallet picked while distributing food packets.

“Humanity is a crazy contradiction,” said the American stand-up comedian Colin Quinn. This was a truth that played out over and over again during the catastrophe. Compassion co-existed with callousness, generosity went hand-in-hand with greed, and courage was undermined by cowardice as Chennai grappled with something it hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.

Published on December 11, 2015

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