The more that things seem to change, the more they remain the same. In fact, they get worse going by the experience of Chennai post-Cyclone Michaung. After the devastating floods of 2015, it was hoped that lessons would’ve been learnt by the authorities; but more than 48 hours after the calamitous downpour on Sunday and Monday, Chennai is still reeling with large parts of high population density areas, still under water. Worse, the state machinery has proved unequal to the task of rescue and relief, leaving people to fend for themselves. This is by no means the “smart city” that the government is promoting.
It is the same old story of unplanned construction, building colonies on swampland and lakebeds, clogged waterways due to public apathy and a complicit administration that has issued building permits without a care for city planning. Natural disasters do happen and in these days of drastic climate change, they’re more frequent. What’s important is how good rescue and relief measures are. When it rains 53 cm in 48 hours in a dense urban agglomeration such as Chennai, it is obviously not easy to manage the fallout. But that’s where the state administration comes in.
There was adequate warning of the oncoming cyclone, and it is not as if the authorities have no experience of dealing with such situations before. Yet, rescue and relief operations have been pathetic and the administration was more noticeable in its absence than in its efforts to ameliorate the situation in the initial aftermath. Viral videos and pictures in social media and reports from parts of the city still under water tell a tale of suffering, of people stranded on higher floors and roof tops without access to drinking water and food for 24-48 hours after the downpour stopped.
Business and industry have also been badly affected with industrial estates in Ambattur, which is flooded every monsoon, and in Padi, which hosts some big auto parts manufacturers, remaining under water till Wednesday evening. On the famed IT-Corridor, water had entered at least one multi-storeyed complex hosting major multinational companies. Worse, with power disconnected and mobile towers not functioning, even the relatively better placed companies and employees have not been able to work for the last three days. This is surely not the picture that the State government would like to convey ahead of the Global Investors Meet in exactly a month from now. The lessons to be learnt are clear. Construction should not be permitted in the swamps and flood plains abutting the city, and those that obstruct the path of water flow should be pulled down. Power infrastructure should be strengthened obviating the need to switch off supply at the first hint of rain. The effectiveness of the city’s new drain network, laid at a cost of ₹4,000 crore, needs to be reviewed. And finally, the administration’s disaster management capabilities need to be improved.