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Hard times

Chennai on Thursday virtually turned into an island. The coastal areas of Tamil Nadu were marooned after unprecedented rains in 100 years pounded India’s fourth largest city. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh told in the Parliament on Thursday that the situation is “very alarming”. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chennai has become an island as it has been cut off from all national and state highways,” he said. However, the worst is yet to come. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, in the next 48 hours, the entire Tamil Nadu coast is going to be under heavy rainfall. For the citizens of Chennai, the following days are going to be as hard if not worse. 

The death toll from rain-related incidents in the state has risen to 269 from 188 on Thursday, according to the Centre. It is imperative to note that Chennai has been under deluge for the entire month of November. The recent spurt in rainfall came after a relative lull last weekend. The city’s two main rivers, Adyar and Cooum, are flooded, with reservoirs and tanks overflowing and 35 lakes are reportedly flowing at dangerous levels. Although the army and National Disaster Response Force have rescued more than 5,000 people, many remain marooned. What’s worse, the rescue work in large parts of the city have been rendered high risk due to the prevalence of wires from broken electrical poles that have fallen in the water. The state electricity board, as a result, has suspended the supply of electricity as a precautionary measure. Moreover, the city is facing a massive shortage of food and other essential items like food and water, not to mention the impending healthcare crisis that is likely to grip the city. According to recent reports, a bottle of mineral water costing Rs 20 is being sold for Rs 150 in certain areas. In response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made an aerial survey of Chennai on Thursday, announced relief of Rs. 1000 crore for Tamil Nadu, which, he said, will be “over and above Rs. 940 crore which was released earlier.”  Meanwhile, thousands of residents are reportedly fleeing North Chennai, where no rescue services are operating. Besides government authorities, a host of NGOs and local citizens have come out in large numbers, providing shelter and basic necessities, besides offering manpower in rescue operations.  In fact, a website called chennairains.org has been working as a resource centre and assisting those in need of help. Despite all local efforts, the rest of the country must step up and play its part through donations, both monetary and material. 

 The economic impact of the disaster cannot be overstated. Chennai is home to major automobile manufacturing and IT hubs. The floods have severely derailed business activity in the city, with companies shutting down their offices en masse. According to Assocham, one of India’s major trade associations, “the financial loss due to record-breaking rainfall in Chennai and several parts of Tamil Nadu may even exceed Rs 15,000 crore-mark as Chennai has come to a virtual standstill and is in the grip of fear and panic.” Although the amount of rainfall in the city has been unprecedented, poor urban planning has significantly exacerbated the situation, with drains blocked and most of the city swamped. It is safe to assume that the infrastructure for big commerce, allied with the construction of illegal housing complexes, have replaced the natural barriers to withstand floods. Authorities in India’s fourth largest metropolis have allowed construction over all but 27 of its 650 buffers and reservoirs. Unsurprisingly, the worst-affected areas in the city include the recently constructed high-tech corridor for multinational companies. Across the city, multi-storey residential and industrial structures have been built over what was once a lake, tank, canal or a river only 20 years ago. 

According to report submitted by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), there are over 1.5 lakh illegal structures in the city. Although the Madras High Court called for the demolition of many of these structures, the authorities have been unable anything, with stay orders coming in their way. So, when Chennai floods, there aren’t enough unobstructed channels for the water to get out. Moreover, rivers, natural outlets for flood waters, are choked with garbage, sewage, and silt. The government has already spent large sums of money to clear up Chennai’s rivers and resuscitate its sewage infrastructure. However, most of it is just good money gone down the drain, since city authorities did bother with detailed topographical assessments before constructing these expensive drains. Due diligence, one may assume, went out of the window. As a city, with an average elevation of about 6.7 metres above mean sea level, with many neighbourhoods actually at sea level, such laxity on the part of authorities cannot be excused.
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