It was a friend’s remark in 2012 that alerted me to something off about the way I’ve looked at natural disasters in India’s urban centres – especially Chennai. At that time – as it is today – long strips of land in many parts of the city were occupied by trucks and machinery involved in building the Metro. At the same time, arbitrary overcharging by auto-rickshaws was rampant and almost all buses were overcrowded during peak hours. Visiting the city for a few days, she tweeted: “Get your act together, Chennai.”
Like all great cities, Chennai has always sported two identities conflated as one: its public infrastructure and its people. There has been as much to experience about Chennai’s physical framework as its anthropological counterpart. For every dabara of filter coffee you had, visit to the Marina beach you paid on a cloudy evening, stroll around Kapaleeshwarar Temple you took during a festival, you could take a sweaty bus-ride at 12 pm, bargain with an auto-rickshaw driver, and get lost on South Usman road. This conflation has invoked the image of a place retaining its small-townish charm while evolving a big-town bustle. And this impression wouldn’t be far off the mark if it weren’t for one problem.
In the shadow of its wonderful people, Chennai’s public infrastructure has been fraying at the seams.
The ongoing spell of rains in the city have really brought some of these tears to the fore. Large swaths are flooded with upto two feet of water while Saidapet, Kotturpuram, Ekkattuthangal, Tiruvanmiyur and Tambaram areas have been wrecked. A crowdsourced effort has registered over 2,000 roads as being water-logged. Hundreds of volunteers still ply the city providing what help they can – while a similar number of others have opened up their homes – as thousands desperately await it. The airport has been shut for a week, all trains cancelled and major arterial roads blocked off. The Army, Navy and the NDRF have been deployed for rescue efforts but they’re overstretched. Already, the northern, poorer suburbs are witnessing flash protests amidst a building exodus for want of supplies.
Nobody saw these rains coming. For over three decades, the annual northeast monsoons have been just about consistently short of expectations. But this year, the weather has seemed intent on correcting that hefty deficit in the span of a few weeks. For example, December 1-2 alone witnessed over 300 mm of rainfall as opposed to a full month’s historic average of 191 mm.
But as it happens, there’s no credible drainage system. The consequential damage is already an estimated Rs.15,000 crore – which is really just fine because I believe that that number could be smaller than all the rumoured bribes that were taken by the city’s municipal administrators to let builders build where and how they wished: within once-swamps, in the middle of dried lakebeds, using impervious materials for watertight designs, with little care for surface runoffs and solid waste management, the entire facade constructed to be car- and motorbike-friendly.
What I think is up for change now is that we don’t forget, that we don’t let the government surmount the disaster this time with compensation packages, reconciliatory sops and good ol’ flattery – the last one by saying the people of Chennai have stood tall, have coped well, and move on, just like that. But what made the crisis that required the fortitude in the first place – any more than the fortitude we already display to get on with our lives? It was only drawn out by what has always been a planned but ignored crisis. Even if it’s the sole silver-lining, focusing on it also distracts us from understanding the real damage we’ve taken.
An opinion piece that appeared in The Hindu on December 3 provides a springboard to further explain my views. An excerpt:
Many outsiders who come to the city say it’s hard to make friends here. The people are insular, they say. It’s true, we Chennaites stick to ourselves. There is none of the brash socialising of the Delhiite, the familiar chattiness of the Kolkatan, or the earthy amiability of the Mumbaikar. Your breezy hello will likely get a grunt in return and chirpy conversational overtures will meet austere monosyllables. That’s because we don’t much care for small talk. We can spend entire evenings making few friends and influencing nobody, but give us a crisis and you’ll find that few cities stand up tall the way Chennai does. It is unglamorously practical, calmly efficient, and absolutely rock-solid in its support systems.
Apropos these words: It’s very important to celebrate the people who’ve stood up to adversity but when the adversity was brought on by the government (the AIADMK, with its construction-heavy reigns, and DMK, for having no sense of urban planning – exemplified by that unnecessary flyover on South Usman Road), it’s equally important to call it out as well. But the author of the piece blames the rain god for it. It’s like I push you in front of a speeding truck, you somehow survive a fatal scenario, then I applaud you and you thank me for the applause. I think that when you’re able to celebrate a life-goes-on narrative without talking about what broke, you’re essentially rooting for the status quo.
Moreover, thousands of cities have stood tall the way Chennai has. Kalyan Raman had penned a justifiably provocative essay in 2005 where he argued that India’s biggest metros have largely been made (as opposed to being unmade) by daunting crises. I think it’s important in this context to cheer on rescue efforts but not the physical infrastructure itself – which has a cultural component in having established it, and which is neither “calmly efficient” nor has a rocky quality. It stinks (a 10-year timeline for building the Metro is another example), and must now earn its own narrative in stories of Chennai instead of piggybacking on the city’s other well-deserved qualities.
In the same vein, I don’t think different cities’ different struggles are even comparable, so it’s offensive to suggest few cities can stand up tall the way Chennai has. Let’s cheer for having survived, not thump our chests. We made the floods happen, and unless we demand better from our government, we won’t get better governance (for starters, in the form of civic infrastructure reform).