Cities & Architecture

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the Choppy Waters of Chennai

Vehicles navigating a water-lodged road during heavy rains in Chennai on December 2. Credit: PTI

Vehicles navigating a water-logged road during heavy rains in Chennai on December 2. Credit: PTI

Chennai: Why does R. Muniyappan, a fresh fruit juice vendor in Adyar, Chennai, happily sell a tall glass of sweet lemon juice at just three rupees a pop?

Because, in times of crises, fresh fruit is the last thing anybody wants. Bananas, apples and kiwis provide no immediate sustenance and spoil more quickly than other commodities like vegetables and bread. Muniyappan and many others like him are more than happy therefore to sell their stocks at below cost to anybody who’s willing to buy.

Disasters and crises have a terrible way of rearranging the natural order of things (besides the obvious material consequences), of changing what we value and prioritise as consumers and citizens, and the rains and floods that battered Chennai over the last five days were no different.

Quality of life in Chennai over the last week depended on your household income and house’s location both. While some patches of Chennai – including the upper-income North Usman Road portion of T Nagar – were able to maintain reasonably continuous electricity coverage, everything south of the Adyar bridge (also an upper income area) will continue to be in the dark for the next two or three days, according to city officials. On the other hand, ordinary white candles, normally sold for Rs.5 to Rs.10 apiece, retailed for a little over Rs.50, with shopkeepers warning that prices would skyrocket over Rs.80 in the coming days. These prices put them squarely out of reach of the impoverished.

Where is the government?

Those who could, protested. While the outpour of anger may have been misplaced, dozens of people had camped outside the local electricity board offices that weren’t flooded across the city, demanding that the state government restore power. It isn’t yet clear at this point if authorities are unable to supply electricity or whether they’re waiting for flood waters to recede below a certain level before switching the power back on.

Petrol and diesel, always valuable even in the most normal of times, doubled in importance when bunks across the city took their time to reopen. While the last few days often brought out the best of Chennai and its residents, there’s also no better time than now to make a killing in Chennai.

The Wire spoke to a number of restaurant owners and hotel proprietors, who pointed out that there were only a handful of legitimate ways of purchasing large quantities of diesel (used to fuel back-up power generators). Covering any shortfalls – in the range of 15 to 20 litres – was however best done via a number of illegal diesel dealers who sprang up in and around Chennai. These were people who either hoarded fuel for the last two weeks or purchased diesel legitimately and sold it for a jacked up price.

One such dealer The Wire spoke to, a scruff-bearded man who had three to four barrels of diesel behind a popular local eatery in central Chennai, insisted that he was not breaking the law. “I’ve only purchased diesel for my friends who couldn’t do so themselves. If they help me out by other means, that’s just friends helping out each other. Besides, I don’t see the government rushing to help us right now,” he said.

The price of a safe place

Life in Chennai was also divided into two other categories: the displaced and those who still had housing.

The poor, as always, drew the short end of the stick. Normal life ceased to exist for them five days ago. Once the waters struck, especially along the embankments of the suddenly heaving Adyar river, all their homes were washed away. This was the story across slums in South and Central Chennai, in fact, where surface runoff from apartments and buildings couldn’t go anywhere else but into their houses. The people displaced from these areas were housed in relief shelters and the army and local enforcement authorities distributed food and water packets, but nothing more. The women at one 500-person relief shelter had to beg police officers on Thursday to install a diesel generator big enough to power a single floodlight. After fending off thieves, they feared that the 12-hour period of darkness (6 pm to 6 am) would attract potential rape-attempts.

When compared to this, the tribulations of those better off may seem trivial. There are those who were able to check into three- and four-star hotels after their homes were flooded. The Westin Hotel in Velachery, a severely affected locality; the Taj Hotels on Mount Road; Lemon Tree in Guindy; and the Keys-Katti Ma Hotel in Thiruvanmiyur were all popular locations that were crammed and at capacity. At the same time, social media reports (which The Wire could not independently confirm) highlight examples of lower-key lodges raising prices drastically, even during the period of a one-night stay for employees of IT firms who were looking to get to Bengaluru and other nearby cities.

The crisis includes its aftermath

Another kind of problem was perpetuated by the occupants of gated apartment complexes, prevalent in South Chennai, in the form of removing flood water from their premises. These complexes typically have about 150 apartments, and basement parking for hundreds of vehicles. These became fully inundated during the rains and damaged hundreds of cars and motorbikes. In order to start restoring power and normalcy, apartment associations took it on themselves to start pumping the water out of the basement and parking areas.

Where does the water go? In most cases, to the road outside, and then inside the ground-floor homes of independent houses along the same road.

At this point, Chennai Corporation officials simply don’t have the bandwidth or time to attend to these disputes (through no fault of theirs). This reporter witnessed least three instances of fistfights breaking out in prominent apartment complexes in South Chennai before cooler heads prevailed and both parties came to a compromise.

Chennai is undoubtedly unprepared for these floods. Milk, water, bread, candles, shelter and fuel: these are commodities that will define much of the city’s needs for the next two to three weeks. But larger questions remain: how prepared could Chennai’s authorities, its residents and private stores have been for the floods, especially considering Chennai went through a similar situation just two weeks ago? And most importantly, as the flood waters recede and the displaced recover their homes, how will the government intervene and ensure that the process of recovery isn’t as painful as the effects of storm?

The rapidly rising prices of essential commodities hits the city’s middle class in unexpected ways as well. The widespread power outages downed the payment machines of most retail stores, restaurants and hotels. And with the death of plastic comes the need for a large amount of liquid cash. Unfortunately, the absence of electricity has also made most ATMs across the city useless. The few ATMs that are working have at any moment of time nearly 30-50 people lined up to withdraw cash.

Spending whatever cash people have remaining in their wallets and cupboards then becomes a sort of perverse game: What should I use my remaining cash to purchase? The over-priced candles or the rapidly skyrocketing but essential mosquito-repelling coils?