Monday, December 7, 2015

SUBMERGED - THE DAY CHENNAI SANK







The photos posted above have been taken by my neighbour HARI HARAN


People are walking through the flooded MMDA Colony on Wednesday. Photo: R. Ragu


SUBMERGED - THE DAY CHENNAI SANK

As I write this post, Chennai is still cut off from the rest of the world. There is no electricity, no Wi-fi, and most important, water is scarce (reminds me of ‘Water, Water everywhere not a drop to drink’) and if you are wondering how I have been able to write all this – my Laptop lay fully charged. Thankfully the mobile network functioned for some time but the landline went dead. During that time, I was able to assure my near and dear ones and friends who rang up, that we were safe and our area was free from the water logging which had affected other places in the city. The rains that battered the city were unprecedented and it would be safe to assume that none living now in Chennai had experienced such a downpour as it was reported that it was the highest in the last 100 years.

It reminded me of that day in Mumbai on 26th July 2005 when the city received 95 cm of rain in 24 hours and I found myself in the midst of it travelling from Cuffe Parade to Chembur by car. Marooned after reaching Sion and staying overnight at my friends place, I trudged along the Eastern Express highway in the morning, waist deep in water with my briefcase on my head, and along the median of the road behind a trail of people who were also on a similar expedition after having abandoned my car and asking my driver to find his way back home. I reached home one and hours later, fifteen hours after having left the office the previous evening. That was an unforgettable experience, but I never felt as isolated as I do today. Mumbai was back on its feet in the next few days and I was in Office on the third day.

This is the third day and the mobile network had stopped functioning, the newspaper boy did not deliver though miraculously the milk got delivered. Many trips up and down the staircase to bring water that was still in the sump and fast depleting, to take care of whatever necessary things were to be washed (does not require elaboration). As the morning was sunny I took a trip around the market place to grab something from the Super Shoppe and found that whatever was to be grabbed had already been grabbed and I was lucky to come back home with a loaf of bread and a packet of wafers. We were lucky since my wife’s foresight had enabled her to store enough drinking water when it was still available (She always plans for such eventualities what with the erratic supply of Metro water and competition from 15 other residents of the block). The last two nights we had slept keeping the balcony door open to let the coolness seep in and along with it came the mosquitoes to ensure that we spent the rest of the night sleepless. I lay awake for long periods during the night gazing into the darkness which was everywhere and just as I would start drifting off to sleep the skies would open up and there would be a heavy downpour and I would sit up and start praying that it should stop, giving the city which was already limping, a chance to come back to normalcy and with it our lives. I sparingly used the Inverter mainly to ensure my mobiles were charged all the time. I had asked my daughter in Hyderabad to keep me updated as to the news coverage of the situation in Chennai for the only information pouring in was from those who were brave (or curious) enough to venture outside the neighborhood, each one coming back with differing versions regarding the ground situation. Well today the Inverter ‘conked’ out, but there is still charge in my mobiles however the mobile and wi-fi networks are out.

When I look back over the last twenty days it was a journey through great joy, sorrow and ultimately, panic, helplessness and isolation. It all started on the morning of the 9th November when I was woken up at 6 am, an hour and a half before my usual waking time. My wife was shaking me saying that the branch of the tree under which my car had been parked had broken and fallen on the top of the car after the previous night’s strong winds and rain. Staring out of the balcony, I could not spot the car as the thick foliage had covered it entirely. I rushed down and after moving in through the foliage of leaves and branches of the tree I found the car. The only way I could see was to drive through before the entire branch broke and fell down. Mustering up all my courage I did exactly that. Believe me when I say this – there was not a single scratch or dent – well that was a miracle (giving me something to think about – miracles). Well, you have to believe me once again when I tell you that I did have a dream during the wee hours of the morning that a tree had fallen on my car.  What do I call that – ‘Premonition’? That’s something which will me keep me occupied for a long time and maybe try and reinforce my beliefs that there are things which are beyond the comprehension of the human mind – I try balancing my rationalism with beliefs that I have grown up with.

It was a day of great joy on the 12th November when my elder daughter and grandson arrived. It had been four years since we had seen them (the Skype communications though helpful were only virtual). Then the rains started and I spent the next two weeks ferrying her across the water-logged streets to the Consulate for her Visa stamping interviews and the airport to pick up and drop my younger daughter and son-in-law who had come down from Hyderabad to be with us. The apps cabs were not available nor other taxis, but may be because of ‘God’s grace’, pardon me when I say that for I could not find a better way to describe the events in any other way as ultimately all the things worked out, though there were some dampeners along the way. By the 26th November, they had all left before the deluge happened. Though partings are always difficult, in a sense I was relieved as the weather forecast for the coming days seemed ominous. I was happy that they were safely back in their respective places when the skies opened up over Chennai.

Having experienced Mumbai and now Chennai, I have kept asking myself the question why both cities  suffered the way they did from the torrential rains and the subsequent flooding which left thousands homeless, lives and properties lost. One cannot help noticing the similarities – Mumbai never thought of the Mithi as a river, it was only a small rivulet which was filled with slush and a stench as strong as the Cooum in Chennai. Like the Adyar river the Mithi also had encroachments all along its bank, the most famous one being Dharavi which carried the infamous tag as the largest slum in the world. All these encroachments have happened due to faulty urban planning and lack of affordable housing. If one looks at the course of the Adyar River in Chennai and the Mithi in Mumbai you find both these lie close to the airport runways in both the cities. The devastation unleashed by the floods in these rivers due to the unprecedented torrential rains has been terrible. Mumbai reported more deaths and losses, but the Chennai figures have only started trickling in now. As reported in the newspapers, parts of the city especially the old city areas have been spared the full onslaught of the floods due to the efficient drainage system built a hundred years ago during the British Raj, so was the case with Mumbai. This speaks volumes of the efficiency of the new age drainage systems – bad planning, implementation and maintenance?

 When the Tsunami hit Tamilnadu in 2005 Chennai was badly affected. That time the threat was from the sea and this time from the skies. The Tsunami was too fast and totally unexpected and it is always difficult to thwart such a disaster and I am afraid that even Mumbai would not be in a position to thwart such an eventuality being hemmed on all sides by sea. One can only hope that disaster management measures are in place to tackle such an eventuality. To Mumbai’s credit, the city bounced back within three to four days despite the heavy losses and we can only hope that Chennai does the same.

Five decades ago when I was studying in St. Patricks High School situated on the banks of the Adyar River, I remember the river was a river and not a canal for carrying sewage down to the sea. I have played cricket on the grounds of the Gandhinagar Cricket Club, Adyar, which was on the banks of the river. The outfield was green and the river seemed pristine. In fact playing Cricket there, was like playing in one of the English counties. Now I guess one would also need a nose guard to keep away the stink emanating from the river, but maybe people have got used to it. The Cooum even those days was still better than what it is now; though people still associate anything that stinks with the name of the river. Today when we look at what has happened by way of development we find – 1) unauthorized, unplanned and illegal structures have sprouted all along the banks of the rivers and elsewhere 2) there is only a very small fraction of the large number of water bodies which existed around in the hinterland of Chennai still left and encroachments have happened at such places hindering the natural course of water flow 3) the real estate boom has given rise to the proliferation of housing societies built on low-lying areas where once a lake existed and (today most of them are flooded). This has been made possible due to the dangerous nexus between the unscrupulous elements in the construction sector, the land grabbing quick buck making politicians and the respective departments in the government who it appears have not made a really serious study of the feasibility and the safety of such projects before giving clearances. The result being that a vast majority of the people aspiring to own a house have taken a huge risk investing in these projects. 4) If a mapping of the entire region indicating the low lying areas and lake beds has been done, it does not appear to have been made public and the ordinary citizen is not aware nor have the builders been transparent enough to reveal the hazards. Ultimately one should lay the blame on the agencies involved for giving clearances. Who knows (or rather everyone knows) what considerations are involved.  

Hopefully, this disaster should open the eyes of the ordinary man to the game being played. Though storm water drains have been planned and implemented they have not been fully completed; where completed, periodical maintenance is not evident. Roads are dug up by different departments like the electricity board for laying cables and again dug up by the water and sewage department for laying pipelines without any proper resurfacing of the road. The pathetic state of the roads is evidence enough. We already have large potholes and caving in of roads at some places, aggravated by this present spell of rains and I am sure some patchwork will be done immediately, which within a few months will once again revert to their pathetic state. No one is held accountable for carrying out such substandard and shoddy work. One hears that there was opposition to the proposal for relaying the roads with concrete. One can only surmise that if that is done the need for maintenance will drastically reduce and with it the annual contracts for relaying the roads would diminish and with it …… (No elaboration required I guess). It's ‘consideration’ and not 'necessity', that appears to be the rule for awarding work contracts.

I could list out any number of failures and shortcomings of the administration. But have we ever asked ourselves the question why this is so? To what extent have we ourselves contributed to this sorry state of affairs, isn’t it fair to admit that we also have a major share in this blame game?
This disaster has brought to fore the fact that it is the ordinary man on the street, our armed forces, NDRF and other voluntary agencies which have emerged as the heroes of the day; whether it is rescuing marooned people and ensuring that supplies are delivered to the affected. People have thrown open their homes to house the affected. For the first time I have seen Chennai rise up as a single united force without relying on the unreliable support of the political class, to battle the forces of nature to ensure the survival of the city. Well the politicians whichever party they belong to have engaged themselves in blame games, trying to garner credit for the rescue efforts that have been undertaken. What can one say except that the Assembly Elections are imminent and this ‘Disaster’ is an ‘Opportunity’!

Well, the Wi-Fi connection was there for a brief while yesterday, but it is off since last evening, so I thought that I should continue writing for some more time. Yesterday’s newspaper carried some very important and interesting headlines which speak for themselves-

British-era sewers withstood deluge – New-Age Drainage System in Suburbs Fails

Relief Mired in Chaos, Anger Rises – Govt. Fumbles As Help Pours in

Amma Branding on Food Packets Sparks Outrage

It has been nauseating to say the least to find the local MLAs and their goons of all hues fighting with the relief workers about distribution of essential items to the affected public. Well here’s another headline for you from today’s newspaper –

Politicians will be politicians: War breaks out to corner credit for relief – Some Local Netas want Bribes Too

Do I need  say more? Where have all the ‘Award Wapsi’ pseudo-intellectuals gone? Maybe they do not have any more awards with them to return, pity for they could have shown their solidarity in this time of crisis.

The power has been there for the last two days though it does go off occasionally, but I have kept myself in readiness by ensuring that there is sufficient water and the inverter and all the mobiles are fully charged. I have learnt to live with the darkness and the surrounding eerie silence, the battering rain and the mosquitoes, and so have the others in this city. But the fear of repetition does hover around as the weather forecasts for the coming week have not been very encouraging.

Though I am thankful that we have not suffered that much, I feel guilty when I think of all those who have lost their homes and possessions and some their lives. Rebuilding homes and lives and the city is going to be a long and painful process. I ask myself how I can be useful and do my bit. I am waiting for the answers to crystallize.

As I lay awake in the darkness during the first three days, I would wait expectantly for the lights to suddenly come on, and in the end when they did come on it was a feeling of deliverance, but for many out there I guess that the light of deliverance is still a long way to go.

One thought that kept recurring was ‘How aptly have I chosen the title for my second book as ‘Darkness and Beyond’.