The water management is an urgent need of hour in a state where floods and cyclones are becoming increasingly recurrent
Thanneer! Thanneer! (which is Tamil for Water! Water!) agonisingly exclaimed the Tamil playwright Komal Swaminathan giving this as the title to his most famous drama in the 80’s. The legendary Tamil filmmaker K. Balachander turned it, as was his style, into what was acclaimed as a “classic” movie later, even being considered among the 100 greatest Indian films of all time. The main theme for “Thanneer Thanneer” was the then raging public worry across Tamil Nadu of water scarcity, and of impending drought.
Today, decades later, residents of Tamil Nadu especially Cyclone Ockhi-affected southern coastal districts and the earlier floods-ridden capital Chennai, may be forgiven if they were to cry “Water! Water!” But instead they were to pray for less water! After all Tamil Nadu, as reports still come in, has been left reeling under Cyclone Ockhi with many areas under water-logging, owing to heavy rain. Normal life has come to a standstill. Social media and the net are rife with vivid images of the difficulties being faced in public transport, inundation of low-lying areas and how the poor and most vulnerable sections are suffering the most.
Earlier, after the floods had just recently ravaged the state capital Chennai, political parties had started indulging in blame game, with opposition party DMK alleging that the Tamil Nadu government was “ill- prepared and ill-equipped”
Detailed project reports for storm-water drains are said to be in the “final stages of preparation” with funding options from foreign donors including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
All this is not new to the residents of Tamil Nadu. It is a sad travesty that cyclones may come and go, every time so many lives are lost and properties worth crores of rupees are damaged. Many old-timers will recall perhaps painfully, that floods have been recurring many a time in the past, with the onset of almost every monsoon. In fact, one still has fond and vivid images as a school-going kid decades ago, wading through waist-deep storm-water, that come each and every monsoon. So, all this ongoing hullaballoo, media glare, public ire will soon become a forgotten matter, only to be consigned to the past. Public remembrance, everyone accepts, is short-lived and after all, life has to go on, isn’t it? Let us accept it, surely lessons ought to be learnt from such debacles. It is not as if the authorities have been caught napping, unaware or that such events are ‘Force Majeure’, as they were once viewed. With scientific forecasts, advance warnings and supercomputers, they certainly are not.
In the case of Chennai, for example, neither is it that the authorities do not know that the real problems are of inadequate attention to: one, proper civic planning & urban infrastructure, two, regulation/enforcement of unauthorized (but widely alleged to be fully patronized) encroachments on waterbodies, and above all, the totally chaotic construction activity all over Chennai, more so in areas which were once clearly demarcated as water reservoirs. One recalls there used to be several ponds crisscrossing the city (there were many neighborhoods, each of them ending in the Tamil suffix “paakkam”). Then of course, there were ever so many temple “kulams” and even free-flowing streams which acted as drainage facilities for the rainwater and as reservoirs, which could be used later in times of any shortage. Today, with the metamorphosis of Chennai, these have become some of the busiest business/housing hubs, bustling with round the clock traffic, multi-story apartment blocks, IT parks and whatever else money could fetch the promoters. So, naturally the rainwater has nowhere to go. Nor do the inhabitants have anywhere to step outside when it rains as it has this time! This is the crux of Chennai’s watery mess.
The other part of the story is that most parts of Tamil Nadu are coastal, barely two metres above sea level, with a near-flat topography in most places. The government claims that therefore, these areas are prone/subject to such frequent adverse impact during monsoons. Critics have attributed the higher incidence of flooding, the geography notwithstanding, to lack of sufficient desilting and cleaning up of water bodies and delay in civil works related to monsoon preparation.
Storm-water drains are choked across most towns, particularly Chennai, every resident knows, not only with silt but garbage, construction “malba” as they call it in the north, and often overflow from sewage sources. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was recently informed that there were numerous such illegal sewer connections pouring incessantly into the Chennai’s storm-water drain network. Moreover, most of the Urban Corporations across the State and their resources are quite woefully insufficient; political rivalries and alleged corruption are only eating into its inners more and ever more as the days go by.
So, is there any solution on hand? Several experts have commented on how to bring Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu out of its watery mess and they need to be re-visited, apart from the current plans being drawn up for foreign funding and the grandiose re-construction/rehabilitation efforts. A multiplicity of civic bodies exist to translate policies once drawn up into reality such as the Chennai Metrowater, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). Chennai, over the years also has many civil rights activists and highly active environment-related voluntary agencies led by the popular EXNORA, whose help will need to be taken in formulating such ground level plans. In addition, at the apex, the guidance will have to come from the government which has its newly formed arms including the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT), the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Limited (TNUIFSL) and the entire longstanding set-up under the Chennai Corporation itself. One must learn from say, earthquake-prone Japan where now quake resistant multi-storey apartments are now in vogue. Even, the Fukushima nuclear disaster there, has brought out the elderly/old to clean up the mess, to protect future generations. Can’t we too?
(The writer is a New-Delhi based freelancer)