A BUNCH of Class V students of a school in Chennai have added the tagline, “You are great Ramanan Sir”, to their WhatsApp group, as a tribute to Chennai’s chief weatherman S R Ramanan, whose predictions have become central to life in the city since heavy rains lashed it in early November.
For nearly a month, weather predictions have become key to closure of schools in Chennai. So it is quite natural for children, who are happy to stay away from school, to see a hero in the man whose predictions have resulted in the extended holiday.
On the streets of Chennai, however, life, especially at night, has not been a holiday for nearly a month. Forced out of their homes, hundreds of people have been struggling to find space in the temporary shelters in schools and marriage halls across the city.
With nearly 500 houses in the Sathyanagar colony in suburban Chennai flooded, residents have been sleeping under the Padi flyover in Villivakam. A government-organised shelter at a school in the locality is full, and those who have not been able to find a roof over their heads have been allowed to sleep in abandoned trucks or bullock carts parked under the flyover.
Given its normally balmy weather conditions and large proportion of people from economically weaker sections, Chennai is a city where it is common to see people sleeping on the streets through the year. But the displacement by the heavy rains has resulted in a flood of people seeking shelter outdoors.
“There are some 300 people who have been forced to move from Sathyanagar because of the flooding. We were not able to bring anything with us because the water rose to chest level. We have been completely dependent on aid from the government and others for nearly a month now. Most of us are daily wage earners and there is no work due to the floods,’’ says Palani, a 40-year-old ragpicker who sleeps under the Padi flyover with his family these days.
Small fires with rice husks are lit to keep mosquitoes — and the slight night chill in the air — at bay. There is also an unprecedented demand for blankets among those sleeping in the open. “Blankets have not been distributed equally to all the displaced. Those who already have them seem to be getting more and those who don’t have any remain in the cold,’’ says Murthy, 32, a Sathyanagar resident now sleeping under the flyover.
At around 10.30 pm on Friday night, most of the people displaced from Sathyanagar are settling in for the night at the Singaram Pillai School at Villivakam or under the flyover.
“One of the biggest problems is the lack of toilets. All the people here cannot use the few toilets in the school. Before sunrise, when it is still dark, women have to go with the men to the railway tracks… It is a matter of indignity. There were a couple of makeshift toilets created under the flyover but no water provision was made, and they soon fell into disuse,’’ says Murthy.
Around street corners in Chennai, in places affected by heavy water-logging, policemen and fire force personnel have been deployed to keep a nightly vigil to enable rescues in case of an emergency.
Big JCB trucks deployed all over the city, not just to clear roads and drains but also to rescue trapped people and even drop food packets, fall silent at night. With the water level on many roads receding by Friday night, people are able to gradually move around, and small roadside eateries selling idlis and kebabs have sprung to life.
The 13-km Chennai Metro line that runs between suburban Koyambedu and Alandur, which had been closed for two days, reopened on Friday morning. The state government has waived off payment of road tolls around Chennai’s expressways for two days. Travel on local buses operated by the state run Pallavan Transport Corporation is also free for the weekend.
Meanwhile, a sea of humanity attempting to leave the flood-hit city has descended at Chennai’s main suburban government bus stand at Koyambedu. By 11:30 pm on Friday, the waiting area has been converted into a mass of sleeping people.
Outside the bus stand, a group of aid workers arrive in a mini truck. A free-food announcement is made. Within minutes, people scramble to grab paper plates full of food.
“There were very few people taking buses from this bus stand till Thursday, but with the rains easing and the roads clearing, people arrived in droves to leave the city in the evening,’’ says a Tamil Nadu state transport corporation official at the Koyambedu terminal.
Most people leaving Chennai over the weekend are from places around Tamil Nadu and South India who earn a living in the city, says the official. As many as 20 lakh people were reported to have descended at the Chennai suburban bus stand through Friday.