The Chennai flood has left a watermark. It speaks of the heights the swollen waters had reached. And, ironically, the depths the city is now touching, as well. Almost on a daily basis, we see photographs of the city’s leading industrialists and businessmen posing with “Amma”, handing over cheques of Rs 1 crore and above towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Within a week of the waters subsiding, we turned a tragedy into a political, financial and branding exercise.
Donations such as these earn tax rebates. As one hand offers the cheque, the other quietly accepts the rebate, one that these large companies can forgo for sure. Nevertheless, the drama plays out unquestioned. Then, there is the publicity generated from this show of generosity for both the corporate and the chief minister. This is a corporate-political coup, one in which the real happenings are forgotten and savvy philanthropy holds sway. There is always the counter argument that publicity is a necessary component to “giving” since it in turn inspires others to do the same. There is some truth in this but so often giving “in the spotlight” turns into “basking in the limelight”.
We, the people, look at the amounts on these cheques and feel reassured that the corporate world has responded to this crisis. But the crisis was not because of what the skies did, it was also the consequence of what happened on earth. Contributing to the collapse of the “urban settlement” we call Chennaipattinam was the thoughtless growth of industries — private and public — and the pollutants they discharged into our land and water. Not to forget the filling up of water bodies by the developer, builder and realtor nexus.
However, there seems to be one unwritten agreement among business houses. Companies will never come out and hold a compatriot accountable unless the law of the land convicts him or his actions affect their own interests. Cheques, therefore, mean nothing unless the industries, individually and through a collective voice, look beyond their own business interests and say, “our development methodology has been at fault; we must all take a new look at it”. What is needed, more than cheques, is corrective action. No amount of outreach activities can replace honest empathetic living.
And what about the ordinary citizens of Chennai? Where do we go from here? We packed food, sourced much-needed relief material, even rescued people. Now that it is done and we feel wonderful about ourselves, is it time now to “move on”? But what does “moving on” really mean? Are we going to casually leave behind the hurt, bruising, suffering, loss of livelihood and health that we were witness to? Time will heal and memories will fade, we are told. But I don’t want these horrible memories to dissolve. The politician only takes advantage of who we are, a society of corrupt self-serving power brokers.
As a person of Chennai, I need to change my mind-map of the city. It can no longer be limited to my geo-stationary position and functionality. Space is unbounded; we have carved out varied shapes, pushing people into matrices; social, financial and political hierarchy being the determinants. This manipulation needs to be addressed if we want to avert another rain-related or cyclone-driven crisis. Chennai, to me, must, hereafter, mean every narrow road, housing board settlement and fishing village that dots its coast. The fruitseller I pass everyday en route to my 15th floor air-conditioned cabin must become more than just another face on the street. The construction of a flyover must not only be about transport convenience and job creation. It must also be seen as a more-than-likely cause for environmental degradation, waterbody-strangulation, forced migration and unemployment. After seeing heaps of waste on our streets, will I realise that my waste does not just go away? That it is only removed from my sight and dumped in places where people who don’t matter live. They suffer the consequences of my avariciousness, forcing them to scavenge through my rubbish for just one square meal. And let us please see this as clearly as we see that garbage heap. The lack of awareness about indiscriminate consumption and waste disposal is not a problem of the uneducated masses, it is of the educated rich class. We have created an aspirational living model that is inherently abusive.
Culturally, too, we have to rediscover our identity. Culture moulds the way we think, feel, experience and respond. Therefore, a fundamental shift is essential. The gana songs inspired by Kunangudi Masthan Sahib and sung by a Dalit daily wager living on the banks of the Cooum, and a Tyagaraja kirtana rendered by a Mylapore Brahmin Carnatic musician, must live equitably within all of us.
I have heard many proudly proclaim that Chennai is back on its feet. But which Chennai are we talking about? The one that exists between Alwarpet and Besant Nagar or the one that exists in the irrelevant by-lanes of the less affluent Vyasarpadi, Manali, Mudichur and Nesapakkam? Things are normal for whom? There are scores of people still battling the financial and emotional trauma of the floods.
Heading back to work is not a choice, it is the unfortunate compulsion of their reality. Normalcy is only a convenient expression used by the privileged to justify their insensitivity.
The drowning of Chennai was a watershed moment, not just for the inhabitants of its landscape. It revealed the undeniable inter-connectedness of all our lives. The Chennai disaster was man-made, some even call it mass-murder by sterile, synthetic people. It is an environmental, political and social issue, but at its very core are questions about human nature. The sooner we begin living with this awareness, the greater the chance of transformation. Cosmetic solutions will conceal the wound, not heal the lacerations within. When on another December night, the gash reopens, we may have a heavier price to pay.