The northeast monsoon in Chennai this year — the severest in over a hundred years — has wreaked unprecedented havoc. When the rain returned after a lull over the weekend, the city, which had already taken a pounding in November, could not cope. Chennai’s airport, railway stations and bus stations have been closed since Wednesday. The city’s two main rivers, the Adyar and Cooum, are flooded and reservoirs and tanks in the outskirts are overflowing. There has been no electricity in large parts of the city for over 24 hours. At least 65 people have died since the rains began late October. Business has reported losses of over Rs 500 crore and at least 21 work days have been lost. The navy and disaster management teams are undertaking rescue missions as the threat of a food and water and health crisis looms.
The seasonal rain (October-December) so far this year has been estimated to be 121 cm — the annual average is 43cm and the recorded peak for the corresponding period was 108.8 cm in 1918. However, the intensity of the rains could not have caused this total collapse of infrastructure if the city administration had done its job. The heavy rain has exposed the creaking public infrastructure in Chennai — like the 2005 deluge did in Mumbai or the 2014 floods in Srinagar. One of the largest manufacturing and commercial hubs in the country, Chennai, understandably, has been expanding at a fast pace. From heavy industries like automobiles and auto components to software, BPOs, education and healthcare, the city has built a wide economic base and is home to a cosmopolitan workforce. Yet, the administration has been slow to augment the infrastructure to take the extra load of people and vehicles. Unplanned and ill-thought construction, especially on river, tank and lake beds, has led to the choking of water bodies that accommodated flood waters in the past and storm water channels. Rivers, natural outlets for flood waters, are choked with garbage, sewage and silt. Drainage is non-existent in the newer areas of the city while civic bodies go slow over routine pre-monsoon municipal works.
In Chennai and elsewhere, the approach to urban governance needs to change. Mundane aspects of city administration like building and maintaining water, drainage and sewage systems, mass transport facilities, etc are ignored as the conversation shifts to concepts like smart cities. Civic bodies need massive infusions of funds, skills and technologies if cities are to become liveable urban spaces. That’s the lesson from the Chennai deluge.