I wrote this article early in December for Madras Musings but somehow forgot to upload it on the blog. It may seem somewhat outdated.
It is true that in 2015 Chennai was battered by unprecedented rains that left the city a devastated area. A year later came a cyclone of mega proportions. Both of these left the metropolis scarred for a long time to come. Since then we have seen a year of adequate rains, one of a total drought and most recently, a monsoon that has left the city with a deficit of 30 per cent. But the fear psychosis continues, and it is only aided and abetted by careless reporting, scaremongering and circulation of fake news. This does not become Chennai but it is unfortunately the truth.
This has been a feature ever since the 2015 floods. Then it became fashionable to circulate so- called news releases from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the USA, that further rains were expected, which would completely swamp the city. It took quite a while for people to realise that the NASA is not into issuing weather bulletins. Then came dire predictions from almanacs, all of which have since proved to be baseless. But between them they did have the city panic-stricken, which is quite understandable given the deluge of that year.
But to carry that same stories over in 2019 each time a cloud is sighted speaks of a sick mind. Conventional media, especially the second-grade news sites and web channels in the vernacular, have not helped. Even a light shower is made out to be a downpour and the movement of a cloud band is depicted as a cyclone. The consequence is that people immediately react with fear and much time is wasted in preparations for a flood that is not coming at all.
Prevailing conditions in the city do not help either. Let’s face it, much of Chennai is built on erstwhile lakes – a fact over which everyone registered horror and shock in 2015 but have since gone on to gloss over. Encroachment of water bodies continues relentlessly as is evident from the recent instance of a police station being built on a lake at Thamaraikeni near Sholinganallur. This being the case, how can we not expect much of the city to be inundated with even a mild spell of rain? But just try explaining this to many residents of Chennai. The standard expectation is that by some miracle there should be no flooding no matter what the location of the place of stay be.
The state of preparedness of our civic bodies too does not do anything to allay fears of flooding. This year too, despite the fact that there were 24 months (the last rains were in 2017) to prepare, most roads were dug up when the rains did come. The storage reservoirs have still not been desilted and so would not have been able to retain the waters in case we had had a monsoon with no deficit. As for the stormwater drains, they are never in a position to handle rain, chiefly because they are never cleaned.
In many ways Chennai is lucky. It does not get to face the kind of rains that Mumbai gets, year after year. Also, with desalination being portrayed as the way of the future, no matter what the energy or environmental costs be, the city is seeing less dependence on rain water. After all, there is always Veeranam or the Telugu Ganga and if everything else fails, the train from Jolarpet. Given all these options, why should the average Chennai-ite look on rain as anything other than a nuisance?
This has led to a unique behavioural pattern – the city keeps looking to the sky for 355 days of the year and then when it does rain for the remaining ten, begins to set up a chorus of complaints. Ideally, Chennai would like it to rain elsewhere so that water is available in plenty to draw from, but not within the city itself. Such dependence on external borrowings will not work in the long run.