ChennaiFloods: Cities today, countryside tomorrow?


Chennai is going through the same hell today that Mumbai did in July 2005, Surat in August 2006, Ambala and Moradabad in 2010 and Srinagar and Guwahati in September 2014. High rainfall event and the waters’ inability to leave the city harmlessly, flooding houses (many built by the state housing boards), offices, commercial establishments, roads, railway lines and even the airport and the resulting misery for residents, travelers, industry, commerce and the tourists alike.

Notwithstanding the quick response for succor by the disaster management teams, and the units of the NDRF and the armed forces and nerves of steel exhibited by the people in distress, question that begs answer is how did this happen and why does the nation continue to suffer likewise, repeatedly.
While answers are not far to seek in terms of faulty urban planning coupled with deep seated corruption involved in construction approvals, the root cause lies more in absence of appropriate land use planning and categorization in the country. While urban master plans at huge costs are now indeed being made, but the fact remains that their violation and subsequent regularisation are routine and dime a dozen. There are examples galore in the national capital Delhi and the NCR (national capital region) townships of such violations and subsequent changes in the master plans, as in many other city of India.

Another is the manner in which the natural water bodies including lakes, streams and rivers that criss-crossed our cities and countryside have been seen more as empty lands awaiting ‘development’ (sic) than as part of essential and appropriate land use necessary to ensure the city and regions’ water security, natural environs and flood mitigation[1]. The fact that there is hardly any legal prohibition in place to safeguard the flood plains and catchments of our water bodies including rivers has made the task of exploiters that much easier. It is a common sight in our cities and now more and more in rural settlements when such exploitation begins with a public facility like a school, a temple, a bus stand, a hospital, a fire station, a police station etc splitting and invading the natural spread of a water body or the flood plains of a stream or a river and then is followed by shops, buildings and even residential colonies draining out and then taking over the said water body.

For example, the construction of Akshardham, DTC Bus Depot, Metro stations and colony and Commonwealth games village in the river bed and the rampant concretisation and covering of the storm water drains in Delhi and the encroachment and concretization of the Sabarmati river bed in the name of riverfront development in Ahmedabad are an invitation to trouble and possible disaster for the cities in question.

Thus tragic but no wonder why Chennai having lost majority of its 650 wetlands to such insidious encroachments and conversion to alternate uses, is facing such a deluge.

Two cases in point are the Chennai international airport at Meenambakkam, which went under deep waters and the MIOT hospital with reportedly flood induced deaths of patients which are making the most news. While the airport spread over the active flood plains of river Adyar (one of the two life-line rivers of Chennai) with one of its air strips actually cutting right through the river’s channel is a classic example of faulty land use and planning, it being a perfect sitting duck in flood situations, the hospital is not only located in the active flood plain but has also obstructed a major storm water drain of the city (see the google images) suffering inundations, reported breakdown in its power backup generators and resulting death of critically ill patients. Why and how such constructions in active flood plain were permitted is anybody’s guess. Dig deeper and one may find the usual story of compromised experts looking under political pressures the other way while giving a green signal. This is unfortunately now typical of the functioning of our Expert Appraisal Committees, Environmental Impact Assessments, and the compromised environmental governance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the concerned state level agencies.

Chennai floods

We at the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan and many likeminded friends have been consistently appealing since the year 2007 to various relevant authorities including the offices of the Prime Minister and the Union Minister of Environment & Forests for the promulgation of the long pending (since 2002) River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which once in place could place legal restriction on such irresponsible and dangerous misuse of the river’s flood plains in the country.

It is our understanding that the latest draft of the RRZ is sitting in the MoEF&CC awaiting final nod of the Hon’ble Environment Minister for its publication inviting public comments. It is ironical that the same Union Minister who is mighty busy at the COP21 parleys in Paris could not find time to approve a draft RRZ with immense implications for the nation’s ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of Climate Change of which the deluge in Chennai is being cited as a prime example? He was even quick to deny any connection between Chennai flooding to climate change. He is not bothered about the violations and blunders by his own ministry indiscriminately clearing projects after projects, while sitting over the RRZ notification? It was good though, to see Ms Maneka Gandhi from the same cabinet making it clear in an interview to NDTV that India is a major culprit whose actions on climate have led to the Chennai floods.[2] Today, “India is one of the main players in destroying the climate”, she said.

While climate change is going to bring high intensity rainfall more frequently to our shores, the damage we are doing within our cities and countryside to their natural resources is hugely increasing the proportions of climate change induced disasters. Sooner we understood this and put our environment governance on the right path, and may be begin with promulgating the RRZ notification better it will be for ourselves.