OCTOBER 25, 1996: The euphoria of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) resounding victory in the first elections to the Chennai Corportation in two and a half decades was yet to die down, and Chennai had just sworn in its 44th Mayor, the 44-year-old M.K. Stalin, when the skies opened up. By the evening most of the city’s low-lying and river-margin areas were flooded. Stalin, who was being groomed to step into the shoes of his father and former Chief Minister and DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, stood in knee-deep water at MGR Nagar in Tondiarpet, one of the worst-affected areas in North Chennai, and declared that the city should be better planned, better prepared and better managed.
The floodwaters seemed to have washed away those words spoken with such conviction and urgency: these did not translate into any discernable action, though he held discussions on removing people from the margins of water courses to better accommodation. Subsequently, that one measure took concrete shape in the form of the largest shifting of encroachers from the heart of the city at any point in its history to an area in its southern fringe that was partly reclaimed from a marshland spread over 50 square kilometres, Pallikaranai. The encroachers were given 300 square feet flats there, but work was difficult to come by and the area was poorly served by public transport.
One of Stalin’s first actions as Mayor was to hire the multinational sanitation firm Onyx to handle the city’s garbage. He was hailed as a pioneer. But what he possibly did not realise was that he was dismantling the very foundation of the city’s Solid Waste Management department: the 7,000-plus sanitary workers, who doubled up as round-the-clock relief workers and city beautifiers. Instead of modernising the existing workforce and making them adapt—a difficult task—Stalin and his advisers took the short cut to city beautification: outsourcing.
The conservancy workers of the Chennai Corporation have, for long, been the workhorses and the backbone of the civic body. Barely literate, willing to work for long hours uncomplainingly with a servility that their bosses often misused, the workers were the unsung heroes of many a disaster in Chennai and its surroundings. They were slowly eased out and a contractor-driven system was being implemented.
There was a sea-change in quality of people that came in as conservancy workers and supervisors as soon as Onyx began operations. The pride of working for a “multinational company” drove hundreds of jobless youth from in and around Chennai to apply for a job: it did not matter that the job involved removing garbage, the company was a multinational! While none of these were bad workers by any stretch of imagination, this correspondent observed, as one who reported on the Chennai Corporation for nearly a decade, a qualitative shift in their approach: gone were the days when one could push around a conservancy worker and get work done. The Onyx workers had at least some awareness of their rights and the pride that they worked for a private firm and not for the government. “There is a basic problem with this arrangement,” recalled a civil servant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They might not go beyond their call of duty in the event of an emergency. In that sense, they are unlike the Adi Andhras, who will work through any calamity,” he said, referring to the Scheduled Caste name of the erstwhile sanitary workers.
River margin evictions In 1973, following the exposure of the Muster Roll scam, the elected Corporation Council was superseded and civil servants took charge of managing the city in tandem with the Public Works Department (PWD). In this period, which lasted until Stalin came on the scene as Mayor, eviction of people living in “dangerous areas” such as river margins, lake margins and so on was a routine affair. Though the PWD, which is in charge of most of the city’s watercourses and lakes, did not have enough personal to inspect all areas, it made sure that people stayed clear of the city’s waterways and other water bodies. This it achieved by a departmental order that states that it will not regularise encroachments in river margins and in lake-beds. The order remains valid even today.
After the elected council, the civic body’s apex decision-making body, came into being in 1996, it began to go soft on violators, largely because councillors treated them as their vote bank, a feature that defines almost any city in India today. There was also a steady income to be made by local politicians from the “encroachments”: it could go up to Rs.5,000 as rent for a hut along the water courses in the heart of the city, enquiries made by this correspondent reveal.
It is easy to prove the charge that entire swathes of the city’s freehold land ( poramboke ) was encroached. Satellite maps of Chennai from 1996 and 2015 are a source of voluminous evidence of the encroachments of the river margins. If Chennai was cut off during the rains of 2015, it was, to a large extent, because the officer-politician-builder/contractor nexus had systematically encroached upon lakes and water bodies as part of the unchecked and unplanned growth that also opened up for it opportunities at a later stage to benefit through the regularisation of unapproved schemes.
The DMK, with a predominantly urban vote base which its government kept happy by, among other things, establishing the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 1971, largely looked the other way as encroachments sprang up in the city along its three main water conduits, the Cooum, the Adyar and the Buckingham Canal, which drain into the Bay of Bengal. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) governments before it, too, did not act on encroachments, the biggest of which was the organised encroachments at Island Grounds in the late 1980s.
V.N. Janaki’s role But the seeds for the city’s haphazard development were sown by the 28-day government of V.N. Janaki in 1988, the shortest in Tamil Nadu’s history, once again proving that the length of time in power did not come in the way of inflicting incalculable harm on an unsuspecting population. Driven by greed, and armed with the knowledge that it would not last very long, that government came up with a “regularisation scheme” that pretty much allowed any construction anywhere and at any height, which could be regularised by paying a disproportionately small fine years later.
The DMK government that followed the Janaki regime embraced the scheme enthusiastically. So did the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government, which swept to power in 1991.
DMK’s amendment The DMK government that followed in 1996 lost no time in amending the Town and Country Planning Act to regularise illegal constructions completed before 1998. The Bill passed in the Assembly noted that about three lakh buildings in Chennai had violated rules. The government claimed “administrative difficulty” to penalise them, and wanted the violations to be condoned. This amendment, which was challenged in the Supreme Court, was allowed with a rider: “It is a one-time measure”. But governments, both DMK and AIADMK, in clear contempt of the Supreme Court, extended regularisation schemes in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2007.
“By the government’s own admittance, Chennai is an illegal city. More than 50 per cent of its buildings have violated rules,” notes A. Srivathsan, Professor at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Ahmedabad, in an article he wrote in The Hindu of July 23, 2012 (“Our city, an illegal city”) when he was a journalist in that daily. “Such a situation would normally have been viewed with concern, and prompted corrective action. But in Chennai, this is not so,” he adds.
Srivathsan explains the 2007 regularisation scheme, which was chaired by a retired judge of the Supreme Court: “The Justice Mohan Committee was set up in 2007 to look into ways to improve the Town and Country Planning Act. The committee gave a series of suggestions such as enhanced penalties and powers to ‘lock and seal’ illegal buildings. While all these proposed amendments were prospective in nature—applicable only to buildings built after the amendments were enacted—strangely, one recommendation was slipped in with retrospective effect. The committee recommended that all building violations before July 2007 should be regularised. This would improve enforcement of building rules, it argued. How? It had no convincing answers....” The Justice Mohan Committee and the government seem to have forgotten this and have also remained quiet on another crucial remark of the Supreme Court: “This mess is the creation out of the inefficiency, callousness and the failure of the statutory functionaries to perform their obligation under the Act.”
A 1990s problem Most of the congestion, clogging and water-logging in Chennai, essentially a 1990s problem, can be traced to this unplanned growth which was later “regularised”. According to former city planners who worked with the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), it is difficult to find a builder who has not deviated from the plan submitted to the multi-storey building plan authority. When the permissible FSI (floor space index) is exceeded, roads burst at their seams because they are not able to handle the resultant increase in the number of vehicles. The waste generated in that particular area, too, cannot also be handled in a sustained manner over a period of time. When commercial structures come up in residential areas, there is no way of catering to the new, enhanced needs of that area. Most of the residential areas which came up in the 1960s and 1970s are today near-complete commercial hubs via the regularisation route.
Also, Chennai, the oldest municipal corporation in India, spread over an area of 174 sq km, was expanded in 2011 by merging 42 local bodies, including nine municipalities, eight town panchayats and 25 village panchayats. It now has 200 wards, in 15 divisions. The expansion was overnight, and did not mean that it addressed any of the issues that the Corporation faced.
In the suburbs, the problem is that of unapproved layouts. “The most important violation is the violation that is done in layouts,” says Srivathsan. “As a result of this, roads are laid narrow and there is no space for storm water drains,” he explains. A 2008 survey of town panchayats within the Chennai metropolitan area identified 1,222 unauthorised developments that had come up between July 2007 and May 2008. Sholinganallur, Kundrathur, Perungudi and Pallikaranai were the areas where major violations had taken place.
Lakebed development Layouts are not the only “violation zones”. The waterways and lakes, too, are ideal targets for encroachers. The Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB) comes up with layouts from time to time, some of them on lake beds. One of the more popular schemes in the early 1990s was the Mogappair Eri scheme. Mogappair, a north-western suburb of the city, is located on the fringes of a lake. Most of the lake was filled up to make way for the scheme. Small wonder that it resulted in water stagnation there.
In Avadi, one of first developed but neglected suburbs of Chennai and home to many defence establishments including the Heavy Vehicles Factory, the Engine Factory and the CVRDE, the TNHB formed the layout adjacent to Paruthipattu Lake. Every year, flooding occurs. Avadi municipality thinks it is a Housing Board-created problem for which it does not have a solution.
In short, the Housing Board, created to usher in planned development, is actually part of the problem. So is the Slum Clearance Board, created with the lofty aim of making the city slum-free. The Slum Board “specialised” in creating canal encroachments, even as the Housing Board “developed” lake areas. Most canals in the city have near them unliveably small slum tenement board apartments, and all these apartments take in floodwaters after the first spell of rain.
This situation has arisen despite the planners having documented knowledge of what can happen if lakes or canals are encroached. One of the city’s posh areas, which came up in the early 1970s, is called “Lake Area”. Two popular private schools, Chennai Corporation’s best public school, a tennis stadium of international standing where ATP matches are played, a preview theatre, and a memorial to the Tamil savant Thiruvalluvar are part of Valluvar Kottam or Nungambakkam’s Lake Area. Every monsoon, after every sharp shower, most of the streets in these areas are under water.
Most of the other “planned” neighbourhoods of the past, too, suffer heavy flooding. After the continuous overnight rain had stopped early on December 2, the situation as of 8 a.m. on the roads around Anna Nagar East and Kilpauk was normal. But in a matter of two hours, the scene changed with water gushing on the roads from the Cooum in spate in Aminjikarai. Shenoy Nagar and parts of Anna Nagar East and Kilpauk were suddenly under knee-deep water. And the water remained for two days, draining out only on December 4 morning.
MRC Nagar is another point of brazen violation. Soon after Jayalalithaa’s later disowned foster son, V.N. Sudhakaran, was married in a gigantic and opulent marriage at the site, permission was granted to build huge blocks of apartments right on the Adyar estuary during Jayalalithaa’s first term as Chief Minister. The DMK government that returned to power launched a slew of cases against Jayalalithaa and her Cabinet colleagues, in which she was also arrested and jailed for a period, but it did not think it fit to conduct an inquiry into how permission was accorded to build in such an ecologically fragile zone. MRC Nagar, Chettinad Palace and all commercial buildings in the Quibble Island face serious water stagnation after every spell of rain. The situation is unlikely to improve given the fact that all the water has to drain into the estuary.
The bus terminal at Koyambedu, said to be the largest in Asia when it was opened in 2001, is located on a waterbody. The DMK government did most of the construction work, but after a dome collapsed in 2000 the facility could not be inaugurated because Assembly elections were announced. The AIADMK formed the next government and Jayalalithaa, as Chief Minister, inaugurated the facility. Koyambedu has bare minimum draining facilities now. With construction all around the terminal, each rain will see major disruptions in transport schedules.
The IT expressway, Old Mahabalipuram Road, is another example of blatant, State-sanctioned encroachment on water bodies. In what should be the worst-constructed expressway for which toll is collected, the strangely illogical road has its service roads at a much higher elevation than the carriageway. The result is that with every rain, water from all around and the service road empties into the carriageway of the much-marketed “IT Corridor”. Though there are storm water drains along the median of the carriageway, these cannot handle the volumes emptying into the carriageway. On many stretches, especially close to the “world class” biotech park at Siruseri at one end of the highway and near Sholinganallur, an important town in the IT corridor, water stagnation can reach a few feet after a sharp downpour.
The IT corridor, officially named Rajiv Gandhi Salai, will need major corrective engineering, but even this will not suffice to prevent inundation because it is flanked by waterbodies on either side, the Pallikaranai marsh and the Muthukadu lake.
The first locality in Chennai to submerge almost every monsoon is Velachery, a residential area in the south, next to the Pallikaranai marshland. Many studies show that Pallikaranai has now been reduced to about a tenth of its size. More importantly, a storm water drain conveying water from Velachery to the marsh ends abruptly. “Part of the canal is no longer there because of encroachments,” says Srivathsan. Velachery’s problems will continue as long as the draining arrangements are not restored.
Centre’s contribution The State government and those who make a living out of bending the rules are not the only encroachers of ecologically fragile areas. The Central government is an active participant and has encroached on all the three main waterways. Chennai’s Mass Rapid Transit System, the first mass commuter movement system in the city, has come up in a heavily congested and built up area and is aligned along the Buckingham Canal. The stalled Maduravoyal-Harbour elevated transport corridor is aligned along the Cooum. (The AIADMK government claimed it was on the Cooum and went to court over it.) The secondary runway of the Chennai airport is across the Adyar. Together, the restriction of carrying capacity on these three flood carriers as a result of these developments is significant. A part of the Pallikaranai marsh is home to the Indian Institute of Ocean Technology. There are a few more contributions by the Centre.
The Army, too, did its bit. Concerned that the State government might put undue pressure to take over a large part of the unused Island Grounds next to the Gymkhana Club for construction of its new Secretariat or other purposes, the local Area Headquarters built a slew of facilities in the flood plains that merge into the estuary. The biggest facility in the area, and possibly the only such facility in an estuary, is an 18-hole golf course for the use of defence personnel and selected, sufficiently high-ranking civilians.
“During years of unusual rain, the Cooum and the Adyar should take floodwaters into the sea. But the floodplains of the rivers which should contain the floodwater before it is emptied into the sea have been built upon over the decades with housing and commercial complexes,” says S. Gopikrishna Warrier, Chennai resident and environmental journalist. “Since there is no free flow of water into the rivers, the viscous mess that flows impedes the flow. There are physical obstructions on the river channels starting with the secondary runway of the airport. The lakes that could have served as the balancing structures in Chennai are mostly in disuse and the Pallikaranai swamp has been eaten into,” he adds.
CSE speaks The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, is of the opinion that Chennai could have fared better if it had protected and preserved its natural waterbodies and drainage channels. CSE director general Sunita Narain said: “We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that our urban sprawls such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Srinagar, etc., have not paid adequate attention to the natural water bodies that exist in them. In Chennai, each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spill-over. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water. We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water.”
A number of cities, including Chennai, are both water-scarce and prone to flooding. Both problems are related—excessive construction, which leads to poor recharge of groundwater aquifers and blocking of natural drainage systems, a CSE release said.
Says Sushmita Sengupta, deputy programme manager with CSE’s water team: “While Chennai has been struggling to meet its water needs and has been even desalinating sea water at a huge expense, it allowed its aquifers to get depleted.”
CSE said its research showed that Chennai had more than 600 waterbodies in the 1980s, but a master plan published in 2008 said only a fraction of the lakes could be found in a healthy condition. According to records of the State’s Water Resources Department, the area of 19 major lakes has shrunk from a total of 1,130 hectares (ha) in the 1980s to around 645 ha in the early 2000s, reducing their storage capacity. The drains that carry surplus water from tanks to other wetlands have also been encroached upon.
The analysis also shows that storm water drains constructed to drain floodwaters are clogged and require immediate desiltation. Chennai has only 855 km of storm water drains against 2,847 km of urban roads. Thus, even a marginally heavy rainfall causes havoc in the city.
Gopikrishna Warrier says the first priority should be to get rivers back in natural health so that this does not get repeated. “At least the future development of the city should be in line with its natural contours,” he adds.
Master Plan The CMDA’s Second Master Plan for Chennai, published in 2008, knows all that is wrong with the city, still neither it nor the government sees the necessity to act:
“Chennai is a flat coastal city subject to regular cyclonic storms and extensive inundation during the North-east monsoon period. Hence it is necessary to take into account ways and means of tackling the effects of climate change in a planned manner. Knowledge on this subject is only gaining ground in recent times. We need to absorb latest information and technology in this discipline not only to cut down greenhouse gas emissions from urban activities but also [to] anticipate the effects of climate change on the economy and life of people to take timely remedial measures’.(Chapter XI ‘Environment’, pages 105-106).
Chennai has an average elevation of 22 feet (6.7 metres) but draining of water has never been an issue despite being a problem because heavy rainfall is always an oddity. Monsoon failure is common, but this has not usually been followed by a shower of heavenly bounty, barring once, in the recent past. In 2003, the North-east monsoon failed. One of worst droughts in living memory followed. But then, in 2005 unprecedented rain flooded Chennai.
Population surge and migrants A sudden increase in population in Chennai and its surroundings since the mid-1990s has only put pressure on its strained water management and other infrastructure. This influx has been attributed to the marketing of Chennai as an automobile manufacturing hub, a destination cheaper than Bangalore for software services and hardware manufacturing, and as south Asia’s affordable health care capital. There are also plans to push it as a financial services centre, in competition with Dubai and Hong Kong.
In just over a decade, Chennai’s migrant population has increased manifold. In 2014, the city’s population neared the five million mark, while that of the Chennai Metropolitan Area inched towards the 10 million mark. As services struggled to keep pace, unregulated expansion of the city was all but a formality.
But Chennai, which has the lowest per capita availability of water among large cities in India, never felt the need to prepare, even though it was very well known that 2015 was an El Nino year. A State administration, pre-occupied with things other than the monsoon, did not seem to notice the first spell of heavy rain in the second week of November. Even the torrential June/July rains in Mumbai, which paralysed that city, did not serve as a wake-up call for the Tamil Nadu government. In just over a month, the North-east monsoon threw in about a metre and a half of rain in Chennai and the rest of coastal Tamil Nadu.
Despite all the predictions of resilience, the city will take a long time after the rains subside to get back to normal. But given the fact that Mumbai, Kolkata, and all major cities get flooded during each monsoon, and that the effects of unbridled greed and haphazard, corruption-led development are here to stay, it is time for a country-wide debate on sustainable ways of living.
Cities need to take the lead in banning un-reusable materials, engaging citizens in the search for alternatives, and adopting best practices from elsewhere. Extreme weather phenomena will not go away merely because cities begin this process now, but it is time for everyone to step up and contribute.
Crystal gazing After every major disaster, governments wake up and commission reports. Chennai, too, did so in 2005 after unprecedented floods crippled the city and parts of coastal Tamil Nadu. The project aimed at a slew of initiatives: prepare laser terrain maps, aerial scanning of the city and so on. But this project never took off.
Hope now lies in decisive, concerted action on the part of the government. Corrective action has never been taken to the extent required in Chennai or in any of the other urban centres in Tamil Nadu. But a State like Tamil Nadu, with more than half its population living in urban agglomerations, cannot dismiss the questions thrown up by the unprecedented rains.
Chennai’s civic body is hampered in its functioning by the fact that most of the essential services—such as plan sanction for multi-storey buildings, provision of water, sewage collection and sanitation, fire control and police—do not reside in the civic body but with the State government. The Mayor is a titular head, and the Corporation Commissioner is a relatively lower level officer, unlike in many other metros where the post is occupied by a Chief Secretary-rank officer.
The election to the State Legislative Assembly is to be announced in the near future as Tamil Nadu must have a new government by mid-May 2016. There’s not enough time for the AIADMK government to sit down and prepare a decade-long perspective plan for Chennai and a contingency plan for Tamil Nadu now. Most of the party machinery of all political parties is now geared towards the elections and have been treating the rain as a kind of distraction.
It was keeping in line with this that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who was touring the flood-affected R.K. Nagar constituency, from where she won a byelection recently with a record margin to become Chief Minister for a fifth time, addressed the affected, distressed people as “ Vaakkala perumakkaley ” (esteemed voters). This generated immediate negative responses from the constituency. Some of those who voted for her described her choice of words as “poor,” while a few others, who had only seen footage on news television, were livid that she should address the affected in such a manner.
Chapter IX, Macro Drainage System in CMA (Chennai Metropolitan Area) which is part of the Master Plan says that several studies have been done to analyse the situation and find solutions to mitigate the problems of flooding and cleaning up of the environmentally degraded waterways particularly the Cooum, Buckingham Canal and Adyar.
“The more important studies made so far are: i) Er. P. Sivalingam Committee report, 1976 ii) PWD Nucleus Cell Report, 1980 iii) Madras Metro Flood Relief/Storm Water Drainage Master Plan Study, 1993 iv) Storm Water Drainage Master Plan for Madras City and Pre-feasibility Study for CMA, 1994 v) EIA of the Drainage and Redevelopment Proposal For the Pallikkaranai Area, 1995 vi) Review of EIA by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), 1998.”
Most of recommendations in these studies gather dust. The master plan’s “vision of Chennai Metropolitan Development Area is to make Chennai a prime metropolis which will become more livable, economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable and with better assets for the future generations.” This looks a very long shot. Chennai is now a Smart City only on paper. What action the government takes over the next month will decide if this city and its suburbs will be liveable.