Sunk by negligence

It is the same story in village after village of the coastal districts: rivers and lakes not desilted for years, bunds neglected and the existence of a thriving nexus between the official machinery and unscrupulous contractors.

Published : Dec 09, 2015 12:30 IST

A submerged road in Tuticorin on November 23.

A submerged road in Tuticorin on November 23.

THE Duty Officer in the weather observatory, Chennai, summed up the catastrophe that befell the city and the coastal districts of Cuddalore, Kanchipuram, Nagapattinam, Tiruvallur, Tiruvarur and Tuticorin: “It is a man-made tragedy.” A trough of low pressure formed in the Bay of Bengal on November 7, and lay centred 300 kilometres off the coast of Puducherry the next day. The north-east monsoon, which generally sets in over Tamil Nadu around October 20, started peaking on November 8. Rain started pounding coastal districts, including Bhuvanagiri, Chidambaram, Cuddalore, Lalpettai, Parangipettai, Panrutti, Sethiathope, and Vriddhachalam from that day. A downpour which began in the morning of November 9 continued without any break until the morning of November 10, Deepavali day. In the 24 hours ended 8.30 a.m. on November 10, Neyveli received 48 centimetres of rainfall, Panrutti 35 cm, Sethiathope and Chidambaram 34 cm, all categorised in the weatherman’s parlance as “extremely heavy rainfall”. Parangipettai received 33 cm. Consequently, floods engulfed the district, causing loss of life, submerging paddy crop, uprooting thousands of cashew nut trees, toppling casuarina plantations, destroying huts, and damaging electricity transformers.

At the heart of the mammoth damage caused by unprecedented rains—about 270 lives lost, ruined crops, destroyed huts and houses, mangled bridges, extensively damaged roads, electricity and water supply systems, and cattle and poultry swept away—lies the State administration’s failure in the last 10 years on a variety of fronts.

The list includes the Public Works Department’s (PWD) failure, during the rule of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (2006 to 2011) and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government from 2011, to desilt, deepen and de-weed rivers, canals, irrigation channels, ponds and lakes which are under its control across the State; its failure to raise and strengthen these waterbodies’ banks/bunds; its improper maintenance of sluice gates of reservoirs; and its decision to allow housing colonies to burgeon on the beds of rivers, lakes and ponds which are under its control. Cuddalore district was the worst affected district where 59 people died in the floods and paddy crop on about 1.5 lakh acres (one acre=0.4 hectare) was ruined.

Cuddalore district has a fascinating topography. Several rivers, including the Gedilam, the Thenpennai, the Paravanaru, the Vellaru, the Manimutharu, the Uppanaru and the Vellavari, criss-cross the district. It has big lakes such as the Veeranam, the Walaja and the Perumal Eri. It has many small lakes, ponds, canals and irrigation channels. Most of these waterbodies are under the control of the PWD. The district’s fertile alluvial plains help farmers cultivate paddy, sugarcane, groundnut, banana, vegetables and jasmine flower ( gundu malli in Tamil) on several lakhs of acres. Farmers cultivate tapioca too. They raise ulundu (black gram) as an inter-crop. The fertile plains alternate with rolling, semi-arid areas of thousands of acres where farmers raise cashew nut trees. Casuarina groves are another source of revenue for farmers. The area around Panrutti is famous for jackfruit. The Kullanchavadi-Kurinchipadi region is famous for its groundnut, tapioca and banana crops.

Since it is a coastal district, it often gets battered by cyclones. If the tsunami ravaged it in December 2004, floods damaged it in November 2005. Then came the Nisha and Neelam cyclones in 2008 and 2009. The Thane cyclone hammered the district and the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry in December 2011. The district is also home to the sprawling Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), which is headquartered in Neyveli in Kurinchipadi taluk. The area around Neyveli contains massive deposits of lignite, a form of brown coal, which the NLC excavates in its three open-cast mines. It uses this lignite to generate 3,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity in four thermal power stations (TPS-I and its expansion, and TPS-II and its expansion). The NLC is thus both a mining and power generation company. This public sector company is at the centre of a raging controversy now.

Charge against NLC

In village after village, landowners, legislators, daily-wage labourers, engineers, social workers and politicians of different political parties allege that the NLC was responsible for the tragedy in about 40 villages because it discharged lakhs of gallons of water from its three open-cast lignite mines, without any prior warning, into the upper Paravanaru river on November 9. The Paravanaru, in turn, emptied the raging waters into irrigation canals/ channels such as the Chengal Odai, the Periya Odai, the Chinna Odai and the Kari Odai. But these canals/channels had highly diminished carrying capacity because the PWD had not bothered to desilt, deepen or de-weed them or strengthen their banks. Consequently, water breached the banks and engulfed the surrounding villages.

Take, for instance, what happened in Kalgunam village. Here, the Chengal Odai, an irrigation canal, has virtually disappeared under a forest of naanal grass, tharuvai and Neyveli kattamani shrubs. It breached its banks at three places at Kalgunam and threw out massive quantities of water because these shrubs were blocking its flow. This led to the flooding of more than 335 acres with standing paddy crop. Of these 335 acres, 250 acres were carpeted with two-feet high silt. A man and his wife who were herding ducks in the paddy fields were swept away by the waters. More than 100 huts collapsed when six feet of flood waters barrelled through the main village and the nearby Dalits’ settlement.

T. Sathasivam (57), a daily-wage farm labourer in Kalgunam, explained where the blame lay. The water discharged by the NLC mingled with water in the Paravanaru river, which had no dam to store its waters, he said. The huge amount of surplus waters in the Paravanaru fed into the Chengal Odai near Kalgunam. Sathasivam said: “The Chengal Odai should have been maintained properly. Contracts are awarded to desilt and remove the weeds in the Chengal Odai. But the contractor does not do his job properly. He uses a Poclain machine to dig up a small patch on the bed of the Chengal Odai. When floods occur, there is loss of life and damage to property and paddy fields. This happens year after year. The NLC should raise the bunds of the Paravanaru and the Chengal Odai and maintain the bunds.”

When the Frontline team visited Kalgunam on November 27, a gloomy mood prevailed in the village. We reached the Chengal Odai canal, where the breaches were being plugged and its bund being strengthened on a war footing. V.M. Suryamurthy, an AIADMK leader from nearby Vadalur, was the contractor for executing the work. He squarely blamed the NLC for “the loss” at Kalgunam. A PWD engineer at the site argued that the NLC had “no other option” but to release the water into upper Paravanaru. K. Balakrishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing the Chidambaram constituency in Cuddalore district blamed the NLC for all the suffering that the Cuddalore district underwent in November. “It is the NLC which is responsible for much of the damage in the district,” he alleged. The NLC let in a lot of water into the Paravanaru, leading to floods every couple of years, he said. On November 9, too, the NLC discharged a huge amount of water into the Paravanaru and the resultant floods hit hard Visur, Periyakattupalayam and other villages nearby. Balakrishnan attributed the damage to crops and property in Kurinchipadi, Kullanchavadi, Ellappanpettai, Kalgunam, Ambedkar Nagar, and the railway track caving in near Kurinchipadi to “NLC waters”. About 40 villages in Vadalur, Kurinchipadi, Alappakkam and Periyapattu were “drowned and damaged because of the NLC,” he alleged.

He demanded that the NLC, which earned a profit of more than Rs.1,500 crore every year, provide Rs.50 crore to repair the current damages in the district. “It can adopt the entire Cuddalore district and maintain its infrastructure,” he suggested. “Whether it is the DMK or the AIADMK government, they have done nothing [over the years] to prevent damage from floods,” he added.

Balakrishnan estimated the loss in Cuddalore district at about Rs.3,500 crore. Paddy crop on about 1.5 lakh acres and groundnut crop in three lakh acres are ruined. Tapioca cultivated on about 50,000 acres have started rotting. Flowers have fallen off cashew nut trees on 40,000 acres, so these trees will not yield nuts. Young casuarina trees on 10,000 acres have been uprooted. Edible sugarcane has been destroyed on hundreds of acres. Floods have destroyed about 100 poultry farms, resulting in the death of thousands of birds. Five lakh houses, including huts and concrete houses, were damaged. Many boats were destroyed. In Cuddalore town itself, the Gedilam river, which slices through it, is an eyesore. It is choking everywhere with juliflora trees and an assortment of shrubs. This has resulted in the river flowing over its banks and flooding several parts of the town.

Protests in districts

In Villupuram district, during the spell of rain from November 8 to 16, 30 people died and 189 heads of cattle were swept away. Standing paddy and millet crop on 522 hectares started rotting. Groundnut, cotton and dal varieties on 2,181 hectares were ruined. Horticulture produce on 687 hectares did not survive. About 3,000 huts were damaged.

Tragedy struck when breaches occurred in the Uppar Odai (Uppar Canal), under the PWD control, in the coastal Tuticorin district in southern Tamil Nadu. Heavy rains lashed Kadambur, Kayathar, Maniyachi and Ottapidaram. These rain, along with flash floods in jungle streams fed the Uppar Odai which, in turn, discharged the water into Korapallam tank in Tuticorin town. Not only the Uppar Odai, which had never been maintained properly, breached, but a few tanks, including the one at Veerapandiapuram, broke their bunds. So Tuticorin town was flooded in about 20 locations, such as Athimarapatti, Rajiv Nagar, Mullaikadu, Xavierpuram, Muthammal Colony, Dhanasekaran Nagar, Om Shanthi Nagar, Adhi Parasakthi Nagar, and State Bank Colony. Three people lost their lives. Thousands of people from these low-lying areas had to flee to safer areas. Dead pigs, poultry, cows and buffaloes started floating in the stagnant water. Sewage from broken septic tanks mixed with this water and there was the threat of epidemics breaking out.

The situation was so bad that cadres of the constituents of the People’s Welfare Front, comprising the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) organised a demonstration in Tuticorin town on November 28, demanding that steps be taken to drain the stagnant water, remove the carcasses of animals and restore hygienic conditions.

Vaiko, MDMK general secretary who led the demonstration, alleged that the town was flooded because of encroachments in Uppar Odai because of which it could not carry the flood waters.

Since encroachers had taken over beds of rivers, lakes and ponds in the State during the past and the present regimes, floods occurred. Bogus cases were being filed against people who organised protests in Tuticorin town demanding relief, he said. “When waters surround people’s homes, they can demonstrate only in the streets. Should false cases be filed against them for that?” Vaiko asked sarcastically. Farmers and residents sat on the Tiruchendur Road demanding restoration of power supply, draining stagnant water and proper maintenance of Tiruchendur Road. There were several protests in Chidambaram town as well.

Widespread destruction

At Visur, the broad, normally dry Vellavari river which splits the village into two, ran amok with surging waters on the morning of November 9 and destroyed more than 100 huts and pucca houses built on Mettu Theru. In fact, Visur is one of the most affected villages in terms of ruined fields, houses damaged, huts washed away and property lost. Mettu Theru (meaning “Upper Street”) has come up right on one of the banks of the river and its residents, in a sense, could therefore be blamed for the tragedy that befell them. Paradoxically, although it is called Mettu Theru, it is located several feet lower than the bank of the Vellavari. No wonder the massive amount of water that came barrelling out of the Vellavari easily ripped apart the huts and houses that stood in its way.

S. Selvi, a community coordinator of a nationalised bank, took us around Mettu Theru. What had happened there was sheer mayhem. The waters tore into the cement concrete houses and flung around the broken walls. These walls were strewn around on big, tall mounds of sand deposited by the waters. All that remained of resident Vadivelu’s house were its walls torn asunder and lying feet apart on the sand dunes. His wife Vasuki and daughter Kowsalya were carried away by the currents and their bodies were found a kilometre away. Vadivelu and his two school-going sons survived. Another resident M. Subramanian’s big hut had totally collapsed and lay on the sand dunes. All his belongings were carried away by the waters.

The bathroom of a house situated at a higher level had more than three feet of sand deposited by the water. There is damage everywhere at Mettu Theru. Concrete lamp posts lay on the ground broken. Filled-up applications for passports were lying around in a hut. Cattle sheds were found several metres away from their original locations.

Muthulakshmi, who owns a posh, spacious house on Mettu Theru, thought on her feet when the water started flooding the street. She, her two sons and a daughter bolted all the doors and windows of the rooms in her house and stayed put in five feet of water. But she lost paddy on 200 acres and tapioca on another 200 acres.

Some houses were damaged on the other bank of the Vellavari river too. Flood waters simply gouged out the verandah of a concrete house belonging to N. Ayyappan. The hole punched by the waters in the verandah is so deep and wide that his family members cannot enter their house even by vaulting over it. “We ran for our lives, with the clothes that we wore,” said Ayyappan.

G. Govindaraj (65), a social worker belonging to the DMK, explained how the Vellavari struck here. Visur is situated about 100 feet below rolling cashew plantations spread over a length of about four kilometres. The plantations separate Visur from Kudiyiruppu village, situated at a higher elevation, he said. Rain water flowed down from the cashew plantations to Visur. Besides, NLC water let into Upper Paravanaru came surging into the Vellavari river which joined up with the Gedilam, a kilometre away, which was already in spate. The Vellavari was unable to hold all the waters and it breached its banks on either side at Visur. Mettu Theru, situated right on the side of a bank, was torn apart. Govindaraj said the residents of Mettu Theru, except three who were swept away, were lucky because the calamity occurred during day time. Floods in the Gedilam washed away the road between Visur and Panrutti.

Unexpected floods

The Vellavari was taken for granted at Visur because hardly any water flowed in it year after year. A similar complacency led to a tragedy at Periyakattupalayam. Here, two streams, called the Peria Odai and the Chinna Odai flow adjacent to a Dalits’ settlement which is situated on a single street which snakes along the bends of the Peria Odai. There are 136 small concrete houses in the street. But two families had built two big concrete houses further down the street, and the walls of the rear rooms of these houses jutted into a bank of the Peria Odai.

A small island-mound has formed between the Periya Odai and the Chinna Odai, which flow around the island-mound in a garland-like formation and join again. It is on this island-mound that another group of about 10 Dalit families live in huts and a concrete house. With more than 48 cm of rainfall pouring into the area on November 9, the Peria Odai and Chinna Odai swelled with waters and swept away the huts on the island-mound. Only the concrete house survived the onslaught. The waters also smashed into the street where the Dalits lived and flowed beyond the street, uprooting cashew nut trees, toppling poultry sheds and so on. Eight members of the family of Veeramani, a Dalit labourer whose hut was situated on the island-mound, were washed away.

M. Venkatesan (67), a farmer, said floods in the two streams occurred after about 40 years. There was no damage to property or loss of life then. “The floods occurred here now because of the NLC waters, plus the waters flowing down from Muthandikuppam, Nadukuppam, Kizhakku Kuppam and Marungur along with water from jungle streams,” he said. “All the nearby fields have been silted up with sand deposited by the two streams. The cashew trees will not yield nuts because the flowers fell off in the strong winds that blew. Young casuarina trees, three years old, have toppled,” added Venkatesan.

A jungle stream came alive with raging waters at Mel Mettukuppam, a few kilometres below Periyakattupalayam. Its waters smashed the parapet walls of a bridge and threw them on the bed of the stream.

Vadakku Vellur and Ilavarasanpattu are two villages which are a just a few kilometres from the NLC as the crow flies. From Vadakku Vellur’s periphery, you can see the NLC TPS-I’s cooling towers and chimney stacks. A lake called Moopaneri, under the PWD’s control, is situated beyond the village. Kari Odai, a stream, flows on Vadakku Vellur’s border. There is destruction all over the Vanniyar Street of Vadakku Vellur. Eighty-six-year-old P. Kaliyaperumal has only one big towel to wrap around himself. His hut was lying flattened on the ground. Clothes, utensils and everything in his hut were washed away. Only one big box of his belongings remained.

The roof of a big hut belonging to V. Subramanian lay flattened on the ground and a television dish antenna stood in front of the collapsed hut as if it were a sentinel guarding the few remaining belongings. S. Shyamala’s thatched shed remained tilted. Flood waters had carried away 300 coconuts of R. Kosalai. Uthandi, the local PMK leader, estimated that 20 huts in Vadakku Vellur had been washed away. Many were damaged beyond repair. He blamed the NLC for the “entire damage” in the village.

A similar fate struck Ilavarasanpattu, with 500 dwellings. A stream flows at the end of the village. There are signs of damage from the floods everywhere in the village. Panneerselvi Jayaraj’s big hut has collapsed and the utensils she bought for her daughter’s wedding are lying with the debris of the collapsed hut. She is not sure whether the utensils escaped damage. Thirty goats at Ilavarasanpattu had been washed away. According to Shanmugam, a resident, they were lucky that the village was flooded during day time. If the waters had entered Ilavarasanpattu at night, most of the residents would have drowned, he said. Uthandi pointed to where the blame lay: the stream around the village had not been desilted and its bunds were weak. “The stream should be widened and desilted and its bunds made strong,” he said.

At Aykuppam, a few kilometres from Kullanchavadi, what was once a broad canal maintained by the PWD has now shrunk to less than three feet. The home of a farmer, N. Murugan, situated close to a culvert under which the shrivelled-up canal now flows, was swept away by five feet of water on November 9. This despite the house being built of “hollow blocks” made of cement. His cows, goats and poultry were also swept away. He has spent Rs.30,000 to rebuild his house, the walls of which are now made of thatched coconut fronds. Murugan said: “An important reason for the loss of my house, cattle and poultry is the failure of the PWD to desilt this canal for the past 30 years. It has led to the canal even changing its direction. Besides, encroachments have come up on the canal bed.”

He claimed that the canal’s original width was 15.8 metres, which had now shrunk to less than a metre. “We do not want freebies at all. It is enough if the government maintains its canals and rivers, and provides us with electricity and good roads,” he said.

Despite the colossal damage that village after village in Cuddalore district suffered on November 9, the fighting spirit of its people came to the fore on November 25, the day of the “Karthigai Deepam” festival, the full moon day in the Tamil month of Karthigai, when people light lamps in front of their houses. “Chokka panai”, a bonfire, was lit in front of shrines. The open courtyards of huts and concrete houses in Kalgunam village dazzled with light from metal and terracotta lamps. In front of her collapsed hut at Ilavarasanpattu, a young Sakunthala drew a kolam (rangoli), lit terracotta lamps and placed them around the kolam .

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