Cover Story

That sinking feeling

Print edition : December 25, 2015

Army personnel rescuing a man from the floodwaters in Chennai, on December 3. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/AP

At a colony in Aminjikarai, a man trying to get out of his house. Photo: R. Ravindran

Crying out to rescue workers for food and water, at Kotturpuram. Photo: Shaju John

The Adyar river in spate flowing over the Saidapet bridge on December 2. Photo: B Jothi Ramalingam

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief MinisterJayalalithaa after he had made an aerial survey of the flood-affected areas in the State on December 3. Photo: PIB

The aftermath of the unprecedented rains in Tamil Nadu exposes the government’s lack of preparedness and inadequate disaster management plan, apathy and petty politicking.

Cyclone Hudhud-induced rain had just begun pounding the coastal city of Visakhapatnam on October 12, 2014, when Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu decided that he had to be in the city to oversee relief operations. As the windspeed touched 170 kmph and the cyclone made landfall at around 11-30 a.m. on Sunday, he was already on his way.

Leadership is as much about being at the scene of distress as anything else. Chandrababu Naidu, always a man in a hurry, wanted the Indian Air Force to fly him to Vizag, says a former civil servant who had knowledge of the development. “Too risky,” the Air Force personnel told him. The same answer came from the Indian Railways: there could be breaches en route; too risky.

Chandrababu Naidu, then 64, did not budge. He hopped on to his mint-green-and-white campaign coach at Rajahmundry and ordered his driver to head to Vizag, a distance of just over 190 km. The three-hour journey in normal times took over eight hours. Chandrababu Naidu’s coach was parked in front of the Collector’s office, from where he directed relief operations.

Chandrababu Naidu could have sat back in Hyderabad. After all, Vizag was the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command and INS Kalinga, and where the marine commandos training centre was situated. Besides, the Navy has more institutional memory of handling cyclones than any State government. But people first buy into the leader before they endorse his vision, something Chandrababu Naidu knows. He stayed in the city with the people until normalcy was restored.

But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is different. “That’s not the way she operates,” says a former associate. She possibly believes in Lao Tzu, the keeper of the archives at the Imperial Court and founder of Taoism: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

In the entire period since the rains hit the northern Tamil Nadu coast, the Chief Minister was seen thrice: the first time, after the first spell of rain, she visited her constituency in the city, R.K. Nagar, and addressed the people as if during an election campaign, even employing language normally reserved for a campaign; the second, during what the notoriously secretive Directorate of Information and Public Relations Department claimed was an aerial survey; and third, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Chennai on December 3. The rains claimed 269 lives, according to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who gave this information in the Lok Sabha on December 3. Two lives were lost in the Union Territory of Puducherry and 54 in Andhra Pradesh, he added. Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary D. Gnanadesikan put the toll at 245 on December 4.

It can be argued that the presence of a Chief Minister will only come in the way of relief operations; the requirement then is quick decision-making. Did decision-making happen at the right time as the situation demanded? A few examples should demonstrate how the laxity in decision-making led to avoidable tragedies.

One, the opening of the sluice gates of lakes with perplexing synchronisation. There was very heavy rainfall on November 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 23, and December 1, but the flooding occurred only after the sudden, concentrated, large-scale release of waters from Chembarambakkam reservoir, the largest such structure on the outskirts of Chennai, on November 16 and December 2.

Each time Chembarambakkam is opened to let even minimal flood flows out, south Chennai gets flooded. Every administration knows this. But displaying, at the very least, a grave lack of basic understanding of Chennai and what such a release could do to the city, water was released in huge quantities. The authorities should have released not sizable, but controlled, quantities of water from Chembarambakkam throughout November 2015.

Some officials present the counter-argument: If the government had released water and had rains not been so heavy, there would have been criticism of acting in haste. But even they agreed that the government was ill-prepared and the response was inadequate.

“There are no ifs and buts in this kind of a situation. It was clear throughout November that heavy rains were anticipated. Anticipatory release should have been done. I hope they are doing so at least now and they won’t blunder a third time,” a former bureaucrat said.

In the administrative hierarchy, three senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers are being held responsible for the grave miscalculation that led to severe flooding, and subsequently, loss of lives: The Chief Secretary, the Public Works Department Secretary and the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Secretary. But there is a small catch.

A peculiar problem

Tamil Nadu, traditionally a water-starved State, has a peculiar problem when it comes to water release from reservoirs, dams and lakes. Every single release is treated as a celebration by a section of people. Before the annual June discharge of water from the State’s most critical water-holding structure, the Stanley Reservoir in Mettur, which is the reception point in Tamil Nadu for the Cauvery waters, for farming operations in the “delta” districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, special pujas are organised. Such water release details have, for about two decades, been decided by the Chief Minister.

Each time a routine water release takes place, a press release is put out crediting the Chief Minister with ordering the release. Here, too, the final decision had to come from the Chief Minister, say several officials familiar with the way systems work in Tamil Nadu.

This is the context in which the release of water from Chembarambakkam and Puzhal, two reservoirs that supply the lion’s share of the city’s drinking water needs, has to be viewed. While the heavy rains were unprecedented, if the water had been released from Chembarambakkam in small but sizable instalments throughout November instead of two huge, concentrated releases on November 16 (18,000 cusecs) and December 2 (29,000 cusecs), and that too without adequate warning, perhaps the outcome would not have been this drastic.

In short, the State’s planners should have considered the El Nino year and the flooding in Mumbai—though not severe—after the June-July monsoon, and anticipatory release should have been done since early November. But no official will take that call, because, unlike in every other State, or even at the Centre, discussions on the pros and cons of a decision do not form the style of five-time Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

The brains trust that is running the show today include Chief Secretary K. Gnanadesikan; a former IAS officer who was described by Business Standard as the Chief Minister’s voice in Chennai, Sheela Balakrishnan; Additional Chief Secretary C.V. Sankar; Principal Secretary N.S. Palaniappan; and Commissioner of Revenue Administration (CRA) Atulya Misra. “The Tamil Nadu bureaucracy today is like the Indian Army in the 1962 China War, ill-equipped to handle the task,” remarked a former bureaucrat. “I’m told everyone is waiting for everyone else’s instructions! In such a situation the CS [Chief Secretary] has to lead,” he adds.

There were other reasons as well for Chennai to become the island that it did. The four lakes surrounding Chennai, and the estuaries of the Adyar and Cooum rivers, and the Otteri, Buckingham and other canals are usually dredged/deepened in June-July well before the monsoon. This year, either this work was not done at all or it was shoddily done, but the bills seemed to have been claimed. Officials, now no longer in service but familiar with the workings of this government, said that this was the Public Works Department’s (PWD) favourite modus operandi.

The construction of storm water drains is the other issue. These were not executed as a “network” but as disjointed, standalone items of work—starting from nowhere and ending nowhere—and executed poorly and purely for the sake of “contracts”.

It is doubtful if disaster management drills were done in September. In any case, the key functionary is the Commissioner of Revenue Administration, who assumed office only on October 12. “By the time he found his feet, the water had literally gone above his head,” said an official.

Death in hospital

The second essential failure of leadership was on display as a private hospital got flooded, and then, by conservative (read government) estimates, 18 patients died. One official said the hospital, MIOT, had asked for supplies of oxygen, which they were provided with. The hospital administration stated on record that none of the helpline numbers listed worked and that it had tried its best to evacuate patients.

The government put out an elaborate release to counter what it insisted were “rumours”. “There have been reports in the media that around 14 patients have died due to the failure of the ventilator system in MIOT, a private hospital located at Nandambakkam, Chennai, due to lack of electricity. The matter was enquired in depth by the Secretary, Health,” the release said. “As per the initial report given by the hospital, it had 575 in-patients on 1.12.2015. Totally, 300 patients were discharged by MIOT hospital authorities, 50 on 1.12.2015 and 250 patients on 3.12.2015. Out of the remaining 275 patients, 56 patients were on ventilator support as on 3.12.2015. These 56 patients were also shifted by the MIOT hospital authorities to the neighbouring private hospitals on their own initiative on 3.12.2015,” it said.

The release further stated that following distress calls from the hospital authorities on December 3 asking for oxygen and personnel for evacuation of patients in view of severe flooding and lack of electricity, the authorities rushed oxygen cylinders from the General Hospital, Chennai. On the request for boats for evacuation, the release said that an inspection by the Health Minister and the Health Secretary revealed that the flooding was not of an order requiring boats. Apparently, the generators in the hospital had ceased functioning owing to inundation and the hospital had no standby generators, said the release. It added that the Health Secretary arranged for seven 108 ambulances to transport the patients to Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Kilpauk Medical College hospitals.

According to the release, there were 14 bodies in the mortuary of the MIOT hospital of patients who had died due to medical reasons in the past few days and that it was reported that these bodies had not been taken away by their relatives because of the floods. Electricity in the entire Nandambakkam area was switched off as a safety measure because the entire area was flooded and the mortuary had no electricity. The release said the hospital authorities had not provided any further back-up to the three generators already inundated. On a written requisition of the hospital authorities, the bodies were removed to the Government Royapettah Hospital mortuary for safe custody. The release stated that the media which got information about the bodies that were brought for safekeeping in the Royapettah Government Hospital mortuary tried to give an impression that the patients died from lack of ventilator support owing to lack of power supply in the MIOT premises.

Asked about the time officials received the information that there was no power and back-up at MIOT and about action taken thereafter, an official said that power had been switched off on December 1. That was as a precautionary measure.

Asked if there were any manual/guidelines on back-up power in hospitals and what kind of inspections the Health Department carried out in hospitals, Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan said that Ambu bag maintenance (a bag valve mask) was regulated to be used as back-up. “All ICUs need back-up. Let’s investigate and check if it is regulatory negligence or management negligence,” he said.

Shifting the blame

At a press conference on December 4, the first one after the floods, the Chief Secretary blamed the hospital: “You all know MIOT hospital is located in a low-lying area. It’s the responsibility of a big hospital like MIOT to have adequate power supply, power generator. The management had completely abandoned the patients. Law will take its own course.”

The press conference was addressed by officials and Ministers, but again, the Chief Minister, who promised to meet the press every week soon after she assumed office in 2011, was missing.

Atulya Misra, barely in office for a fortnight before the rains lashed Chennai, was also coordinating relief efforts. Misra was away on deputation to the Centre, and was Chairman of Chennai Port Trust for over five years before he took over as the CRA. “Honourable CM took large number of meetings to prepare us for this event,” said Misra, whose posting orders had come exactly 54 days ago before the press conference. He, however, did not elaborate on “the large number of meetings”.

His service record showed that from 2004 to 2010, Misra had been Additional Secretary, Municipal Administration; Commissioner, Social Justice and Empowerment; Commissioner, Sugar; and Member Secretary, Sports Authority of Tamil Nadu—all lightweight posts in the State government. Then for a year and three months, he was Transport Secretary, the only post considered important out of all these.

“We were on alert,” the point man for the relief operations in Tamil Nadu went on. “But this monsoon was so historic. In month of November, Chennai city alone got 101 mm of rain. Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram were severely hit.... And we are still in middle of the monsoon. We had to release water from our rivers and lake because they are running full,” he added.

T. Prabhakar, Additional Chief Secretary, Transport, claimed that on December 4, as many as 65 of the bus services were restored. No one asked him how many trips these services made.

But former colleagues supported those in the firing line. “Given the political dispensation and its stern diktats, our serving colleagues are doing a great job and they are out in the field unlike most of us,” said a former IAS officer. “Both CRA Atulya Misra and [Chennai Corporation] Commissioner Vikram Kapur have been responding promptly to SOS calls and messages that I passed on to them. We need to support our serving officers in whatever way we can,” he added.

The problem, according to him, is the inflexible orders that get conveyed, often by word of mouth, sometimes three or four times removed. “The diktats are absolute and have no margin for flexibility. I have seen it in close quarters during the G.I.M. [Global Investors Meet] in September [2015]. As you know, the diktats are conveyed, monitored and reported back to the authority by a handful of our retired and serving officers. If it sounds like a page out of Orwell’s 1984 or Germany after 1936, Tamil Nadu is not far from those two scenarios,” he added.

Chief Secretary K. Gnanadesikan claimed there was extraordinary coordination among the relief agencies on December 4, at the press conference, the only event staged to disseminate information in an organised manner since the rains hit the State from early November. “The Tamil Nadu government is taking up rescue and relief efforts on a war footing. It is a matter of justifiable pride that this government has addressed a disaster of this magnitude so successfully.”

According to information verified with multiple sources, the coordination between the government and the defence agencies was excellent during the rescue phase. The Chief Secretary was coordinating with a pointsman in the Area headquarters, and there was clear direction at that phase. But things went haywire soon after. After the crisis phase passed, there was simply no direction from the State administration. Seven columns of the Army which came soon after a request from the State government sat around trying to figure out why they were requisitioned in the first place.

On December 5, over a 100 soldiers waited for over 10 hours for instructions from the government on where they should carry out relief work. After waiting for 10 hours, they decided to move to Pallikaranai. In fact, this is exactly what another column did. On condition of anonymity, a senior Army officer told this correspondent that they received no information from the government on where immediate relief action was required. But they were getting desperate SOS messages from many areas. Under these circumstances, at least one Army column took upon itself the decision to move and help people in distress.

‘Two years for normalcy’

In the estimate of the Army, 4 million of the 7.2 million people have been affected. “There is no quick-fix solution to this. It will take two years for normalcy to be restored,” said an officer who did not want to be quoted.

From December 5, buses began plying, picking up and dropping passengers, free of charge. This was made out as largesse of the Chief Minister. In reality, the government was only following an order of the Madras High Court in part, which, stepping into the executive domain because there was simply no government action, asked it to ferry passengers free of charge in the affected areas. While the Transport Department considered only Chennai the affected area, the government of Kerala ran bus services from Chennai’s main bus terminal, Koyambedu, to Kerala, free of charge! “Kerala government operated buses to both Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur every hour,” confirmed K.A. Johny, Mathrubhoomi newspaper’s Chennai Bureau Chief.

But the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government was anxious to tell everyone that it was the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister who ordered that the buses be run free of charge from December 5 to December 8. The Transport Department, which like all organs of the government tries to come up with innovative ways to please the Chief Minister, decided to stick the Chief Minister’s picture and a message to the effect on buses. The most prominent thing in the announcement is Jayalalithaa’s picture—of course, all from taxpayers’ money. The Kerala government buses had a neatly handwritten note, minus any picture of anyone.

Not to be outdone, the Health Department’s health camps have Amma’s pictures in almost all things used in a camp, barring syringes, capsules and other small equipment. The message that Amma is the sole provider of relief had to be emphasised, and reinforced–the State Legislative Assembly elections are barely five months away. (Jayalalithaa’s followers refer to her respectfully, more often sycophantically, as Amma, meaning mother in Tamil.)

Hijacking relief

This was not the only place where a set of servile and clueless officials, the government, in tandem with the AIADMK party, tried to hijack the relief efforts. Reports, some confirmed, from across the flood-affected areas indicated that the henchmen of the ruling party were stopping relief trucks to stick pictures of the Chief Minister on the relief material. This was happening with such regularity across regions that it appeared to be coordinated. In Cuddalore, some relief workers that this correspondent had access to, said that all major political parties were doing the same.

The instances became so widespread and began to be reported across the media that the AIADMK disassociated itself from the occurrences and was compelled to put out a release, giving out phone numbers that people could call up and complain if relief was being waylaid. “Even if it is government’s own relief and not that of NGOs’, you can’t be wasting precious time pasting Amma’s photos on relief materials,” said a volunteer.

The propaganda war was on in full force through the crisis, indicating that all political parties were wasting precious energy on proving a political point. An Indian from Qatar painted a rosy picture of what was going on in disaster relief, which was dismissed by many in the opposition as being applicable only to his family.

“The ground realities are grimmer. Our younger son, nephews and niece have been going out to do some voluntary work since yesterday. According to them, Loyola College is the most well-organised flood relief centre and not dependent on any government assistance. But there are hundreds of thousands more yet to be rescued, sheltered and fed and treated by doctors,” said a senior corporate hand who did not want to be named. A desperate caller from the Chemmancheri Housing Board colony to an NGO helpline said there were at least 12 dead people right in the colony. No relief had reached them ever since the rains began. This was the plight of a majority of the city residents cutting across classes.

At the local level, water, milk and all essential commodities began vanishing off the shelves. But everything was available at 10-20 times the cost along the roadside. It is easy to romanticise the city’s “resilience”, and the way it “picks up the pieces holding its head high”. But these are mere empty phrases.

Most people got out and began work, or hawked what they could to get through the day. In a metropolitan area where 70 per cent of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, not many have the choice to sit back and wait for the weather to clear. For instance, fishermen did not head out to sea on most of these days because of the weather warnings. While fishermen were at the forefront of rescue efforts after the first surge of floods, hiring rescue boats from most of them did not come cheap. Boat hire for a day from a part of Chennai’s Marina Beach, Nochikuppam, cost Rs.30,000 a day.

In one deal which this correspondent was part of, after negotiations, the boat owner agreed to Rs.90,000 for five days. Transport from the area to the affected locality was the responsibility of the person who hired the boat.

But there were individual acts of kindness, especially in middle- and upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, though the situation is really grim in poorer localities. One upper-middle-class person’s post on Facebook went like this: “Finally after 5 days of no power the electricity is back. I hope it stays. This is the 1st natural man-made disaster my family and I have ever experienced. We have suffered with no water, no electricity, shortage of basic amenities and little things we take for granted. Despite all this we feel blessed. This has made our family bond strong and neighbourhood bond stronger. Chennai needs your prayers people. There is a lot of suffering and destruction in the city. We are seeing people lose their homes overnight. Strangers have come to help and are continuing in their relief work. Lot of people have left their houses to safer places. We as a family have chosen to stay back and take care of those who need to be cared for. Thank you to all those who have checked on me and my family. We feel very grateful and blessed. Do not take anything for granted people. Every little thing is a blessing.”

The media, despite the general encouragement not to be too harsh on the government, began a no-holds-barred attack after witnessing the reality. Zero coordination on the ground, multiple teams landing up at the same locality, wrong information leading to a wild goose chase to locate someone at a wrong place—everything that can go wrong did—because the government, even on December 6, did not have a centralised control number which captured all information into a database, verified and sent out information. Some NGO coordination units in Chennai had the capability. But they were hamstrung because none of the relief control numbers provided by the government or the Central agencies and the security forces worked during the worst phase of the disaster.

“The Army waiting for 5 hours, or not correctly telling the Army the names of the waterlogged localities is as much a failure of the officers as the councillors who, it is reported, have gone underground unable to face the fury of the grief-stricken public,” said a volunteer.

Veteran Tamil writer Vikraman, 84, died during the rains and his family had a harrowing time in giving him a respectable funeral. A colleague recalled another such incident where a resident of 7th Main Road, Ashok Nagar, one of the worst-affected areas because it is close to the Adyar river, took her mother’s body to the nearest crematorium and the authorities pleaded helplessness: no power for the crematorium, no gas available, the available wood was too wet to light a pyre. The surging waters around meant that a burial was not possible either. “She couldn’t even grieve. She just left the body there and walked away,” said the colleague.

In a third incident, published in The New Indian Express, a body was kept in a vehicle for two days. “With their houses flooded and the route to the mortuary inaccessible, families in a southern suburb kept their kin’s body in an SUV for two days before bringing it to the hospital for autopsy, the December 5 newspaper report said. In yet another case, the Pallikaranai police had a similar case where G. Ramesh, 35, employed with Axles India, got washed away in the floods when he left home for his office. “His body was also kept at home for two days before it was brought to the GRH mortuary as his family was unable to find any vehicle to take his body to a hospital,” the newspaper report added.

The Chennai airport was shut down on December 1 evening after the runway was flooded following incessant rain. Though on December 2, the flights out of Bangalore were priced “normally”, the organised fleecing of passengers by all domestic airlines began the next day, even though Parliament was in session. “This is very common in markets like the United States where airlines make money out of everything,” said a frequent flyer. “It comes as a shock here.”

The Civil Aviation Ministry had issued a “stern warning” against airlines taking advantage of the situation on December 4, but the airlines did not pay heed. “They know how to work around Ministries,” remarked an official of a private carrier.

Health warning

As the rains made way for better conditions, public health experts warned of the danger of epidemics, given the stagnation of water, and the mixing of floodwaters and sewage across the affected areas.

There is the danger of cascading flooding as water gets pumped out from some areas and since there has been almost no garbage clearance for more than a week, there is the fear of epidemics.

Surveillance for fever, diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases need to be initiated on a war footing, at a door-to-door level, the experts said. The next six to eight weeks, which constitute the post-impact phase, are crucial in the affected areas.

A cartoon in a Tamil newspaper captured the essence of the situation that people in Tamil Nadu face today. It has two adults and a child sitting precariously on a tiled rooftop, even as floodwaters are surging all around. One adult is telling the other: “The mixie, grinder, television and all the other free things given [by government] have gone with the floodwaters. From this, one thing is very clear! We don’t need freebies! We need good schemes and administration. What do you say?”

The social media is awash with messages of anger against the government, and the disappearance of the Chief Minister. One has the image of Jayalalithaa, with the caption “Missing”. Another asks the government to stop using the Chief Minister’s face on relief material. “Stop branding your face. Start using government emblem. The money you spend is mine!... People’s,” it says.

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