Assembly elections

Flood of troubles

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Dwellings of more than 600 families were demolished at Surya Nagar in Kotturpuram, Chennai, on February 18, after the floods. Several families have moved into houses allotted by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board at Perumbakkam. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Children casting their votes to elect the school pupil leader and the assistant leader at the Chennai High School in Kotturpuram in August 2014. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The AIADMK may find the going tough in the flood-affected constituencies in Tiruvallur, Chennai, Cuddalore, Kancheepuram and Villupuram districts.

IT is not often that death stares a reasonably healthy person in the face in Tamil Nadu. This southern State has a higher life expectancy at birth than most other States; it is one of the better governed States and has a low crime rate; and it offers multiple livelihood options. But the floods of November/December 2015 changed all that.

The floods came in a flash with next to no warning. Every river in the State swelled like never before. In Chennai, the Adyar, the Cooum and the Kosasthalaiyar overflowed, 35 major lakes breached their banks in and around the city, and vast areas remained inundated for almost a week. Frontline has recorded in detail the reasons for the flooding and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s apathy during the period (December 25, 2015, and January 8, 2016). According to the government, 470 people were killed, nearly one lakh livestock perished, and crops in over 3.83 lakh hectares were damaged.

In a statement made in January, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said that over 3.47 lakh hectares of agricultural crops and 35,471 hectares of horticultural crops had suffered damage. As many as 30.42 lakh families had suffered partial or complete damage to their dwelling units. The reinsurance broker Aon Benfield assessed the economic losses at $3 billion.

Jayalalithaa refused to admit that there was any fault on the part of the government. She said in the statement that although her government was prepared for the monsoon, the unprecedented downpour had resulted in large-scale damage, prompting the Centre to declare the floods as a “Calamity of Severe Nature”. “State and Central government agencies, apart from the armed forces, were quickly pressed into service for relief and rehabilitation efforts and essentials and medical services were promptly delivered,” she said,

But many people this correspondent spoke to during and after the floods, and in the run-up to the Assembly elections, said this was not so. People in the flood-affected districts were reduced to begging for food and water, images that refuse to fade away from the memory of the flood victims.

“How can I forget the stench that remained for months in my house?” asks Mohan Babu, a resident of Khuber Nagar in Madipakkam, a suburb of Chennai. “We cleaned the house every day for 10 days. But when we came back the next day, the stench would still be there. Our apartment was totally damaged,” he said. It took him a few months of cleaning and repair works to make the house liveable. Thousands of families in Chennai and other districts faced similar hardships.

The government did expedite the process of depositing a cash compensation of Rs.5,000 into about 14 lakh bank accounts, but more than double that number received no assistance.

Evidently, the AIADMK will find the going tough in the flood-affected areas: 10 constituencies in Tiruvallur district, 16 in Chennai district, 11 in Kancheepuram district, nine in Cuddalore district and the constituencies abutting the coast in Villupuram district.

The rehabilitation process was replete with large-scale excesses on the part of officials, whose only aim was to evict the people who inhabited the slums that dot the courses of the rivers in Chennai.

The families of Anjali, Deepak, Jana, Sasikumar and 36 other schoolchildren were evicted from their dwelling units in Kotturpuram, one of the worst-affected areas in the December floods on the banks of the Adyar in the city, to Perumbakkam, 20 kilometres away. Today the children set out early in the morning to commute by public transport to the Chennai High School in Kotturpuram. Some of them walk for two kilometres from Perumbakkam to Chennai’s information technology highway, Rajiv Gandhi Salai, to board a local bus which takes them to Tidel Park, from there they take the Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) train to reach the Greenways Road station, from where they walk to their school. The journey costs Rs.40 both ways. Thankfully, the students need not pay for the commute as a Government Order issued after the floods said that the schoolchildren merely had to be in their uniform to avail themselves of a free ride in the State transport bus. But they have to pay for the train ride. There was an attempt to involve a non-governmental organisation to transport students (dislocated from their place of residence) to their respective schools, but because of the responsibility involved, the move had to be dropped: The NGO said it could organise transport until the end of the academic year, but wanted someone to take the responsibility for any eventuality during the commute. The school, obviously, was not in a position to offer any guarantee on this or any other aspect of reaching the students to the school.

The children’s parents, almost all of them daily wage earners, have to pay for their transport to their workplace in the upmarket area of Kotturpuram. The families of some 80 schoolchildren of the Kottur Chennai High School and primary schools run by the Chennai Corporation used to live in Surya Nagar, a slum at the end of Ranjith Road abutting the Adyar. After the floods, most of the residents of Surya Nagar and all the residents of Chitra Nagar were summarily evicted and moved to Perumbakkam and its neighbourhood.

A few officials who were part of the rehabilitation effort in Perumbakkam said there was a government school in the vicinity. Enquiries revealed that the school was barely functional, did not have enough teachers, and functioned out of a building that was not fit for a school.

“We prefer coming here,” one of the pupils of the Kottur Chennai High School told this correspondent. For a government-run school, the facilities at this modest school is beyond imagination. It boasts a computer centre, offers classical dance and music classes, gives structured sports and games coaching, all in collaboration with the local community, NGOs and dedicated individuals. The interest shown by the school administration to enable these facilities needs mention. The school also has a breakfast programme supported by the trust that runs the M.O.P Vaishnav College for Women in the city. The AIADMK manifesto has promised breakfast for pupils of government-run schools.

But neither this Class IX pupil, nor the bunch of children making the difficult commute every day from Perumbakkam and the neighbouring settlements to Kottupuram are sure if they will continue in the school next year. “My parents say it’s too expensive to come here every day,” the child said.

The school principal, Kalpana Kannan, is confident that at least 30 of them will come back next year. Since they moved to the Perumbakkam settlement, there is a high rate of absenteeism. Most of the children are not able follow the 8:50 a.m. deadline for entry into the school. In short, the floods have wiped out the Chennai Corporation’s measures to maintain high attendance in this school. Schools in other affected districts have similar stories of dropouts and absenteeism.

While residents of Chitra Nagar and parts of Surya Nagar were forced to vacate, those residing in another part of Surya Nagar managed to avoid eviction. With the support of the NGO Pennurimai Iyakkam, representatives of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and entrepreneur and non-resident Indian R. Sriram, they managed to get a stay order against their eviction. On February 12, Justice R. Subbiah restrained the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, the Chennai Corporation, the Commissioner for Land Administration, the Chennai Collector and the Public Works Department, “their man, agents, servants and persons acting under them from forcibly evicting the petitioners residing at Surya Nagar, Kottur, Chennai 600 085 (WMP 3320/2016) pending disposal of this writ petition (WP 3995/2016) respectively.”

The writ petition had prayed for regularisation of the slum. Sriram said: “Surya Nagar association got a court order for regularisation of their stay in their place. This is an unprecedented achievement. The government authorities are dragging the case by getting the hearings postponed. As of now, the residents are not being disturbed. There are about 250 families, who remained to stay and fight.”

Sriram credited the local youth, who were not deterred by the odds of approaching an “English-speaking” judiciary. The youths’ problem was simple: If they move, their livelihood will not move with them. They still will have to come back to Kotturpuram for work. Spending money to commute 20 km every day was not a good option.

Jayalalithaa is contesting the elections from one such flood-affected constituency, R.K. Nagar. After the first deluge in November 2015, she went around the constituency, from where she was elected last year with an unprecedented margin, and addressed the distressed people as “my dear voters”. But after the second floods in December, when she did not visit the constituency, stories about her being ill started making the rounds.

But Jayalalithaa may not have to put up a big fight. She has two decent opponents in Shimla Muthuchozhan, who draws support from her party (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and the fact that she is a local person, and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) candidate V. Vasanthi Devi, a former Vice-Chancellor and an academic of high standing. Jayalalithaa’s opponents are expected to split the anti-Jayalalithaa votes, resulting in an AIADMK victory. AIADMK candidates in other flood-affected constituencies may not be as lucky.

No infrastructure development

Across Chennai and the flood-affected districts, there has been no major infrastructure development in the past five years. The Metro Rail work, which was initially stalled soon after the AIADMK came to power in 2011, is wobbling along; only a 10-km stretch is open since mid-2015. The Planning Commission approved the project in April 2008 and tenders were floated in January 2009. The Jayalalithaa government promised a monorail system for Chennai, to mostly replace the Metro Rail. But to date, it is yet to find any competent contractor to implement its proposal.

The Maduravoyal elevated corridor, which was conceived of in 2008 to decongest the city of truck traffic proceeding to and from the Chennai port, is still mired in litigation: this time around, the litigant is not a bunch of affected people but the State government. T.K.S. Elangovan, a former Member of Parliament and the DMK’s organisation secretary, said: “This is a typical example of how the AIADMK government has functioned over the past five years. Any scheme planned and taken up for implementation by Kalaignar [DMK supremo and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi] has been shelved by her. There has been no infrastructure development in Tamil Nadu in these past five years.” Leaders of opposition parties point to a long list of projects that were promised but not taken up for implementation by the AIADMK.

Neither Jayalalithaa nor the AIADMK’s campaign managers are deterred by criticism that she did precious little by way of infrastructure development in the past five years. They believe that the AIADMK’s manifesto will be a game changer. “The schemes that we have announced in the manifesto, no party can even dream of,” claimed Thoothukkudi Selvam, a party spokesperson. Asked why the projects in and around Chennai could not be implemented, he said some projects had litigation issues, while in the case of a few others, the cooperation of the Central government was not forthcoming.

Jayalalithaa herself did not seem to be bothered about the criticism: “ Ungal anbulla amma pesugiren” (Your dear mother is speaking], begins an FM radio advertisement, which then lists, in her voice, the issues in Tamil Nadu when she took over and what she did to bring about development in all sectors in the State. At election rallies in Dharmapuri, Vriddhachalam and a few other places, she sought to emphasise that she is the mother and that the people of Tamil Nadu are her children: “Only a mother can understand the needs of her children,” she said. What she said subsequently is not that important. Jayalalithaa is seeking to change the discourse in the elections by occupying the pedestal of a mother, as the one that has all the voters as her children. “Do you want another mother?” asked Kanimozhi, the DMK’s parliamentary party leader, and one of the three main campaigners of the party, at an election rally. On hearing a resounding “no” from the crowd, she said: “Then tell her [Jayalalithaa] these are not polls to elect a mother.”

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