Chennai floods

Masterly inactivity

Print edition : January 08, 2016

A view of flooded Thideer Nagar below the Maraimalai Adigalar Bridge at Saidapet in Chennai. Photo: S. R. Raghunathan

The salt pan at Kovalam near Chennai heavily inundated on December 3. Photo: M. Karunakaran

People waiting to collect flood relief at Kargil Nagar at Tiruvottiyur in Chennai on December 10. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Photo: PTI

Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary K. Gnanadesikan. He faulted the India Meteorological Department for not giving accurate forecasts. Photo: V. Ganesan

The release of water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir and the havoc wreaked by the overflowing Adyar river in several localities along its banks in Chennai have raised pertinent questions about the role of the Tamil Nadu government during the emergency and relief phase of the floods. But the government is in denial mode.

AT 7 a.m. on December 18, Sekar, Mari and Ramesh, all head-load workers in their early 30s, set out in search of work from what is left of their hovels in Thideer Nagar below the Maraimalai Adigal Bridge across the Adyar river at Saidapet in the heart of Chennai.

Although such sudden communities or overnight encroachments are a reality in the Indian urbanscape, in Chennai, most of them have a common name—Thideer Nagar. Thideer in Tamil means sudden.

“A friend has asked us to meet a person who works for a big private firm. I am told there is a vacancy for a driver’s post there,” said Sekar. Mari and Ramesh tagged along with him to explore other job opportunities in Sri Nagar Colony, a kilometre from their slum on the right bank of the river.

More than 1,000 families in the Saidapet Thideer Nagar are trying to rebuild their lives. Their huts and belongings were washed away when the Adyar burst its banks and flooded the residential areas along its course on December 1. The story is the same across the slums in Kotturpuram, Adyar, Jafferkhanpet, Ekattuthangal and Ramavaram. Seventy per cent of the people living in these slums are employed in the informal sector and have no fall-back options or social security.

“Not a single family has been unaffected. Most of us lost everything,” Mari said. “Everything” includes cooking vessels, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves and cylinders (in about 50 per cent of the households; others do not have a gas connection), buckets, television sets, mixers, grinders and other electrical equipment that were doled out to them by the Tamil Nadu government, steel almirahs (which are critical to slum-dwellers as it is the only safe place to store all their valuables in the entire 150-200 square feet household), cots, bedsheets, mats, mattresses, plastic chairs, clothes and work equipment. They have received some relief in the form of bedsheets, dhotis and saris, and continue to receive food. The cash compensation promised by the government is yet to reach them, though.

There are two types of dwellers in Thideer Nagar. They are the early encroachers who have been granted concrete-walled, asbestos-roof houses by the government and the later-day encroachers, who still live in thatched huts, held together by casuarina poles. The fast-flowing waters took away everything and left behind only concrete structures.

“Casuarina poles cost about Rs.12 a kilogram. Depending on the size of the hut, we will require 250 to 350 kg. Woven coconut fronds cost about Rs.250 to Rs.275 per 100 and each hut needs 2,000 to 3,000 fronds,” said Sekar. “Plus there is the labour cost of Rs.750 a person a day, and the labourer’s food expenses,” he added. The State government has promised an assistance of Rs.10,000 for people like him but this is not enough to cover even half the cost of putting up a hut.

The situation is far worse for people who lost all their belongings and those who had bought household equipment on hire purchase. No firm has come forward to waive temporarily the equated monthly instalments (EMIs). They have to pay for the equipment that they no longer have. Some of them wonder whether the government will once again give away freebies such as mixers, grinders, table fans and laptops.

To restart normal life with basic minimum requirements, each slum household will now have to shell out a minimum of Rs.5,000 immediately. The only option they have to raise this money is to borrow from the local moneylender at rates of interest ranging from 80 to 120 per cent. Already moneylenders are reported to have hiked the rates realising the desperation of the slum dwellers.(Three money lenders, this correspondent spoke to, maintained that they had not hiked the interest rates.)

Government’s claim

The State Chief Secretary K. Gnanadesikan, in a press release which claimed to give the “factual position” on the flooding in Chennai, insisted that the people were forewarned. But in reality it was not so.

Why did not the slum dwellers move out with their belongings despite the government’s “warning”? “When did they tell us?” asked one person (name withheld). A chorus of voices from six slum dwellings claimed that they were told that the water level would rise when most of their homes already were waist-deep in water. Even then, no one expected the water to rise further because there was no instance of such flooding of their area in anyone’s memory and also because the officials did not tell them how critical the situation was. A couple of residents were of the opinion that the officials themselves probably did not know how bad it was going to be.

Residents in a few other localities confirmed that they had been warned of floods. “Yes, a neighbour heard the warning but he did not inform us,” said Meenakshi, a resident of the middle-class locality of West Mambalam. According to her, the advice given was to stock up and remain indoors.

That is what many, including Meenakshisundaram who lives in Tiruvanmiyur, did. The water engulfed his apartment complex, ruined the cars and two-wheelers and entered his ground-floor apartment. He was forced to move out. “Everything is gone,” he said. “Television, DVD players, cot, mattresses.... I will need about Rs.50,000 to get back to where I was on November 30. I have spent Rs.2,500 on cleaning the house. I hope to move back soon,” he said.

Such stories abound. The water that flooded homes in some of the posh areas of Chennai along the Adyar has meant that at least 50,000 households have to spend anything between Rs.2,500 and Rs.10,000 to clean their homes. But the biggest problem for the residents of Adyar, Kotturpuram, Velachery, Jafferkhanpet, Saidapet, Ekattuthangal, Ashok Nagar, West Mambalam, T. Nagar, Tambaram, Mudichur, Perungalathur, and other outlying areas that were badly affected is removing the sludge from their water sumps and making them safe and usable. One elderly resident of a posh residential colony in Kotturpuram, who does not want to be named, said he did not want to go back to his house. His son-in-law said, “I have cleaned his house thrice. But every time he goes there to inspect, he comes back saying there is a foul smell. What can we do?” he said.

A resident of CIT Nagar in T.Nagar managed to leave his home when the water surged in. “I am left with what I am wearing,” the finance manager who works for a technology firm told his boss. “Everything I had, the floods took.” He has no identity papers; his house registration papers and all other documents are gone. Many like him are in a state of shock, although many government and private agencies have announced that they will replace documents that have been washed away in the floods.

But it is easier said than done. as India relies on the British system of proofs and additional proofs. For instance, many people who lost their heads of cattle have found it difficult to claim any compensation. Officials are asking for the carcass or a certificate from a veterinary doctor. A certificate from the Village Administrative Officer is not sufficient.

Not only slum-dwellers and the middle class, even the normally reticent civil servants articulated their anger against the government’s inaction. One former Indian Administrative Service officer posted this on his Facebook page: “The flood [is] completely system made as water entered our home at night!! No announcement at 10 p.m. and rose over 10 ft in less than 3 hours. We went to the first floor but what about the less privileged and poor, where do they go? As an IAS officer of TN cadre and witness to the shame of stripping of all power and authority from everyone to one person/source of the CM office. This post will render me vulnerable but literally water has gone above the head and shoulders and someone has to stand up amidst the spineless and the mute. The Corporation did their best but what about the PWD, which had decided to wreck havoc and death to the city.

“The press releases and conference of the govt have to be seen to be accepted. It is a farce...” He and many of his serving colleagues had to be evacuated by boats from the IAS/IPS colony at Manapakkam. Some of them shifted to the State Guest House as a temporary measure.

“Slum dwellers and middle-class people have lost all their earnings of the past 10-15 years. They have to begin their lives from scratch,” said A. Soundararajan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who is a Member of the Legislative Assembly. “Small-scale industry is finished. So are farmers in Cuddalore and other areas,” he said. Insurance claims have topped the 10,000 mark and insurance companies are expected to take a hit of close to Rs.2,500 crore. But a million poor citizens and petty traders who do not have insurance cover have nothing to begin with.

About 50,000 vehicles have been damaged because of water ingress. While the public sector insurance firms say that they have simplified procedures, some claimants narrate horror stories of insurance officials asking them to produce photographs of themselves with the vehicle in floodwaters as evidence. “Until December 17, general insurance companies received 8,000 claims for cars and three-wheelers and 4,000 for two-wheelers,” said G. Anand, who works with one of the four public sector insurance companies. The companies have simplified claim procedures. There was no need to come in person; an SMS or phone call would suffice, Anand said. The section in the claim form for giving the details of damage has been reduced to five lines and the survey report has been brought down to one page.

Additional surveyers have been brought in from others districts and neighbouring States and each of them was clearing about 30 to 40 claims a day. There is also a “flat-rate” concept wherein the companies are offering Rs.5,000 for labour and Rs.7,500 for parts if the water ingress was up to the floor level and Rs.7,500 for labour and Rs.30,000 for parts if the water level was up to the vehicle’s seat.

Industry in distress

People across sectors are facing insurmountable problems in making insurance claims. M. Ramesh, a third-generation salt manufacturer, explained the problems small manufacturers faced when they attempted to make a claim. The number of salt manufacturers around Chennai has shrunk from 150 a decade ago to 12 because the altered laws have gone against small manufacturers.

The insurance industry provides cover only for equipment loss. The salt pans near Chennai are heavily inundated and it will take many months to recommence production; that too, only if the banks and the government take steps to make liquidity available to the industry. The salt pans employ about 600 to 800 people from the neighbouring villages and 500 from outside.

M. Kandaswamy, who owns the Covelong Salt Factory at Kelambakkam, has written to the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman: “Floodwater completely submerged our entire premises—salt works, office building, salt refinery, salt godown and raw salt storage platforms to a height of 5 ft to 6 ft, thereby causing catastrophic damage to the entire salt works. Raw salt heaps of around 7, 000 tonnes stored in high-level storage platforms have been completely washed away by floodwater and only 700 to 800 tonnes is remaining.

“The Government of India helped salt manufacturers of Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu in 2004 when the tsunami affected them. The Salt Department extended its support and financial assistance to reclaim and reconstruct the salt works of micro and small-scale salt manufacturers by extending Rs.5,000 an acre as compensation. The Centre also offered financial assistance to salt labourers.

“The present situation in Kelambakkam is worse than the tsunami and hence we request the Government of India to instil confidence among the Central government salt lessees of Covelong Salt Factory and come to their rescue in this hour of need, among other things, by granting financial assistance of Rs.15,000 an acre, apart from financial assistance for salt labourers.”

Recommencing industrial operations is the key to getting the city back on its feet. Many factories still remain shut because of waterlogging. A few information technology majors have shifted their “billable assets” to other cities. The Indian Express reported that “over 165 Bombay Stock Exchange-listed companies worth over Rs.285,000 crore that run operations in Chennai have been hit.... Industry sources said major players, including Hyundai, Ford, BMW, Nissan, TVS, Renault-Nissan and Ashok Leyland, were forced to shut production during the rain.” An Associated Chamber of Commerce (Assocham) report released on December 2 pegged the loss for industry at Rs.15,000 crore.

NDMA guidelines

“The average annual flood damage during the past 10 years (1996-2005) was Rs.4,745 crore compared with Rs.1,805 crore, the corresponding average for the past 53 years,” noted General (retd) N.C. Vij, Vice-Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India, in the 2008 national disaster management guidelines (management of floods) brought out by the authority.

It said: “The change in priority in use of storage space of the multi-purpose reservoirs for irrigation, hydropower, drinking and industrial water supply by ignoring flood moderation has led to large-scale flooding. The operation manuals and rule curves of all the reservoirs will be reviewed and modified to give priority to flood moderation.”

It elaborated: “There is also a lack of inflow forecasting systems for the reservoirs, resulting in sudden release of large quantity of water causing floods in the downstream. Dam safety aspects are also often not given due importance by the State governments.” If the disaster management guidelines had been implemented in Tamil Nadu, the December 1 disaster could have been avoided.

G.O. on eviction

It is not as if the State government was unaware of these guidelines. The Government Order Ms.No.186, Revenue Department, dated 29.4.2003, ordered eviction of all “encroachments in watercourse porambokes without any reservation and regularisation of these encroachments were also banned”.

The High Court of Madras, in its order dated June 27, 2005, in W.P.No.20185/2000, issued directions to evict the encroachments in watercourse porambokes and identify all the watercourse porambokes in the State and restore them to their original state.

“As per the directions of the High Court of Madras in W.P. Nos.15673 to 15686/2002, a high level committee has been constituted under the chairmanship of Hon’ble Minister for Revenue comprising official members (viz.) Chief Secretary; Secretary, Revenue; Secretary, Environment and Forest; Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj; Secretary, Municipal Administration and Water Supply; Secretary, Home; Secretary, Public Works Department; Secretary, Highways; and 34 non-official members representing people’s representatives, including two MLAs. The first meeting of the State level committee was convened on 16.2.2007 to discuss the items to be monitored by the committee. During the one-year period (from 1.1.2006 to 31.12.2006), a total number of 31,859 encroachments in government poramboke land were removed,” the Revenue Department’s Manual under Right to Information Act, 2005 (Eviction of Encroachments, page 33-34).

CAG reminder

When the State government was guilty of contempt of the High Court directive, it received yet another reminder, this time from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG):

“In Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12), the Government of Tamil Nadu aimed at restoration and maintenance of existing waterbodies, harnessing of surface water flowing into sea, taking up drainage works in major rivers, canals, tanks and coastal protection works. Groundwater being main source for irrigation and drinking purposes, special emphasis is required for obtaining an accurate picture of ground water resources. Given this background, Performance Audit on Irrigation Activities in Chennai Region comprising nine districts of Tamil Nadu was conducted. Major audit findings are detailed below: State Water Policy was not revised in line with National Water Policy, April 2002. In the absence of revised State Water Policy with legal framework for regulation and control of surface and groundwater, the department did not have effective control over surface water and drawal of groundwater (page-23, Epitome of CAG’s Reports on the Government of Tamil Nadu for the year ended March 31, 2013). Also, “defective planning of flood control works in Chennai city led to delay and increased cost thereby defeating the objective of the scheme formulated to avoid flooding in Chennai. Original capacity of tanks was not restored due to ineffective enforcement of Act for eviction of encroachments” (page 24).

The government, which floundered during the emergency and relief phases of the floods, was more interested in issuing rebuttals than accepting and correcting its faults and moving forward. Twelve days after the State Chief Secretary met the press on December 4, the only time during the disaster when an organised briefing was held, a press statement, signed by the Chief Secretary, on “the factual position on the release of water from Chembarambakkam tank” on December 1, was issued.

Chief Secretary’s explanation

The Chief Secretary faulted the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for not giving accurate forecasts. He said the PWD had followed the flood control manual and had released the water in accordance with that, and absolved himself, his colleagues and the Chief Minister of any responsibility for the deaths and destruction.

The crux of the Chief Secretary’s explanation was that “the IMD has only given an advisory of isolated extremely heavy rain but has not mentioned anything about 50 cm of rainfall as is being alleged in certain sections of the media…. The allegation that they were waiting for instructions from the Principal Secretary, Public Works Department, and the Chief Secretary and the imputation that the officers were awaiting the clearance from the Hon’ble Chief Minister are malicious and are canards not supported by the water release data of the reservoir. In accordance with the Rules for Flood Regulation of the Compendium of Rules for Regulation, prior intimation of the releases, including of step up of releases was given by the Assistant Engineer, who is the Controlling Officer.”

Reactions in the ranks of the State civil service ranged from ridiculing the explanation to arguing point by point. “Is the Chief Secretary trying to say that such a grave matter rests only with the Assistant Engineer, PWD, Chembarambakkam, and none of the higher-ups, including the Chief Engineer, PWD; Secretary, PWD; and the Chief Secretary bothered to monitor it? What if the Assistant Engineer had slept on his job? If the protocol was followed, why did so many PWD officers flee their houses? Why did so many IAS/IPS officers and others in Manapakkam and the Defence Colony [in Ekattuthangal] find their houses flooded up to the first floor?” asked one officer.

“One thing which cannot be denied is that the flood warning and evacuation efforts were negligible, casual and miserable. They should have arranged to send an SMS through telecom services providers. They should have specifically advised people in riverine areas to vacate. They did nothing of the sort,” said another official. A third asked why the explanation took a week in coming, when allegations have been made from December 2 onwards.

Despite all the explanations, it is amply clear that there was failure at three levels. First, the flooding and destruction could have been averted by regular, sizable releases from Chembarambakkam between November 17 and December 2, especially as the IMD had already predicted heavy rains throughout November. Second, the flood warning and evacuation efforts were miserable. If this had been done properly most lives could have been saved and people could have even saved some of their movable property.

Third, the post-flood efforts at rescue and relief were disjointed, uncoordinated and inadequate. This was after the event. The first two failures were fatal.

Besides, the Chief Secretary’s attempt to deflect criticism from the Chief Minister, too, rings hollow. Five press releases on water releases on irrigation, relating to eight dams, were issued by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations on November 3, 5, 7, 27 and 29. They were all issued in the name of the Chief Minister. A release issued in December (at the time of going to the press) was the post-disaster phase in Chennai. This release too, relating to release of water from the Wellington reservoir (press release no.190, dated December 14), was issued in the name of the Chief Minister.

Can it be argued that the Chief Minister is responsible only for water releases from irrigation dams and that she has nothing to do with releasing drinking water for Chennai? Press release no.158 dated November 24, 2015, makes it abundantly clear who decides on water releases from Chennai’s reservoirs.

It reads: “In the past two years, since there was scant rains in the reservoirs’ catchment areas of Chennai, there was only very little water in reservoirs…. Hence, following orders issued after I conducted review of the water availability for Chennai city, many works were taken up and water was being provided to people without any interruption.

“To ensure that there was no interruption in water supply in Chennai, I had initiated the new Veeranam scheme in 2004, and every day 180 million litres [mld] was being supplied to Chennai. Likewise, my government set up desalination plants in Minjur, and, in 2013, my government completed the Nemili drinking water scheme, and people were getting water from these schemes. To mitigate the water crisis, agricultural wells in Tiruvallur district were hired, and with it, an additional 120 mld of water was being given to Chennai.

“Also, since the water pressure was not enough, to cater to such localities, 8,500 water tanks were erected, 6,000 trucks were pressed in, and 5,000 hand pumps were repaired and put back into service.

“Till before the current spell of heavy rains, the reservoirs supplying water to Chennai did not have enough water, and hence, only 535 million litres of water was being supplied. Following the north-east monsoon, there is 9,053 mcft [million cubic feet] in the reservoirs serving Chennai. On the basis of the water level in the reservoirs, the two desalination plants and the water being made available from the new Veeranam reservoir, I have ordered that, from now on Chennai city will be given 830 mld water. Because of this, there will be daily water supply for the people of Chennai.

“Also, once work is completed in Avadi, Ambattur and Ullagaram-Puzhudivakkam areas, piped water supply can be made available. Hence, I order that these areas also be provided drinking water.” The order was signed by the Chief Minister.

It is in these circumstances that opposition political parties and many individuals seek an investigation into the circumstances leading up to the release of water from Chembarambakkam reservoir ( Frontline, December 25), and verify the government’s claims.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi met Governor K. Rosaiah to hand over a petition seeking an inquiry. Other political parties have also been demanding an impartial inquiry.

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