Monday, December 7, 2015

Chennai Flood Disaster Catastrophe of December 2015-Are you listening? - Dr RK Bhandari

The worst is over and the city of Chennai in the State of Tamil Nadu in India is limping back to normalcy after the unprecedented flood catastrophe of December 2015. The whole country applauds the exceptional grit and grace with which the citizens of Chennai fought the fury of the floods as one single family of friendly strangers! When the Indian Armed Forces, the NDRF Battalions, the Paramilitary Forces, the State Police and the common men intermingled with the victims of the flood-ravaged city of Chennai on the mission to save lives, by heroic deeds they won the admiration and gratitude of the nation as a whole. India can be justly proud of the inspiring examples set out by the rescue teams and the citizens, in the defiance of death and destruction. The ensuing trail of success stories, which will be retold for generations to come, has reaffirmed peoples’ faith in India’s capacity to manage the post-disaster phase of the cataclysmic events.
Now imagine the dreadful scenario in the flood-ravaged Chennai without the timely and decisive interventions of the post-disaster response teams. The loss of lives, the number of those injured, the count of the homeless, trauma of the victims, damages to the infrastructure, the cost of recovery and construction and pressure of demand on local administration would have been several folds higher. On the other hand, imagine the scenario which could have developed to our advantage after implementation of preventive and mitigation measures in tune with the experiences gained and the lessons learned from as many as six major flood disaster events in the last 40 years. The loss of lives, damages to the infrastructure, the hefty relief package of Rs 1940 crores and the astronomical sums of money now required for reconstruction could have been drastically curtailed, if not altogether avoided. We all know that prevention and mitigation pay and yet it is unfortunate that those at the helm of affairs still prefer to pay for the end-of-the-pipe solutions from the public funds at the expense of the basic human needs.
By not taking recourse to the prevention and mitigation route, contrary to the stated policy, even the Central Government does not do justice with its own commitment to the people of India made in the National Disaster Management Act of 2005. The Act, which was enacted about the same time as the last Chennai flood disaster of December 2005, had promised to the nation a paradigm shift from the relief-centric approach to the culture of prevention and mitigation. With ten years of lead time since the last major flood disaster, the State Government was expected to feel the pain of disasters and take the Act more seriously.
Another stated strategy of the Government of India is to shift the focus from development to sustainable economic development. The X Five Year Plan clearly mentioned that the planned expenditure on disaster prevention and mitigation will be coupled with the Calamity Relief Fund. There was a major shift of Focus in the XI plan which laid emphasis on integration of disaster mitigation with development planning. If the government would have taken its own strategy seriously, the severe flooding of the areas surrounding Perumbakkam because of the construction of the IT Corridor on the filled-up lake could have been avoided. The flooding of Mudichur, Velachery, and several other areas are not a matter of surprise to those who Chennai because they had encroached the wetlands and the river basins. The city’s largest mall, Phoenix, is on a lake-bed — Velachery.  In 1976 floods too, Adyar over-topped its banks invading houses by several feet precisely because of the stream encroachment.
There is no denying the fact that for economic and infrastructure development, land has to be found. The national challenge lies in using the land in a manner that construction and mitigation measures are planned, designed and implemented as a single package. This should have been done when the major bus terminal was built in the flood-prone Koyambedu or when the Chennai airport was built on the floodplains of the River Adyar. Building a Mass Rapid Transit System over the Buckingham Canal and several automobile and telecom SEZs and many housing estates, over the erstwhile water bodies, were less of engineering in development and more about the recipe for a disaster. By hindsight, it seems clear that the government should have walked the talk by integrating disaster mitigation with planning for sustainable development. Reportedly over 300 water bodies have already been lost to urbanization and construction. The 16 tanks belonging to the Vyasarpadi chain downstream of Rettai Eri have reportedly met with a similar fate.
All the blame cannot be placed on either the Government or the Extreme Weather Events. We the people are equally responsible for our compromising positions when it comes to our self-interest. Often times, we pressure administration for bending of rules and regulations for our narrow gains. According to a report submitted by CMDA to the Madras High Court, there are over 1.5 lakh illegal structures in the city, hazardous also to the city drainage. When High Court ordered demolition, the people appealed to the Supreme Court and sought stay-orders. Naturally, we need stricter laws and swift disposal of such cases. It is high time people realize that disasters drain our resources, sap our strength, halt the pace of economic development, rob the posterity of India’s cultural heritage and  inflict lifelong suffering on the victims, especially in the low-income group.
Those responsible for the above acts of omission and commission must be held accountable not only for what wrong they did, but also for what they should have done, which they did not do. The professionals who implemented the above projects were responsible for ensuring that the projects themselves do not become a cause of disasters.
Since it is not in our culture to fix accountability, the civil administration, on the predicted lines, did pre-empt inconvenient and hard questions about public safety by declaring the Chennai 2015 floods as a natural calamity and placed the blame entirely on unprecedented rainfall due to Climate Change, completely ignoring the interplay of numerous other causative factors. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, even without any investigation, reportedly said “Losses are unavoidable when there's very heavy rain. Swift rescue and relief alone are indicators of a good government.” [1] Earlier also, the Chennai floods of 1969, 1976, 1985, 1996, 1998, 2005 and 2015 were attributed to the heavy rainfall events. Does that mean that factors such as unrestrained and unplanned urbanization, non-engineered and illegal construction, encroachment of water bodies and low-lying areas had no role to play?  It is true that the heavy rainfall forced authorities to release 30,000 cusecs from the Chembarambakkam reservoir into the Adyta river over two days, causing flooding and submergence. But the question to ask is why such situations could not have been anticipated and provided for in project design?  How can one explain the flooding of Koyambedu and the neighbourhood other than by concluding that the related storm water drain projects failed to account for the built-environment, the altered urban landscape and the water logging data of the previous cataclysmic flood events?
 It is only when the authorities ignore such ground realities and try to hide behind the Extreme Weather Events as the sole cause that we keep working in the comfort zones of business as usual, take recourse to the obligatory post-disaster relief-centric approach when needed, and keep re-reaffirming our faith in the merit of disaster prevention and mitigation , as parrots do.
There are no simple solutions to the problems of flooding in the city of Chennai which have been allowed to develop over the period of many decades. Instead of overlooking the wrong doings of the past and throwing blame on heavy rainfall, the political masters, bureaucrats, professionals, the civic officials should come out of the denial mode, own the responsibility and concede with humility that they have failed to walk the talk. It is time to learn from the past experiences and put institutional mechanisms and Standing Operating Procedures in place to ensure that disaster mitigation measures get firmly embedded in all the future project designs.
The large scale flood hazard maps and hydrology maps of the City of Chennai should be revised on priority. The corresponding large scale maps should clearly mark problematic areas, buildings and infrastructure at risk. These maps should guide the revision of the second Masterplan prepared by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. Both, the hazard maps and the Masterplan should be independently peer-reviewed, and thereafter the future flood risk scenarios should be projected with sensitivity to Climate Change, highlighting the problem areas in the backdrop of the experiences gained during the December 2015 flooding. The National Guidelines on Flood Management issued by the National Disaster Management Authority in January 2005 would need revision and adoption, mutatis mutandis.
 All the illegal constructions should be demolished by expediting pending court cases.
 Extreme Weather Events and heavy rainfall are going to be matters of concern all the time and should not ever be taken as unforeseen happenings. The extreme rainfall events like the one which pounded the State of Tamil Nadu and triggered the catastrophe will have to fully accounted for while formulating preventive and mitigation strategies. Modern technologies should be deployed to improve weather, rain and flood forecasting.
India has an ambitious blueprint of economic development and one of the high profile programmes is development of Smart Cities. Ponneri of Tamil Nadu has been identified for development as a Smart City. Hopefully, those responsible for its planning carefully study why the airport was closed and several iconic companies had to shut their operations. The functioning of giant software exporters like TCS, Infosys and HCL and automobile giants like Renault Nissan, Yamaha, BMW and Ashok Leyland were also badly affected by the floods. In the fiercely competitive world with international commitments, India cannot afford the repeat of such sad experiences ever again in future. An empowered High Powered Committee should be constituted to approve the plans of Ponneri, and be accountable to the nation.
 Because of the flood catastrophe, leading newspaper, The Hindu was not published for the first time since its inception in 1878. Future Quiz competitions in the schools of Tamil Nadu will make sure that the younger generation remembers the Catastrophic Chennai flood of December 2015 at least for this reason. The Prime Minister of India gave a post-disaster package of Rs 1940 crore against more than Rs 5000 crore sought by the State Government. Why not think of a mitigation package of Rs 20 000 crores to put a lid on such disasters forever and live happily thereafter!
Prof RK Bhandari is a distinguished alumnus from IIT Mumbai, a Fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering  and a recipient of the coveted Varne’s Medal for Excellence in Research and Practice of Landslides.

Praful Rao,
Dist Darjeeling

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