Home > 2016 > Chennai Floods and Floods of Politics

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

Chennai Floods and Floods of Politics

Friday 15 April 2016

by Velayutham Saravanan

Last three months, Tamil Nadu politics was sailing on floods that occurred in the Chennai city. Interestingly enough, the main reason for the Chennai floods was opening-up the Chembarambakkam tank and not the heavy downpour. In other words, man-made disasters were to be held responsible for the Chennai floods rather than the torrential rain. However, such man-made factors like encroaching the path of natural water courses and water bodies resulted in floods. In addition, lack of infrastructural development added to the distress. At the same time floods in other regions like Cuddalore, Thirunelveli, Tuticorin and other parts of the east coast did not get much attention. However, as usual electoral politics witnessed allegations being ruthlessly lashed against the ruling party/State administration by the Opposition parties. Somehow the reasons behind the floods have got only little attention.

Why did the flood happen in Chennai? Is it because of opening-up of the Chembarambakkam tank alone? Of course, this may be one of the factors. Somehow, the other factors did not at all figure in the game of popular politics. For example, how has the belly of the different rivers flowing in the city, different tributaries and water bodies become diminutive? How have the expansion of the city and ever increasing concrete structure reduced the recharge mecha-nism over the period? How has infrastructure development hindered the natural path of water-flow? To answer the above questions, an attempt has been made in this brief commentary piece.

One can easily discard the view that the Chennai floods could have been easily avoided if Francis Day, the chief of the military settlement located at Bandar near Masulipatnam of present Andhra Pradesh, had refused Aiyyappa Naicken’s request to establish the settlement where the present Chennai city was developed during the early seventieth century. The present Chennai city was a couple of decades less than four centuries (Circa 1639). It must be pointed out that most probably Chennai city is the only city in the country that was designed and developed in a planned manner as in the contemporary period. Indeed, this approach was undermined and only very few cities like Chandigarh, Pondicherry have the reputation of being planned cities but these too emerged in post-independent India. But the fact of the matter is that Chennai was the first city to be developed by the East India Company during the early seventieth century. For instance, there are twentyone streets from the Second Beach Line to Mint Street and each one of them was earmarked for specific business activities. For the residential purpose, black town and white town were developed, the former one sewing as the residential area of service-providing commu-nities and the latter one was for the settlement of those of British origin. After the development of black/white townships, the first expansion took place around the Triplicane region. One of the famous and oldest restaurants, that is, the Ratna Cafe, stands testimony to this; there you will be served piping hot idlies submerged in the flood of sambar like the recent Chennai floods.

The geographical area of the Chennai city has increased several-fold over the last three centuries, particularly after it witnessed a phenomenal growth during the second half of the twentieth century. According to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, the total population of Chennai city was around 19,000 in 1646, and it increased to 40,000 in 1669. In the early nineteenth century, 16 hamlets comprising 69 square kilometres were brought under the Chennai city. The city expanded further about 70 square kilometres with a population of 5.40 lakhs in 1901. The population of the city increased to 8.6 lakhs by 1941. The geographical area was about 80 square kilo-metres. In other words, the geographical area of the city remained the same for more than one-and-a-half centuries. After independence, in 1950 the boundary of the city has been increased to 129 square kilometres and remained nearly the same until the 1980s. Since the 1980s the Chennai city boundary further expanded to 176 square kilometres and remained so until 2011.

Since the 1970s, the Chennai Metropolitan Area had an area of 1189 sq kms and was spread over three districts, namely, Chennai District, parts of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram District. According to the 1971 Census, the total population was about 35,05,502 and it increased to 86,53,521 in the 2011 Census. The Chennai Metropolitan Area region has more than 3000 water bodies and a large number of the water bodies and water courses were encroached in the process of real estate development during the last three decades. Precisely, expansion of the city and in the process of expansion, encroachments into the natural water courses and restrictions of the natural water recharge mechanism and again putting more pressure on the same water courses due to concrete finish has led to this kind of overflow. There are three rivers that flow in the city, namely, Coovam, Adyar and Kortalaiyar respectively flow in the centre, south and north of the Chennai city and each one them discharges into the Bay of Bengal. The Buckingham Canal, which connects Vijayawada and Marakkanam, passes through the Chennai city; this was constructed in 1806 and the length of the canal is about 418 kms. After the development of the railway network by the East India Company during the second half of the nineteenth century the Buckingham Canal was totally neglected.

The River Coovam collects surplus from about 75 tanks in its catchment within the Cennai Metropolitan Area. The belly of the Coovam River is shrinking everywhere in the 18 kms radius of travel through the Chennai city except near Napier Bridge at the confluence with the Bay of Bengal. It is also noticed to be shrinking in the Chennai Metropolitan Area in recent years. The HSCTC Feasibility Report shows that in most of the areas in the Chennai city limits the belly of the River Coovam has halved at both minimum and maximum lengths. Further, within the Chennai city limit there are 17 bridges on the River Coovam and the length of the bridges vary from 41 metres to 138 metres. Except three bridges, the lengths of the rest of the bridges are less than 80 metres. In fact, the lengths of a sizeable number of bridges are less than 50 metres. In addition, several railway bridges have also been built over the River Coovam. In a nutshell, not only is the belly of the River Coovam shrinking but several pillars on the river are also equally responsible for the hindrance to the natural path of water flow in the river.

The Adyar River collects surplus from about 450 tanks in its catchment, apart from overflows from the large Chembarambakkam Tank. Unlike the River Coovam, the Adyar River’s course flows straight, originating about 40 kms away from the Chennai city. In fact, it originates at the outlet of the Chembarambakkam Tank that receives the water from the Kesavaram dam in the River Coovam. Indeed, the Chembarambakkam Tank has its own importance being the main source of drinking water for the Chennai city. Unlike the River Coovam, the artificial hindrance in the Adyar River are few and largely confined to the Chennai city limits and again equally high in the Chennai Metropolitan Area. But the unauthorised settlements along the Adyar River bank are affected whenever floods occur in the Chennai city.

Negligence of the Buckingham Canal between Kortalaiyar and Adyar and further south, known as South Buckingham Canal, is also an important point for study from the standpoint of floods. The long neglected Buckingham Canal had laid down hundreds of pillars for the elevated Metro Train in the canal or along the canal line from the River Coovam to Adyar and further in the south adding to the problem. More importantly, hundreds of pillars laid in the Buckingham Canal, south of the Adyar River, further curbed the diversion of surplus water flow from the Adyar River.

The rapidly increasing real estate develop-ment in the Chennai Metropolitan Area not only reduced the natural rainwater recharge mechanism but also dwindled the water bodies and river water courses adding to the problem. In other words, the emerging concrete jungles across the Chennai Metropolitan Area accumulated the torrential rain leaving little option other than the host of water turning into surging floods; this was somewhat inevitable. Following the latest heavy downpour, within a short span of time opening-up the Chem-barambakkam Tank proved fatal. Whether the decision was correct or not has become a central point of discussion in the aftermath of the Chennai floods. It triggered a hot discussion across the political parties. It is unfortunate that even the natural calamities have become a core theme for Tamil Nadu politics. Hypothetically speaking, if the Chembaram-bakkam Tank had not been opened-up after reaching the maximum capacity, it might have breached its bank and the consequences would have been much more dangerous than what has happened at present.

It seems that the Public Works Department followed its routine procedures. One has to understand that when there is no rain in Chennai or there is no information about the discharge of the Chembarambakkam Tank that may lead to overflow, the administration would have to be blamed and taken to task. In the normal situation, the administration will give notice to the inhabitants of low-lying areas and ask them to evacuate temporarily until the water released from the tank is cleared off. The fact of the matter is that due to the heavy downpour water flow was on the increase in the river and rainwater was also getting collected in the residential areas. For some time, power too went-off and other communications network was not in operation and the adminis-tration was equally handicapped under the conditions to be proactive in the Chennai city. In other words, nature itself had given clear warning of floods a week ahead of time and hence one could not argue that there was no warning and floods happened overnight. The politics should have been focused on the fundamental factors of the floods in Chennai city and how it can be averted and regulated in future. As against that exercise, politicising the natural disaster and that too when the people are suffering, is not a healthy game in sensitive politics.

I must mention here that when Jawaharlal Nehru discussed about the development of the North-Eastern region, he suggested that engineers from Chennai be invited. He also highlighted their credentials. In 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru said: ‘At the present moment most of the engineers come chiefly from two provinces — the Punjab and Madras. They are spread out all over India, because they happen to be the best. Indeed, some of them have a world reputation.’ Hence, in popular politics, the vendetta game has little significance. It is better to sit back and reflect. The political parties always have the habit of fishing in troubled waters. As far as popular political games of making merry in the rainwater of Chennai city are concerned, these are bound to drown in the upcoming floods of electoral politics in 2016.

The author is a Professor and Director, Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, New Delhi.