Open Essay

The Deluge And the Deluded

AR Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. He is a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai
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No flood could wash away the anger of Chennai

The great French historian Fernand Braudel explained historical change in terms of structure, conjuncture and event—the long term and the short term interacting to produce explosive events. A fantastic model that could explain the devastation visited upon Chennai over the past month. I hesitate to use the past tense. As I tap these words on the keyboard, more rain is forecast, predicted or prophesied. I am not sure if one hundred flowers bloom in this country. But there is enough tolerance for conflicting weather forecasts—with astrologers joining the fray in supremely confident tones. I choose to rely on tamilnaduweatherman. The BBC’s English is good. The Tamil Nadu weatherman’s is not. But he gets the weather right.

Let me confess. The seductive Braudelian model of change was the last thing on my mind in the midst of Chennai’s unfolding tragedy. Chennai’s terrain is flat, and historically drainage has indeed been a problem. If that’s structure, the conjuncture is the state’s willing destruction of water bodies, abetment of rapacious real estate barons, and flawed environmental policies. This watery cataclysm is the event.

Caught in a swirl of unceasing rains, eddying waters, call drops, and frenzied tapping of the keyboard to establish communication with marooned friends, I was overtaken by end-of-the-world visions: of Shiva performing his apocalyptic oorthuvathandavam, and my eyes searching the dark firmament for a rider on the white horse.

In the 1970s and 80s, the neighbourhood I grew up in, piped water supply, sewerage outlets and stormwater drains were taken for granted. KK Nagar had been laid out by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board with a mix of slum clearance board tenements, middle-class flats, and upper-class independent homes. Parks and playgrounds were located in the middle of sectors in a geometrical grid.

Now I live in a premium gated community on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR). A few months ago, a copywriter crafted a clever line to promote one of the mushrooming apartments on this global software corridor: ‘OMR is now OMG!’ Prophetic indeed. Never has God been invoked by so many mouths with so much fervour than on this highway this past week.

To get a road so wrong is difficult even by design. OMR runs parallel to the famed ECR (East Coast Road) that hugs the Eastern coastline. These two major roadways, despite being barely 2 km apart, are not connected. Even a brief shower will lead to waterlogging—for this great global destination has neither storm water drains nor sewerage lines. When you have ploughed through the water you will have the pleasure of paying toll for your use of the road. And contrary to all laws, the toll gate is actually deep inside the city limits.

Premium gated communities and Singapore-style buildings of transnational software giants jostle the two sides of the ribbon. But every drop of water that runs through the taps needs to be bought with money somewhat less precious than the aqua nectar. And the used water, processed with Sewage Treatment Plants (another expensive bit of equipment) needs to be transported out, at residents’ expense, and let out into God-knows-where. No brownie points for guessing that the tankers—at least for now—are controlled by a water mafia. And when the water and sewerage tax bill arrives at your doorstep every six months it’s indeed a cruel joke.

My six-year-old daughter hasn’t been to school since before Deepavali. That’s how long this nightmare has lasted. This break has outstripped the summer vacation. But there’s little joy on my daughter’s face or on her friends’. She often wonders how her dear friend Kaku is faring in his marooned home. Parental anxiety is infectious. The constant talk of swirling waters and marooned families cannot but have its impact.

On Monday last, 30 November, even as intermittent sharp showers made travelling difficult, I braced myself for the coming week carrying enough work home. Previous rainfall records were already on the wayside, and I hoped that the worst was over. But the rain gods thought otherwise.

I woke up to a different city. The skies were dark and the downpour a water curtain. The streets overlooking my home resembled wild streams. People were moving helter-skelter. Calls were dropping and the few that could be made only yielded desperate staccato cries. As mobile networks and landlines broke down social media was a blessing. Zuckerberg will soon have a place at my family altar. Messages for help quickly passed through these media.

On WhatsApp, a journalist friend kept a running commentary going of water entering his home. The commentary ended abruptly as the level reached chest high. A fellow academic was holed up on the third floor even as water lapped at the threshold of the first. My home guard friend could do little to help him. A poet friend woke up on his ground floor at daybreak, but by nightfall had steadily moved to the penthouse on the third floor.

Erratic power supply is the norm on OMR. So the gated communities have diesel generator backup. As diesel supplies ran out, power was rationed. During the short intervals of power we were engrossed with our mobile screens.

In between we caught snatches of the unfolding tragedy on TV. CNN IBN did a stellar job, probably the best to cover the Chennai rains with at least six anchors, many of them flown in from outside, wading through the turbulent waters. A plague on NDTV which was covering Delhi pollution and the Hindustan Times summit as Chennai was reeling under the floods. Sun TV did its usual politics telecasting disturbing images of the flooded city to the accompaniment of plaintive strains that accentuated anxiety and triggered panic. Puthiya Thalaimurai disappointed covering only its studio’s vicinity before literally going under water. Thanthi TV did not cover itself in glory by interviewing, if you will excuse a tautology, a fake astrologer who claimed to have predicted this disaster weeks earlier; and as if in anger that his words had not been taken seriously, prophesied a more calamitous downpour in the coming weeks. If one watched Jaya TV one would have thought that the city’s problem was the overflow of honey and milk, all the product of Amma’s kindness. So when water entered its studios it must have been a godsend!

Some TV channels played dirty by not focussing on the 18 deaths at MIOT hospital’s ICU as power failed on the night of 1 December. Instead they gave substantial air time to the self- serving claims of Apollo Hospitals of having provided medical care without a hitch during the rains. A dream marriage between corporate media and corporate medicare. I wonder what would be the rainy-day equivalent of making hay when the sun shines.

The venerable Tamil weekly Kalki’s office and press were submerged. In a record for The Hindu, the daily newspaper suspended its publication for a day—the first ever time in its 137-year-old-history, taking a well-advised decision not to endanger the lives of its distributors and delivery boys.

Many who put up with the privations of the rain days and bravely organised relief work broke down after hearing tragic tales. On 1 December, 88-year-old writer Vikraman died. Tamil Brahmins cremate their dead in a day. As West Mambalam was a cascade of water there were no graveyards to bury and no crematoria to burn with either electricity or logs. Nor were there freezer boxes to keep the body. The veteran writer rotted for four days. UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara may come to mind.

Stories of the death of small children, a loving middle-aged couple in a deathly embrace, the washing away of bodies to the Trincomalee beaches of Sri Lanka—it’d take a heart of stone not to be moved by such tragedies.

The plight of the living may be no better now. As his entire home is submerged, the librarian and bibliophile Rengaiah Murugan lost every book in his treasured book collection (thankfully the Roja Muthiah Research Library collections are safe). Tens of thousands have lost their TVs, refrigerators, blenders, grinders and cots. The consumer durables industry can look forward to a killing in the coming months like the airline companies that charged astronomic fares from and to Bengaluru, the nearest airport.

Home and hearth are comfort zones. The invasion of the watery monster by stealth is a nightmare that can unsettle the most stoic people. It’s as though the ground beneath the feet is shaken. Hopefully psychiatrists and mental health professionals will circulate information on the symptoms and treatment.

The remarkable way in which volunteers have come together in this moment of unprecedented crisis to provide relief work has been noted. This 375-year-old city is new to disasters. The siege of Chennai by the French during 1758–59 is barely remembered even by historians. An half-an-hour bombardment of the harbour by the German light cruiser Emden was Chennai’s only experience of World War I. The city was evacuated in 1942 for Japanese bombers that barely materialised. The tsunami of 2004 was a coastal affair. It’s indeed extraordinary that people have come together to face what is a crisis of proportions matching Hollywood disaster movies.

The failure is of the political class. The two Dravidian parties— the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—have demonstrated their failure by distancing themselves from the grassroots. In earlier times, both parties had strong roots at the local level which stood in good stead in times of crisis. It’s no longer so. My local councillor had a broken down TVS 50 moped at the beginning of his tenure. He now owns a couple of Qualis and Scorpios, and it’s unfair to expect him to continue to live in the resettlement colony.

The AIADMK has failed doubly—both as a political party and as the one in government. Rather than help in relief work and aid the state administration, partymen in numerous instances have hijacked relief material and insisted on putting up stickers with Amma’s images on them. An internet joke doing the rounds is that the Tamil Nadu government is well prepared for the floods: it is well stocked with stickers that bear Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s picture.

When the state loses its credibility, rumour mongers have a field day. A graver natural disaster could not have been imagined. But no command structure was visible. The National Disaster Resource Force was kept waiting for six hours without intelligence and instructions. The politicians and bureaucrats who were on the ground prefaced every one of their statements with the words, ‘According to the instructions of Amma/ Hon’ble Chief Minister...’

Shockingly enough, Jayalalithaa did not address the people. Even Rajiv Gandhi made his infamous statement of a falling tree and the shaking ground three days after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. If during the last round of rains she only visited her own RK Nagar constituency, this time around it was an aerial survey. In the face of mounting criticism of the paralysis of the state administration, a hurriedly convened press conference was called but ended swiftly as the chief secretary kept to the script and refused to take questions. The most worshipful mayor of Chennai has been invisible for the last month. The Collector of Salem went viral with the comment that the skies rained according to Amma’s orders. Perhaps the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, should include King Canute’s story in its curriculum.

The floods have come in a long line of governance failures over the last year-and-a-half. Jayalalithaa rode the crest of popularity, winning singlehandedly 37 of the 39 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But it has been a downswing since then. In June 2014, an eleven-storey building under construction in Moulivakkam collapsed. To this day no one has been brought to book. When unlawful elements threatened the writer Perumal Murugan, the district administration sided with the mob rather than stand by the writer’s constitutional rights; ultimately he gave up writing. The state administration was paralysed during the weeks that Jayalalithaa was in prison last year. Earlier this year a senior engineer of the agricultural department took himself allegedly unable to bear the pressures of a corrupt minister. Some months ago, the state was overwhelmed by agitations against the liquor policy of the government. But the government remained unmoved. The only response was to file scores of criminal defamation cases against the media—something that has come in for criticism from even the Supreme Court. Last month a roadside singer was charged with sedition for singing songs against the ubiquitous TASMAC taverns.

Elections are round the corner. With the principal opposition party, the scandal-ridden DMK, still discredited among the electorate and the other parties a sack of potatoes, Jayalalithaa would have hoped for another sweep. But below the flood waters of Chennai runs an undercurrent of seething anger.