Chennai Floods

Who ruined Chennai? We, the residents, did

Four problems residents of the southern city must collectively address.

The reading from the ground during the Chennai floods and relief measures of the past few days is straightforward: people power has far outweighed the response of the government. To anyone out doing voluntary work last week, a clear pattern was visible: the poor saved themselves; the middle class saved each other, while the rich and powerful did not need any saving.

But before we start celebrating the “spirit of Chennai” and patting ourselves on the backs for “fighting back,” it is only fair we identify what it is that we are fighting against. For that, we need to take a look at ourselves in the mirror.

To begin with, it's easy to blame all Chennai's problems on politicians. After all, successive governments have failed to give Chennai a holistic vision, with the result that we have only seen incremental improvements to the city’s infrastructure for a long time. Neither of the two main political parties has been able to able to win a second term in the Tamil Nadu assembly since 1991, as a consequence of which the city has suffered an uneven vision and choppy execution of ideas.

A training ground

The manner in which the political leadership has viewed the Chennai Corporation council has dramatically changed over the past two decades.  The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam  treated the post of Chennai mayor as a training opportunity for the party’s heir apparent MK Stalin, who was elected to the post and served from 1996- 2001. For its part, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam  government that followed did away with direct elections to the post.

This meant a complete discontinuity of projects, with successive governments more intent on overturning the policies of the previous government than on working together on a long-term vision for city infrastructure.

But as the city struggles to get back on its feet, here is a shortlist of four problems Chennai residents need to address collectively.

 1.  We rant in private, but don’t express dissent in public. We scare easily. That attitude took its toll in real lives last week.

Take Pallikaranai, which was among the worst affected areas during the flooding of the past week. This wasn’t unexpected, given that the government had permitted builders to destroy the marshland that served as a buffer against the water. The problem has been consistently highlighted and as consistently ignored several reports, some dating back to 2005.

Residents were browbeaten into silence. To get a sense of how dissent is addressed, look at the current AIADMK regime’s track record of filing defamation cases. Or consider the case of IAS officer Vijay Pingale, who was shunted out of his post just a few days before the disaster because he warned that Chennai was about to be flooded.

In every such instance, we pretended that we could neither see, hear nor speak – because we didn’t want to become the next target of the government’s wrath.

2. We have institutionalised sycophancy. Successive governments have vied with the previous regime to host shows aimed at deifying the leader of the moment. The stars of Tamil filmdom are happy to be part of such events, where they heap praise on the superhuman leadership qualities of our leaders.

This sycophancy coupled with the stifling of dissent, effectively shuts out any possibility of dialogue between the people and the governments, as also any attempt to identify and call out issues to be addressed.

The government does its bit to further such sycophancy through its populist schemes, where the focus is not on the effective working of the scheme as much as it is on huge posters of the senior politicians participating in it.

This is the reality of Chennai polity: we are forced to choose between megalomania on the one hand, and a family enterprise on the other.

3. We are blind to cartels – the more we are affected by them, the more we pretend they don’t exist.

Even a cub reporter who has spent less than a month covering the Chennai Corporation knows that the contracts system, especially for roads and storm water drains, is rigged. There have been many reports, in many newspapers over the years pointing to this – but again, we turned a deliberate blind eye to it.

The cartel that routinely corners a bulk of the contracts for laying the city roads is powerful. Just two weeks ago, a Joint Commissioner of Chennai Corporation was transferred just three days after he fined the city’s contractors over the poor quality of roads laid.

The other big cartel that wields considerable influence not just over government but also over the media is real estate. They not only manage to drown out demands for sustainable development, they also ensure that the only news the people ever got is benign, wrapped in gloss.

No Chennai native needs an investigative report on the major buildings that have come up where once lakes and waterways existed – it is a reality set in concrete and glass that we see with our own eyes every day. Some of the most influential corporations have added to the mess by blatantly violating the Coastal Regulation Zone within the city to set up multi-storey luxury apartments and five-star hotels.

Until three weeks ago, we were used to seeing spectacular advertisements of apartments for sale along the  IT Corridor and surrounding areas, with names like Lake View, River View, Water World  – names that piled irony on poor planning, since such places were built where once there were lakes and waterways.

 4: We live in denial. Chennai is an unevenly developed city, with far too much attention paid to the central and southern parts and little to none to the north. The media, too, focusses on the glamorous areas while largely leaving North Chennai region uncovered, with the result that the civic failings of that region remain undiscussed, and unattended.

We have world-class pavements and well cared for avenues in Poes Garden – home to the chief minister – but not everywhere else in the city. We have closed a stretch of Besant Nagar beach in South Chennai on Sunday mornings as a bit of tokenism for pedestrians and cyclists, but don’t care much about them otherwise.

In many places, the horribly designed road medians and concrete speed breakers prevent water drainage. We have allowed our tax money to get washed away even by the shortest drizzle.

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