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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.