The unsparing filmmaker K. Balachander, directed Thanneer Thanneer (Water, Water) in the year 1981. The director wrote the screenplay himself, adapting it from Komal Swaminathan’s story. The plot revolved around the drought that plagues a little village and on how the villagers try to find solutions, only to be confronted by exploitative politicians. Over the last two decades this film has kept coming back to me, time and time again. Chennai’s geographical position has made water scarcity a rock-hard fact of its life. But the acuteness of the problem is not as much due to the lack of rain as to the lack of respect for living spaces, natural heritage and waterways. This has turned a city of water tanks into a city of water tankers. Private water companies draw water from bore wells on the outskirts of Chennai to supply private homes, apartments, “star” hotels and private hospitals, while the poor jerk water up from hand-pumps along traffic-snarled streets or jostle for one bucket of water from Chennai corporation water tankers that pass by in the wee hours of the morning. This is Chennai’s relationship with thanneer, a potpourri of political opportunism, upper-middle class apathy and the slum dwellers’ fate.

That this Chennai could all of a sudden be submerged is something I am still coming to terms with. Until last fortnight the phrase “Adyar River in spate” would have been an oxymoron.  That changed between December 1 and December 3, when all of a sudden, water was literally everywhere. The Adyar’s banks were breached and the over-flowing waters poured into the large, deep puddles of rainwater and sewage, transforming Chennai into a maze of waterways. Water did what she knows best. She sought the fastest way to move, gushing down slopes, leaking into homes, picking up all that we had thrown on the streets as trash. Water settled only when she tired of her own velocity and pressure. By the time this happened, hundreds of people and animals had been killed and injured. Some just about held on to their lives, praying for help. The city was broken and a sense of apocalypse pervaded its every nook and corner.

This was an unusual tragedy, one that did not spare, the poor, rich, the Hindu, Muslim or Christian, the Dalit or the Brahmin. Everybody was a victim or knew someone who had faced real danger. Upper-class Chennai-vaasis had never faced anything like this. When the tsunami struck Tamil Nadu’s coast on December 26, 2004, and relief efforts were ongoing, most of us, the privileged, went on with our lives, treating it as just an aberration. Chennai’s beachline had been mauled but the city as such had been spared. We did express our sympathies, donate old clothes, perhaps observed a minute’s silence for the dead and of course discussed the nature of tsunamis. That was about all. Our contribution towards relief ended once we wrote out a cheque.

Dangerously close to home

But this was completely different. All of Chennai was in water, filthy water, swirling torrents of it. For the first time in recent memory, most of the middle and upper middle class came face-to-face with the real possibility of personal loss and death. Last week, our houses had over five feet of water, cars were drowned, people were marooned and there was loss of life. We were actually put in a position where we had lost power over ourselves, our lives. And when therefore on December 2, we were woken up from our societal slumber, we were in shock.  And then, inevitably, we went on an over-drive.

Empowered by Facebook and Twitter, numerous young and middle-aged people got involved in relief work. Food began being cooked at different centres, relief material was directed to various parts of the city and requisitions were placed on social media. A sense of mortality and fear had forced us into action. For the poor who face deprivation and death on a daily basis this was only an extreme extension of a chronic condition of crisis. We must remind ourselves that the monsoon rains had actually arrived on the November 5, stalling the lives of the under-privileged for almost a month while most of us just waltzed round in our cars. Even the English media swung into action only when its core market, the English-speaking middle class and elite were affected.

In the rescue and relief efforts, social media was a big player. Since the telephone lines were down, many people who needed rescue called out on Twitter and help did reach them. In a situation where there was no nodal agency coordinating the relief efforts and the administration stood immobilised, social media enabled all the good work. But it did come with its own set of problems. The reach of the Internet speeds up the possibility of quick support, but it also creates a situation where there are no checks on what is happening, no one can be held responsible, creating a dangerous free for all. Many groups sent relief material to the same relief camps and localities based on one online message. Members of civil society did not bother to inform online support groups when their requirements were met. The re-tweeting of the same message also created a lot of confusion, not to forget the cruel prank messages. In some cases there was a disconnect between ground reality and online assessments. Therefore relief teams that did not have their feet on ground zero ended up wasting material. Even after the recue operations were completed, the online frenzy, accentuated by the instantaneousness of the internet led to people not knowing exactly where the relief material was going and who was receiving it. As aid from around the globe poured in, things were just dispatched left, right and centre.

Some problems

Wastage was not just the result of social media, it was also because some volunteers had never before been part of such work and were not willing to walk the last mile in sewage and sludge to make sure that help reached those who needed it the most. They took the easy way out. Vans and trucks were parked on the roadside and food, clothes, blankets, mats, candles, mosquito repellents and medicines were handed out to the people living on its rims. Those stuck in the inundated inner streets had very little coming their way. It was a case of survival of the outermost. The spontaneous spirit of the volunteers was admirable but, the problem of inexperience and their discomfort with kuppam environments did create its fair share of problems.

Volunteer groups that joined hands with established NGO’s contributed immensely. While we pat ourselves on our backs for our few days of activism, we conveniently forget, even ignore organisations such as Malarchi Trust, Arunodhaya Centre for street and working children, Right to City Group, AID India and individuals working in the social sphere who have dedicated themselves to supporting the poor and oppressed. They were the real heroes without whose guidance there would have been even more misguided relief work. While many one-time social wonders indulged in blatant, unapologetic, chest thumping, these people worked without seeking any public adulation. Fly-by-night conscience keepers did not lose any opportunity for self-promotion, posting photographs and comments that reeked of pretention. Facebook also revealed another monster ‒ the image of social responsibility. Everybody wanted to be seen as relief workers. This pressure was enormous especially among the younger generation creating situations where people were seen just hanging around relief centres.

But something quite wonderful happened as well. During those three days, all of a sudden, various social walls and hierarchies seemed to dissolve.  Hindus, hosted Muslims in their homes, Muslims cleaned temples, Dalits were helped by upper castes and people shared irrespective of class. I was told that Chennai had proved that the debate on intolerance was a creation of a handful of pseudo-seculars.

We do need to celebrate this precious moment of togetherness but that is not enough. We need to wonder why this does not last.  Whenever calamity has struck people across society’s partitions, just for a short period human beings share a profound sense of universality. We see in everyone the same fear, anxiety that we are experiencing and realise that our religious beliefs, caste affiliations or fancy homes are not safe havens. Briefly, we come in contact with humanity and we embrace every living being. There is a phrase in Sanskrit, “smashana vairagyam”, which refers to people’s philosophical ramblings on the impermanence of life and the futility of all things material when they attend a funeral. We hold on to this feeling for about a day, only to return to self-aggrandisement. This is no different. Very soon Chennai-vaasis will leave behind compassion, becoming as parochial as ever. Therefore to assume that we are a people of love and equality would be utterly wrong. Every city has come together when faced with the possibility of extinction, only to return to being separated spaces of insensitive living. Before we run back into our secure neighborhoods we should keep in mind that another leveler is waiting round the corner, water-, rodent- and mosquito-borne diseases and this time there may be nowhere to run.

Such disasters leave us with a lot to think about governance, social responsibility, political rights, empowerment, environment, corruption and development. But behind all these there are some fundamental questions. We have to reflect on our inadequacies, sense of righteousness, myopic vision of happiness, complacency and the total lack of empathy. We cannot afford to go back to our regular lives with a sense of achievement at the first-aid that has been given. Helping people is not just about speed and reach and numbers, it is as much about why and how we helped. Did we give completely aware that the receiver was only accepting what he was entitled to? The word benevolence has no room here. Can we look beyond caste, religion and class in everyday living? It is said that a person's true nature is revealed at times of great adversity, but that may not be entirely accurate. Our true nature is revealed when we are emotionally and materialistically satiated. Thanneer, thanneer is a metaphor for scarcity and as a society our ability to live with and for each other in what we ironically call peaceful times is scarce, dangerously scarce.