In mid-August, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs submitted a trite and shallow report on the December 2015 Chennai floods. Rejecting the Union home secretary's assertion that “there can be no preparation for a disaster that occurs once in 100 years”, the committee found “illegal encroachment” and faulty town planning to be the major causes of the Chennai floods, and recommends the use of “advanced technology to fight it out.”

The committee's report stayed within established comfort zones to view urban floods merely as an engineering and technical problem, requiring engineering and technical interventions. It fails to interrogate the role of non-engineering concepts, such as growth, in increasing the vulnerability of human settlements. It is not as if urban growth is a force of nature; it is a result of economic policies that prioritise the urban over the rural. Can a city like Chennai really be expected to grow eternally without compromising its resilience to cyclones, rains, heat waves and water scarcity? Can growth not be questioned? What if our urban predicament has more to do with notions of value and worthlessness than it does with the integrity of calculations involving rain run-off coefficients, rainfall intensities or the design of stormwater drains?

When meaning changes

The Tamil land classification poromboke has survived since the medieval times. Up until the East India Company arrived in Chennai, the word referred to shared-use areas like groves, waterbodies and their margins, the sea and the seaside, grazing lands, burial grounds and burning ghats, sites for houses in villages, hills, grasslands and village forests. These lands and waters were outside (porom) the revenue register (pokku).

Poromboke areas were not a free-for-all like European commons. Their usage was restricted to certain communities for certain uses at certain times. Fishers, potters, carpenters, toddy tappers, bleachers, palm-frond weavers, cane and bamboo workers, and salt farmers relied on their access to healthy poromboke areas for sustenance and surplus. The oppressive caste system left its mark on the poromboke too. But these were the only areas where even the historically oppressed had clear inalienable rights.

The first connotations of worthlessness were perhaps appended to the poromboke in the early days of property-making by the British East India Company and later by the British crown. In the eyes of the colonial government, poromboke areas yielded no revenue, were outside the property market and hence of lower worth. Today, Poromboke has degraded to mean wasteland although in revenue parlance the latter is an altogether different category called tharisu. In colloquial Tamil usage too, poromboke has become a pejorative referring to places or people that are worthless.

The devil is always in the connotation. Consider the phrase “illegal encroachment” used by the parliamentary committee. Implicit in this fraught phrase is the acknowledgement of legal encroachments, and the normalisation of a notion that what is legal will magically be exempted from causing damage or being damaged by floodwaters. Where the human law is preoccupied with license, nature's law is concerned only with the location.

The word encroachment conjures up images of disorderly hovels constructed by the marginalised on the margins of roads, rivers, canals, lakes and the sea. It never brings up images of glass and steel IT buildings, a world-class airport, a mega port or a railway bridge.

Worth and worthlessness

If the colonial government hinted at certain geographies as areas of low worth, the neoliberal Indian state has extended this notion of worthlessness to encompass entire peoples. The exercise of disaster-proofing a city never engages with the question of how or why the urban poor gravitate towards poromboke areas, why the de-valued people are left to fend for themselves in de-valued spaces.

The vision for the city or nation is not a consensus, but one that is driven by a specific set of interests. Slogans like “world-class city” or “make in India” come with specific ascriptions of value and worthlessness to places and people; they contain plans to re-order the landscape accordingly.

As a baseline, poromboke areas are seen as valueless in such visions, which then set out plans to inject new worth into these areas by converting them to other productive uses – elevated rail over Buckingham Canal's kalvai poromboke, the Elcot Special Economic Zone in Pallikaranai marshland's kazhuveli (floodplain) poromboke, housing and commercial layouts in the Velachery's erstwhile meikal (grazing) poromboke or Adambakkam lake's eri poromboke, or the Chennai airport's extended runway over Adyar's river poromboke.

Chennai's floods are not a result of unplanned development. The city's hydraulic infrastructure has been and is being systematically dismantled. Chennai's second masterplan proposes to double the area under residential land use and increase industrial land-use from 6,563 hectares to 10,690 hectares by 2026. To accommodate this, area under agriculture will be reduced by 42%, and areas under forests, hills and waterbodies will shrink to half the existing 56,000 hectares.

How to avert disaster

An increase in built-up area will increase rain run-off and flooding risks. To compensate this increased run-off, drainage capacities will need to be augmented. But Chennai's masterplan aims to do exactly the reverse, by building on existing drainage systems.

Of the 3,416 hectares allocated to “Special and Hazardous Industries” in the Chennai Metropolitan Area outside Chennai, a little less than 1,000 hectares falls in North Chennai's Ennore region. More than 809 acres of this is wetland – identified as salt pans, fish ponds and creek. The mini-Navaratna Kamarajar Port's financial viability and the success of the celebrated Sagarmala project hinge on creating land where water currently flows. In this decision, the port is seen to yield higher value than the ecosystem dividends of a healthy river. Unmaking the river to Make in India will come with the certain collateral damage of floods in the densely-populated North Chennai region.

Once set in motion, the consequences of such an action cannot be managed by engineering interventions. What is required is a reorientation of our cultural values to avert disaster – the canal, river, mangroves, sand dunes, grasslands and forests need to be valued more than ports, power plants, mines and highways. For North Chennai to be safe, the health of the Ennore creek has to be restored. No further encroachment into the creek's waterspread area should be allowed, even if that means one missing link in the Sagarmala.

The word poromboke and the associated geographies have to be reclaimed and re-infused with the value that it was once associated with. This is not a task only for engineers, but for social scientists, poets, artists, artisans, visionary politicians and cultural activists.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.