It was a quiet, damp Tuesday morning in Chennai. Cyclone Vardah blew through Chennai on Monday, leaving behind it a trail of destruction, including 10 dead and massive damage to property. By the next morning, the calm after the storm had settled over the city. Residents of Thoraipakkam in Chennai slowly began to trickle out of their houses to examine the damage the storm had caused last night.
“In all my 50 years in Chennai, I have seen nothing like this storm,” said P Raman, a tea shop owner in South Chennai. “It really shook us by the roots.”
Cyclone Vardah had made a landfall near Pulicat in North Chennai, with the storm reaching wind speeds of up to 110-120 kmph. Although warnings of a very severe cyclone had been signalled across the city, the residents of Chennai were still shocked at the sheer intensity of the storm.
By Tuesday morning, however, they were facing another problem: Being powerless.
Authorities had suspended electricity through much of the city on Monday, as a precautionary measure. The following morning, as the city started to come back online, it became clear that much of it would continue to have a black out.
The winds had uprooted or toppled thousands of trees across the city, many of which fell on power lines and caused outages in neighbourhoods. As many as 200 transformers were believed to have been damaged in the storm. Communication signals were also erratic.
At 8 am on Tuesday, C Vageshwaran was standing outside his villa in Thoraipakkam, looking at five trees fallen across the road blocking the pathway of cars and vehicles. “We cannot lift these trees ourselves, and the municipal corporation will probably not help us right away,” he said. “We will have to now employ 6-7 men to lift these trees off the road.”
But Vageshwaran said that there was an additional problem of paying the labourers. “We will have to give them a Rs 2000 note and ask them to split it between them.”
The government’s currency replacement exercise, withdrawing older Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes and creating a massive cash crunch in the process, added to the worries in the aftermath of the massive storm.
“We were not able to access any ATMs whole of yesterday. None had cash,” said G Paramasivam, a former government servant. “We are told today is a public holiday. I have visited four ATMs in the morning. This is atrocious. I am 71 and retired. My son is in Singapore. How do they expect senior citizens to function? The supermarkets don’t open early. And all networks are down so I don’t know if cards will work. I gave Rs 400 in 100s and one Rs 2000 note. If we don’t get cash soon I am not too sure how to manage.”
ATMs were somewhat unreliable even before the cyclone rolled in, as government mints have struggled to print and distribute the new currency meant to replace older notes. The government initially sold the move as an attack on black money, but has since pivoted to claiming this is an effort to create a cashless economy, where people use digital transactions or swipe their cards for all their needs.
A disaster like Vardah, however, shows how much of a mirage that cashless hope may be, especially when there is no power or mobile connectivity.
Mayank Tiwari, an employee at an IT company in South Chennai stepped outside the Canara Bank ATM in Thoraipakkam wearing a dejected look. There was no cash being dispensed. His flatmates Shantanu Das, who was waiting outside, looked disappointed too. “It’s just a myth that these ATMs ever have cash,” said Das. “ For the past two weeks there hasn’t been cash in even one of them. But today of all days, it’s all the more difficult.”
Das and Tiwari had arrived at the city only weeks ago to join work. On Tuesday, the mess in their paying guest accommodation was shut since none of the cooks showed up after the cyclone hit the city.
“We are now looking to see if we can find maggi packets anywhere, because that’s all we know to cook,” said Das. “We have very little money in cash now. We cannot even pay for anything by card, because there is no power.”
The pain here might just be temporary, because the worst of the storm seems to have passed and the city will now have to put itself back together. But the cyclone also dredged up memories of last year’s floods, when Chennai was paralysed for days on an end without power or connectivity. A repeat of a situation like that would have been disastrous.
For now, residents of the city are trying to cope with what they hope will be short-term worries.
Visalakshi, a senior citizen, decided not to go to the bank on Monday to withdraw cash for her husband’s death anniversary ceremonies. “We need cash to organise the rituals. We don’t have any cash now. I have Rs 600,” she said. “I was supposed to go to the bank yesterday. But chose not to since there was heavy rain and wind. My daughter advised me against it. If we don’t get cash today I may either have to borrow or postpone the rituals.”
For those who don’t even have the option of digital payments, however, the future looks somewhat dire.
“We have not had any work in the last three days since it was a weekend,” said SS Venkatesan, a mason. “We surely won’t have any work today. No one has cash to pay. And after a cyclone no one will be interested in any construction work for a while. God is my only hope.”