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being flooded...a week when life in Chennai changed

Friends of Samanvaya,

Thank you for the several friends who have mailed, texted, called or tried to call during the last couple of weeks to express your concern. Thank you for several friends in Chennai who had asked us to camp with them rather generously.

This mail is to let you know that my family and myself are safe and fine. We had to first shift partly to our office and later completely away from our house as the floods inundated the house. Below is an account of the week that was, through the week at different times, I could somehow record a few observations and thoughts that was shared online in the social medium the connectivity for which worked in random manner, I have interspersed the same in between the narrative below to give an idea of what was going on.

While floods and rains were not new to Chennai, the magnitude of this flood was ‘scary’ (a word I heard several times about this city in the last week) – it rained close to 50 cms in a day, that was last Tuesday, the 1st of December - something that hasn’t happened in 100 years we are told.  I am firmly of the belief that this is part of the climate change that is happening and the unpredictability of weather will continue in the coming days unless the healing forces take over the world and even if they do, it will be quite some time before which the extremities become moderate. Just like the current times see the political ascend of the extreme in several parts of the world, the times also seem to trigger the extreme in nature, one is seeing the end of moderate times.

Dec 1st, 10.15 p.m.: Folks, just to inform we are safe and fine. Flooding is more than last week, above 3 feet, despite not much rain in the last 2 hours, water level raising inside the house. We are still upstairs, most neighbours have found secure first floor spaces with others in the vicinity... Listening to ek phankaar in vividh bhaarathi over transistor radio in candle light..

What was more difficult for many in Chennai to accept was the inaccessibility and incommunicado to which people were reduced to. For about 3 days last week and perhaps 5 in some areas, people were rendered both inaccessible and incommunicado, with electricity first and telephone connections later failing one after another in the middle of torrential rains, increasing flooding of houses and complete blocking of all approach roads. “we were in the middle of a road and there was no where to go, almost all paths led us to more flooding and we couldn’t walk back towards the house we deserted as that path too was fast increasing with floods”, said one good friend who along with her husband and two children decided to leave our neighbourhood in the middle of the worst Tuesday in Chennai, “here I was standing in the middle of nowhere with my children and I didn’t know what to do”, she said. Another colleague at SLI spent close to 14 hours in his journey on the same Tuesday in a bus – he had decided to leave for Auroville and boarded the bus in our central bus stand at Koyembedu in the morning – journey that normally would have taken him 3 hours. He didn’t make it to Auroville and had to return to Chennai late that night despite spending those hours knowing not where he would reach or by when, “it was the most scary and unforgettable experience in my life”, he later messaged when he made it home in the middle of the night.

People from far off places couldn’t reach their near ones as the mobile phone towers failed for almost all the service providers. There was no way in which anyone could know what was happening when the big floods came on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. There had been no electricity since Sunday in many parts and without television or internet, most people had no way of knowing what was happening in the outside world or even what was the weather forecast predicted. I maintain an old transistor radio with spare batteries that provided me with regular news and weather update which I could share with the neighbours. On Wednesday, the radio station was also unable to function as its phone lines were dead and the 4 RJs slept in the studio as they couldn’t go home and gave their personal numbers to receive calls and text message about people missing and people enquiring, trying to desperately connect people while there were very few ‘official’ announcements.

The government obviously was not prepared for the magnitude of flooding or for that matter what needed to be done in its aftermath. It took awhile for them to move (almost on Wednesday) and then they seemed to be wanting to do everything for everyone. Well, how it managed (or didn’t) will be debated for quite some time to come, perhaps all the way to the state elections in May next year.

By Thursday the 3rd morning, we heard that the Army has been called in.  It is on that day we decided to shift home using boat in streets where we normally walk and cycle! I called my Mother from on top of the water tank in the terrace of our house and could manage 2 sentences that morning. When we reached the main road, we found that several roads were blocked off as there was severe flooding, buses were off the roads, of the 4 railway networks that connected the city, 2 that ran on elevated rails were functioning and the longer ones that ran on the surface have been suspended due to flooding. Autorickshaw drivers, the few that were functional, demanded 1000 rupees for commuting distances in which they would normally charge 100, there were very few policemen in sight anywhere. Commuting across the city that morning from southern chennai where I live to northern suburbs where my parents live was embedded with images of this city that will stay with us for a very long time. This city was truly flooded, from the bridge on top of the Adayar river at kotturpuram, we saw only a wild flowing river in high tide where there used to be settlements on the banks earlier, in the northern boundary of vyasarpadi, we saw people swimming out of their houses that was inundated till the first floor and walk into trains with just the dress in their person. A group of IT professionals, all young girls from Andhra Pradesh and Bangaluru were trying to get back to their native place, their ‘working women’s hostel’ had been shut down suddenly for want of electricity and supplies and they were asked to leave, many had not ventured out in this city beyond their office, hostel and nearby areas, they didn’t know how to get out of the city or which train will take them closer to the border, worse, many of them didn’t have cash as the ATMs had all been affected. They had pooled their cash reserve and moved in whichever direction anyone would tell them. I saw another set of IT professional guys sharing one packet of biscuit between them. If the men and women were in shock and walking in the first day light in a 4 days looking dazed, the plight of animals was far worse, there were cows huddled in the middle of water looking completely lost, the few street dogs on the way we saw were all looking shocked as well. Later we were to find out that the small entrepreneur who supplied milk in our neighbourhood lost 4 of his milch animals to the floods.

Dec 3rd, 5.48 p.m.: This morning we shifted up to north chennai due to health status. Everyone fine now. watched the havoc as we did cross country moving from southern side all the way up north, boat-walk-auto-auto-train-train-auto! The city is in a mess and needs to be rebuild. It is worse as all communication channels broke down, no mobile phone service even if you have battery in your phone with almost all mobile towers shutting down one after another. Land line has been down for a long time now it so it seems as many life lying areas were cut off after the first rain. There was almost no way to step out and with water being let from most reservoirs, almost everywhere sewage mixing with rain water and water inundating most houses between 3 to 8 feet. Power supply having been down for days for good reasons, there was no way to keep in touch with what was going on and how long will the rain last. Our old fashioned battery ruin transistor radio came in handy yesterday both hello FM and chennai FM channels giving continuous help with information as much as they can. Some of the RJ stayed in the studio and did amazing work with failing landlines often giving their personal numbers over air to keep the information flowing. These guys deserve appreciation. Information over digital and social medium looked futile under the circumstances, much communication needed was reassurance to people elsewhere. 

Some of the scenes when we trekked today were heart wrenching.It is easy to blame or be emotional and in rage at this moment, but, that can wait. No one can be ready for this fury, climate change just got closer to us and its time to comprehend it fully before one can respond. But, now is time to reach out, make people safe and ensure no life is lost.

This morning I helped a stranger hoist a boat over flooded park gate that was locked so that she could go home and fetch her family, another stranger helped me hoist the next boat so that I can fetch our family out of the house safely... Strangers, not friends on FB or WhatsApp groups, discovering, helping each other, caring and sharing... Humanity manifests in its beauty amidst testing times such as these. Just now I am all in admiration and appreciation for all the amazing efforts are strangers supporting each other as we gather some strength and recover from various ailments. Nature has its ways of showing us what we are capable of. Wish we listen, observe, practice and not always wait its reminder!

Friday was the day we got to finally to have some network in the phone consistently enough for us to start to communicate to at least a few people through text, voice calls took another day. Some isolated parts of the city had power restored completely on that day as well and finally there was more sense of what had happened across the city. By then slowly but steadily help had started to trickle in, people from other cities were waking up to the magnitude of the Chennai floods and there were efforts to support the city with provisions, food and immediate needs. I also realized that day that how irresponsible our idea of using our communication medium was. The following post were from that day.

Dec 4th, 4.00 p.m.: A general request to all apprehensive people from all over the world, please avoid making long distance calls just because you can to Chennai to your seat ones. You occupy the faint bandwidth and even more faint battery in scarce situation. Best help you can do is leave the bandwidth for better local communication so that help can come faster to people. 

Also all those blessed with images and WhatsApp stop STOP crowding meagre power with your feel good photos or silly disaster selfies or even more pathetic videos from moving vehicles, it is highly irresponsible and silly to crowd phone lines in Chennai just now unless you can practically offer some help.

Please share this widely friends. Thank you

Even more annoying was the government’s efforts (as seen on television) and that of some media houses to project that ‘we are returning to normalcy’! I had seen otherwise that morning and couldn’t believe that we can brush aside most of the city still coming to terms with the magnitude of the disaster and declare that ‘things are normal’.

Dec 4th, 5.01 p.m.: Please make no mistakes, ordinary life may not return for 10 days, maybe more, and city will take 5 years to regain any sense from this... Media trying to over emphasis positive cannot brush aside the reality of this scene. I saw a report that said, "ordinary life returns", not a semblance anywhere in sight!

It was on that evening that I also checked the social media and got to know that several friends were involved in relief efforts in the city. This was heartening to know. We have always been involved with the disaster relief coordination, starting from Gujarat Earthquake to the latest Uttarakhand earthquake year before last, supporting several agencies in the field. This time due to personal reasons we couldn’t, but, I realized that there were always people who were getting into this work for the first time and hence quickly had recorded my general guidelines online. I was happy to find that this has been shared across several networks and many have written back stating that this was very useful for them in their relief work approach.

Dec 4th, 9.05 p.m.:
General rules in post disaster situation:
1. Validate information before blindly forwarding or sharing, the more desperate something sounds, the more important to validate. Simple check date /time stamp in original message
2. Don't spread obvious rumours - epidemic breakout, trapped millions, more flooding, disaster scandal theories,...
3. Identify and work with localised efforts and solutions offline and if you can be online, best to offer help to some group or network. Volunteering online time will become crucial in the coming days
4. Please direct any donations or contributions to reliable and credible agencies. There are many in TN. Don't donate just because you like a sob story. Also please discourage disaster tourism, YES it exists
5. Don't invest in materials that are required yesterday. Post disaster situation changes by the hour when situation improves. Last thing we need is mountains of biscuits and hills of milk powder. Better to stay in touch with one area field level workers and support their needs alone in a limited manner or even better support relief camps.
6. Medicine will be an important need in coming days, but it is not universal. Please don't get prescriptive and only gather and donate hygiene and purification related health materials
7. Food donation is easy, but, of it generates extra garbage due to packaging or distribution, then it creates additional problems. Have a garbage disposal plan or provide garbage bags along with food distribution
8. Hygiene will be a major issue this week, please ensure if you are involved in any relief work that you and your co-workers are protected
9. Government officials involved in relief work are all humans too, often with families themselves affected, they are really stretched just now. Treat them with compassion and don't make them target for your accumulated anger or sense of helplessness. Remember, we didn't care about people building in water bodies all these days. Sudden bouts of self righteousness on our part can't be reason to find the next available government official to vanquish and achieve instant nirvana
10. Become responsible in communication and take care to practice minimum courtesies, most important, please help everyone and anyone, there are no strangers during disaster

But of course these guidelines were for the relief workers and the other observations and thoughts remained. Couldn’t digest the fact that some of the city managers had forgotten to open the flood gates into the sea in time which could have avoided at least some level of the flooding. I could also see the rage and anger among several friends vented online on the apathy they felt in the management of the flood situation. More important I remembered again and again Joss words after the last floods, “we are all living on a water shed “ and the complete disregard to water this city has shown in the past decade of the most unplanned growth in all directions.

Dec 5th, 1.10 a.m.: One persistent thought as I watched people leave with a hand baggage deserting their homes yesterday across the city- "planning and maintenance of public infrastructure has to become a accountable and legally prosecutable activity". If city planners and those who manage it were to be made to pay for the roads that caved in at the first impact of rain by every motorist who couldn't reach her bike to safety, the storm water drain that didn't work when most needed and flooded houses by those who were affected, the sluice gates that didn't open in time resulting in massive flooding along the banks of the river by the inhabitants of these areas, the reduced water sink area of the city that caused the flooding in the first place by all those who were flooded, ... It cannot be life as usual after these floods, if things have to change, they change because people need to think beyond the immediate and obvious to the causes and demand action, I hope that when we are faced with elections in 5 months, we will remember these floods and demand accountability!

I realized that the impending state elections was a persistent thought not just in my mind, but, that of almost all political parties and the bureaucrats in the State and it showed. Worse was the ways in which it was being manifest and hindering the relief efforts.

Dec 6th, 6.30 p.m.: Priority of election spirit seems to far over shadow the priority of human life and safety just now with the politicos in TN. Sickening to read about efforts by ruling party to convert every relief effort into their possible propaganda and votes in the coming elections. Watched on t.v. two party cadres carry CM and ruling party symbol placards directing it at television cameras behind Ministers and government officials inspecting relief efforts. Maybe next ministers should wear CM face mask to express their loyalty. Other parties seem to be doing no better, I wonder how they managed to get huge printed flex banners as background when most of the city doesn't have electricity.

I hope none is denied help because an opposition party slogan is seen in their wall. We have a very good set of bureaucrats, but if decisions are centralised and hence delayed, this disaster will be far worse. 

"We see through their game clearly now", said a women from northern Chennai slum when i asked her about who has been giving them food, " it is these north Indians (marvadi boys, as she called them) who came to our rescue, they fed our entire colony for 3 days, visiting each house, not a councillor, an MLA turned up during this time of grief and helplessness ". " I used to admire this CM and government", added an auto driver, "but, I saw how their party tried to corner all relief material, now I have no illusions about them". Saw an entire Muslim colony men near her place directing traffic in severe rain, ensuring vehicular safety, working with minimal cops.

No one was prepared for this magnitude of disaster, but, a governance culture where show of loyalty overrules common sense and privileges are conferred based on perceived closeness to central power, disaster relief too will only be dictated by this culture. I hope people stop being cadres of political parties for a few weeks.

It was difficult for many people to reconcile their life to the new reality even as they were coping with the immediate issues. Several conversations across the city that day made me realize that there were far too many questions being posed in peoples’ minds. But, I also noticed that the city was almost crippled with inactivity, the only activity was relief and everyone else was waiting almost for something in the city to wake up.

Dec 6th, 8.40 p.m.: The city runs on the strength of its economic activity and enterprising citizens. While the economic activity of large scale runs in industrial zones, like most if India, chennai's economy is dominated and dependent in the informal sector. chennai's economic activity is crippled just now due to non availability of cash with ATMs still not functional and oil supply resuming today but slowly. The informal sector is also managed by people living in low lying areas and owned by people who live in middle class areas. Both have been hit heavily and their habitat regaining its old status with cleanup, repair and /orrebuild will take time, effort and support. However even more important is to provide them support for economic activity during this phase.

As the immediate relief efforts seem to come to an organised phase, it is important to start to think in these lines. We are talking of livelihood support to perhaps a million people here. This will be a huge challenge and it cannot be business as usual. It is important to start to imagine urban (if at all) sustainable livelihood opportunities that can ensure that this city heals long term. 

Rebuilding the city in itself can be an adequate employment activity. The tsunami altered the east coast road for the worse, when the fishing villages made way for the several resorts and spas. Perhaps this floods can be better utilised for a better Chennai.

On Dec 7th, I returned to my house to inspect the damage and start the cleaning process. It was good to come back and download mails of a week into the computer, it was good to sit in my old workstation and feel as though life is normal knowing that things have changed irreversibly all around, not in the way things are organized, but in the way they are perceived.

Dec 7th, 10.30 a.m.: Remembering U.R.Ananthamurthy's words (with reference to the crazy growth of IT sector in Bangalore), "Narayamurthy (the famous founder of Infosys) suffocates my idea of Bangalore", yes the new southern urban development of over a decade has made many millionaires whose millions didn't help the city as the flood plains in which they built their dreams could have... Now that there is a pause, do we rethink or do we continue day dreaming millions?

I am convinced that the way to go for us would be to start thinking of what parts of the city needs to be sustained and how. In the next days I am planning to work on the ‘sustainable urban livelihoods’ programmes for the Sustainable Livelihood Institute, at least we can make a beginning...   

I will share more in the coming days …thank you for reading this far.