The aftermath of cyclone Vardah has not just been a test of state and central machinery in dealing with natural disasters, but has also exposed the chinks in India’s tech-driven utilities.
With the storm disrupting electrical lines, internet services and mobile telephony in Tamil Nadu districts, the breakdown added to the sufferings of thousands of people already reeling under the impact of demonetisation of high-value currency.
People in the three affected districts of Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram were left in a lurch on Tuesday with shops, hotels, restaurants and petrol pumps not accepting payments through cards or other digital means due to “network failures”.
Most of the ATMs were dysfunctional causing greater hardship to those hard pressed for cash and need of basic amenities.
Occurring at a time the country is still dealing with the demonetisation effects, the cyclone has bruised the government’s push for cashless economy.
“The act of god has completely derailed the push for cashless economy,” said Srinivasan Chitluri, a private sector employee in Mylapore, adding that the impact of natural calamities should be factored in while drawing any policy that will affect people directly.
However, Vikram S, a college student, hopes this is just a temporary setback. “Natural disaster is something that no government can anticipate.”
The cyclone hit production at North Chennai Thermal Power Station’s (NCTPS) 600MW Unit 1, said Power System Operation Corporation Ltd (POSOCO) on Tuesday. Two other units of NCTPS (one 600 MW and another 210 MW) had gone out of operation on Monday. It is still unclear when these units will resume production.
The two units of 220 MW units at Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) also stopped operations due to tripping of the power evacuation lines.
Officials said power restoration to Chennai, Kancipuram, Tiruvallur districts will take at least two days.
“There was no power at home and no milk. So we decided to go to a hotel and have brunch. However the hotel said they are not accepting card payments as the swipe machine was not working. We had to come back to have a home-cooked meal,” K Muralidharan, a public sector employee said.
“The central government must think of natural calamities when taking major decisions that have large impact on people like demonetisation. There is neither real money nor plastic money with us,” P Kumar, a private sector employee said.
The power outages also added to disrupted mobile telephony and internet services, hitting the IT and ITES sectors adversely.
Communication lines were also severely disrupted. BSNL landlines were operating at some places but its network was disrupted in many areas.
“Due to the severe cyclone at Chennai coast yesterday, one of our international undersea cables has been damaged and Internet traffic has been partially impacted. As a result, customers in some locations may be experiencing slow internet/data speeds,” an Airtel spokesperson said.
“All telecom companies are told to restore their full network as quickly as possible and its being monitored,” the State Disaster Management Agency said in a tweet.
Trail of destruction
Meanwhile, many parts of Chennai resembled a war-zone with uprooted trees, hoardings, electricity poles, snapped power and television cables. Environmentalists estimate that some 4000 trees were uprooted by the cyclone.
“The tree that fell outside my complex and smashed into the electric transformer is over 60 years old. I always thought that it would outlive all of us, but it has gone before us,” said 56-year-old Shekhar Sitaraman, a resident of Adyar.
Environmentalists like Nityanand Jayaraman expressed sadness that Chennai’s green cover was blown away and it might take many many years to replenish it.
The theosophical society and its surroundings in and around Beasant Nagar was like a forest in the morning, and even walking across was a challenge, said S Chinaswamy, a tax consultant.
“It is as if we are in the midst of a forest,” said, A Viswanath, a Chennai-based businessman.
The municipal corporation and NDRF teams along with locals helped clear roadways by using battery-operated cutters to clear fallen trees.
But a resilient Chennai, by now used to its December Date with Disaster – last year it was floods and now a cyclone – began repairing itself with help from the NDRF and SDRF teams deployed all over to clear the roads and byroads.
Municipal corporation workers too got into the act from early morning, which witnessed bright sunshine briefly and stayed cloudy for better part of the day, only to have the bright sun greeting Tamil Nadu by evening.
Rain predicted by Met office failed to materialize, providing much respite to the relief and rescue teams working all across the affected areas.
In some areas, where municipal corporation workers could not reach, the residents themselves got into the act, just like they did during the Chennai floods of last year.
By evening, many of the main roads were de-clogged and traffic began to roll by almost smoothly, barring in some areas that witnessed water logging.
Chief minister O Pannerselvam said the TNEB has deployed personnel to repair damaged power lines, saying the operation would take a couple of days.
“The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board has deployed 4,000 personnel to set right power lines damaged due to high speed winds that blew at a speed of 130 kmph when the cyclone Vardah crossed coast near Chennai Port,” Panneerselvam said in a statement.
Vardah weakened on Tuesday but could cause rain over northern interior parts of Tamil Nadu and adjoining areas of south interior Karnataka and North Kerala, the meteorological department said.
Home minister Rajnath Singh reviewed the relief operations on Tuesday with senior officials from disaster management agencies and ministry of home affairs.
(With inputs from agencies)