Why Chennai - like other Indian cities - will definitely flood again
Mumbai went under water last week; Chandigarh the week before, and Agartala, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad earlier on during this southwest monsoon. The jury is out on whether the extreme rain events were caused by climate change. But there is little doubt that detrimental land-use change played a big part in turning the rains to floods. Heavy, erratic and extreme rainfall is now unavoidable. But what are we doing to protect ourselves and make our cities less flood prone?
Exactly one year ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs submitted its report on the 2015 Chennai floods. The report concluded, among other things, that “encroachment of lakes and river beds played a major role in causing massive flood in Chennai.” Noting that the lessons from Chennai floods are “an eye-opener and other cities must also learn from it,” the committee urged the state government to “check mafia involved in illegal construction for business and usurping water bodies for their real estate business.”
The Tamil Nadu government has been quick to use the floods as an excuse to evict the poor from their dwellings on the margins of Chennai’s stinking rivers. But, it has done nothing to check the “mafia.” The largest ongoing conversion of wetlands into real estate in Chennai is happening on the sprawling Ennore Creek to the north of the city.
Going by the popular meaning of mafia as an organised body of criminals, the Ennore Creek encroachers are not strictly mafia. The crime of encroaching, though, is being committed by an organised body of offenders led by state and central Public Sector Units, and facilitated by the very agencies that were set up to protect the environment.
In June 2017, Government of India-owned Kamarajar Port Ltd (KPL) sought and obtained permission from the State Coastal Zone Management Authority to construct car parking terminals, coal yards and free trade warehouse zones by reclaiming several hundred acres of the Ennore Creek. This is in addition to 1,090 acres already diverted illegally to accommodate industrial installations belonging to central PSUs Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, and a power plant and coal ash dump by NTECL, a centre-state joint venture involving NTPC Ltd and Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO).
KPL’s proposal is pending clearance with the expert appraisal committee of the Union ministry of environment. NTECL’s proposal to further expand its coal ash dump within the creek is pending with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. If cleared, the ensuing construction will not only damage the creek irretrievably but also expose 10 lakh people and critical infrastructure, including a petroleum refinery, to disastrous flooding.
Kosasthalaiyar, Chennai’s lesser known river is also its biggest. Kosasthalaiyar exits to sea through the 8,000 acre backwaters of the Ennore Creek. The river’s catchment is four times the combined drainage areas of Adyar and Cooum. Seen solely from a flood mitigation perspective, what Chennai does to the Kosasthalaiyar and the Ennore Creek will decide whether the city will survive or succumb with the next above-average rains.
In his submission to the parliamentary committee, former Union home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi sought to defend the lapses of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in the lead-up to the floods by claiming that it is not possible to prepare for a once-in-a-century disaster. The same was echoed by the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu Ms. Jayalalithaa who declared that “swift rescue and relief alone are indicators of a good government.”
Both responses are intended to normalise a human-made disaster, and gloss over the pathology of urban development under successive administrations. The NDMA has effectively said that it will do nothing – like preventing the encroachment of wetlands by central government-owned entities -- to avert a disaster. In the case of the proposed encroachments by KPL in Ennore Creek, the governments of Tamil Nadu and India have been briefed of the risks and the illegalities.
The chief secretary, the State Disaster Management Authority, the environment secretary have all been approached to direct KPL to build its facilities on dry land instead of the river. None has acted. Worse, the Environment Secretary to the Government of Tamil Nadu actually recommended KPL’s proposal to build inside the Ennore wetlands for clearance. Faced with a dilemma of whether to reduce flood risks for a million people or protect the commercial interests of KPL, the state government has stated its preference clearly.
When the Kosasthalaiyar floods – and flood it will thanks to the encroachments -- and the lives of Chennai residents are imperilled, it should be remembered that those in power at the Centre and the state could have, but did nothing to avert certain disaster. Like the 2015 floods, the next Chennai floods too will be man-made.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist
The views expressed are personal