The brave volunteers of the Chennai Trekking Club during a rescue

The brave volunteers of the Chennai Trekking Club during a rescue. Photo credit: Peter Van Geit

The monsoons are a much-awaited occurrence in India. The first rains always fall with this slow grace and rather than chilling you to the bone, the raindrops are almost balmy, temperature-wise. The slow fall of the rain, the pitter-patter of the raindrops and the heady petrichor that follows a good soaking, these are generally the memories associated with the Indian monsoon. With hot tea and fried snacks coming on the menu to help chase the chill of the rainy days, the monsoons are definitely much-loved events.

Till December 2015.

After a November when it rained pretty much non-stop, the deluge that arrived with December pretty much wiped out the city. For days, it was like a combination of Apocalypse and Hunger Games, with the citizens battling the waters and trying to save themselves and their loved ones. Regular people swung into action and became heroes, heroic rescue efforts were carried out and with almost every modern convenience such as electricity, internet, mobile phones, fresh water gone, it made for a brutal week for most. For some though, their horrors still continue.

So, what brought this mayhem down on our heads? Typically, any flooding is a natural disaster but was this a natural calamity or a man-made disaster?

  1. Urban planning – or lack thereof is cited as the primary reason for this disaster. For what is one of the top metro of a country the size of India, Chennai (and Bengaluru, to name two) boasts a woeful lack of urban planning. Unlike in the cities of the West, where the areas are zoned and laid out carefully, taking a host of factors into consideration, Indian cities are built with nary a thought to the bigger picture. Educational institutions, office buildings, parks, none of these are planned and executed; instead, they are built wherever the builder or the promotor deigns they will be.
  2. Lack of awareness – of the local topography and/ or an apathy towards it. The inherent need to get on the property rung drove the masses to just buy  a dwelling wherever their wallets allowed them to. They did not question if their dreams are being built on solid ground, former agricultural lands or flood plains. Even IT companies and SEZs weren’t exempt from this – one of the biggest on the OMR was built on the converging point of two vast lakes. Fact: if you build your home where water used to flow, you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself in water at some later point.
  3. Lack of preparedness on the part of the governing bodies. In short, disaster management was nothing short of a disaster in itself. As always, the onus was on the common man to help himself and his fellow men out of the soup.

So, now what? The waters have receded now but the havoc they wrought still remain. What lessons need to be learned from this?

  1. Awareness – of the world around us. Basic geography; an understanding of where the flood plains are and is it sane to build on a piece of land is a question that must be asked, along with the cost of a square foot.
  2. Preparedness – now that we know what’s the worst that could happen, we need to be better prepared to face it. Understand that water sees no difference – if you are in its way, it is going to wash over you. It is in your best interests to ensure you are not.
  3. Mindfulness – think of the bigger picture. All the talks about sustainability and conservation need to be put into use now. Remember: garbage in, garbage out. Rainwater harvesting, indoor composting, urban gardening, harnessing solar energy, these are all what we must adopt and start putting into use right away. Next time we might not be so lucky.
  4. Humility – Nature is far bigger than all of us. We need to treat it with respect as running roughshod over it is what has brought us to this state.