For the residents of some of the worst affected areas in Chennai, the memories of the heavy showers and subsequent flooding on 1st and 2ndDecember will be hard to erase. The rescue efforts by various agencies and volunteers may have saved their lives but the fear of going back to the same houses worries many of them. Sri Gopalkrishna, a resident of Velachery, recalls with horror the sight of the rising waters of the Adyar river which overflowed into their neighbourhood and then soon entered their ground floor house.
Gopalakrishna’s home is a two bedroom-kitchen house that he built with a lot of enthusiasm and financial assistance, but having survived the Chennai floods, he is already in two minds about shifting his family of four back there as water levels come down. “My little son is petrified at the thought, a little bit of drizzle and she screams loudly,” he says.“The rescue by the army boat was the biggest help but the trauma is still there. I want to sell the house in Velachery and shift somewhere else to safer areas.” But what he has planned may be difficult to achieve as the residential colony where he bought this house doesn’t have many takers.
What were the urban planners thinking?
The reason is simple, most of what is Velachery was part of the Pallikarnai marshlands till two decades back. The rapid growth of the city and demand for housing in South Chennai following the development of the IT corridor in the neighbourhood saw greedy real estate mafia creep in. Political patronage to illegal constructions saw a price boom. Today the big question on everyone’s mind is whether giving the go-ahead was the right move on part of the town planners.
Rain fury apart, un-planned urban development and unwieldy growth with no hydrological plan is being cited as the main reason for the flooding crisis. “If only the urban planners had done proactive hydrological planning… Development should not have happened in many areas like Velachery, Madipakkam etc.,” says KP Subramanian, Retired Professor, Urban Engineering, Anna University.
Building an Airport on a River
Velachery apart, even the shutdown of the Anna International Airport is raising questions on how the authorities violated norms to give clearance for expansion of the runway and the airport. A portion of the runway stands on what was earlier a river.“It is serious interference with nature,” says urban planning expert and retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam. “The natural drainage systems are all gone. When the river is in spate it is bound to overflow to the runway.”
Even at the time of the construction in 2010, questions were raised on the same but the authorities claimed that a crisis of flooding would not arise. According to Airports Authority of India a hydraulic study was carried out to calculate the requirement of the future water flow and based on the report, the bank of the river was widened from 140m to 200m. The Public Works Department gave the AAI a no-objection certificate for widening the banks. This was supposed to allow sufficient space for water to flow below the bridge. The engineers had then claimed that the planning would also do away with the possibility of the flooding of the runway as it had got flooded in 2005. But in 2015 it’s a different story. One that raises questions on the validity of the study itself.
No one has an answer to the fact that officials then had claimed that, keeping the floods in mind, the height of the runway and the bridge had been kept a few metres above the 2005 flood level.
Why Water Bodies Matter
The problem is that we have built massive neighbourhoods right on these lakes and marshes like Pallikarnai, holding water back and flooding the new dwellings. Various authorities, departments and engineers gave go ahead for the rapid expansion in these areas. The cut-off date for regularization of illegal constructions in Velachery and other neighbourhoods was 1989 and was raised to 2004 in 2007, giving legal status to most encroachments over marshes and Pallikaranai swamp areas. Hence, the combined ambition of vested interests has forced a situation where lake and river-beds have become hubs of IT sector and huge residential complexes.
The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, by giving land use exemptions to the IT sector on Old Madras Road, compounded the problem. The IT sector giants have been permitted on FSI of 2.0 which was recently extended to other residential areas along the MRTS corridor. The rapid urbanization which followed saw several basic norms like those pertaining to storm water drains and sewerage links being violated by many.
The rains have sent a clear message. There is no further proof required of inefficacy than the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority’s Chennai Master Plan 2026. It’s comical to read the self-assuring claims government officials have made in the master plan document, which is meant to lay the foundation for a better Chennai.The conclusion of the macro-drainage section of the master plan reads, “Abundance of data is available on the macro drainage system. With the coordinated efforts of government agencies, involvement of stakeholders and with the application of modern technology for map-making and networking, it is earnestly hoped that flooding in the CMA will become a thing of the past.”
If one were to read the entire document, one would sense a severe failure on the part of the writers in understanding the issues that confront them today.
In the introductory chapter on the macro-drainage system, the Master Plan acknowledges: “Although several ameliorating measures have been implemented they have failed to provide total relief to Chennai citizens.”
And then, there is the omnipresent problem of corruption. In July 2014, a CMDA engineer reportedly wrote a letter about how his seniors executed a massive storm-water drain project without concrete reinforcement or cement.
What’s worse is that we have not learned from the past and are still in denial about the problem. In 1976 Chennai saw a record 450 mm of rainfall and resultant flooding. The year 2005 too saw rains pass the 250 mm water level and flooding. And yet, we have continued to build recklessly on lake and river-beds. Will this stop now?