In November and December Southern India faced heavy rains and floods. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced from their homes. The area of Chennai was hit hard and the relief efforts are still ongoing. Below is an account from Sheelu Francis, director of Women’s Collective, The Swallows’ partner organisation based in Chennai and working throughout the state of Tamil Nadu.
NOTE ON RECENT RAINS/FLOODS IN TAMIL NADU 16/12/15
Tamilnadu, the southern most state in India has a population of around 80 million and an area of 130058 sq.Kms. It is the eleventh largest state in India. The density of population is as high as 555/ sq.kms in urban area and 400/ sq.kms in rural area. Almost all the rivers in Tamilnadu are seasonal and the only river Thamiraparai which originates from Western Ghats in south Tamilnadu has running water through out the year. Tamilnadu has 32 revenue districts and Chennai is the capital with an area of 178.2 sq.kms and the density of population is 26,903/ sq.kms , with a population of nearly 10 million.
Tamilnadu is usually depended on the monsoon for its water requirements. It gets around 332.9 mm during the south west monsoon in July – September and around 459.2 mm during the North east monsoon in October – December every year. The normal annual rainfall is 945 mm including the summer rains.
This year we had normal rainfall during the south west monsoon. The north east monsoon started very slugishly. The October rainfall was normal. It picked up during the last week of October. We had four spell of heavey rains and the last was the highest and TN got 540 mm rainfall in a single day. So far TN especially the districts of Kancheepuram, Thiruvallore, Cuddalore, Tutucorin and Chennai received very heavy rainfall upto 1400 mm during the four spells which is the highest in hundred years.
The district of Kancheepuram, thiruvallore and Chennai has as many as 6600 tanks, pond and other small water bodies. The overflow from these water sources are drained into Adayar river, Coovam river and Buckingham Canal which is finally drained into Bay of Bengal. Unfortunately the heavy encroachment along the river course affected the population very badly. All the low lying areas were inundated. 17.64 lakhs of people rescued and sheltered in 6605 relief centres. 347 people died and 3300 heads of cattle lost according to Government figures which may be a under estimate.
Now, that rains are stated to be over, an urban environmental nightmare of unprecedented scale is starring Chennai and Kanchipuram districts. And it will be very long time, before the dust settles down and people can breath easy and living will be merciful, literally.
In the aftermath of marooning of lakhs of houses, shops and commercial establishments, thousands of tonnes of rotting garbage, household assets turned rubbish and other debris are being cleared in what could be called the BIGGEST MUNICIPAL CIVIC EXERCISE in the world.
Anywhere between 40,000 to 50,000 sanitary workers from Chennai Corporation and neighbouring districts have been deployed and they are working almost round the clock and have little time or space to drink water or eat food. Even though number of volunteers and religious groups have chipped in clearing and cleaning operations, their numbers are still insufficient against the daunting task. The Chennai Corporation has asked for more volunteer groups to participate. Hundreds of conservancy workers are engaged in sprinkling bleaching powder on the streets, gutters, basements, around relief centres, public toilets on a continuous mission.
This unprecedented calamity is witnessing several self-less volunteers and citizens, blurring caste and religious identities to help one another and become noble samaritans. True secularism is on display in Chennai and other districts..
On an average, Chennai during good times used to generate 5000+ tons of rubbish which were dumped in the two illegal but official dump yards at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur. This does not include waste generated in the expanded areas of the city which are dumped in many un-official sites and lakes. Courts, Green Bench have been moved several times in the past, with the Government talking about reclamation and source segregation and scientific management of solid waste. Now, all these proclamations, plans and assurances have also been washed away into the seas. The conservative estimate of just 1.5 lakh metric tonnes of rubbish having been generated on account of the floods reported in the media is rubbish. We are left with at least few lakhs of tonnes of muck on the streets of chennai stretching from North Chennai, central Chennai, South Chennai and expanded areas beyond Thambaram, Mudichur etc and on the Old Mahabalipuram Road areas. There are so many inundated areas in the city, on the fringes and outside the city which are yet to be accessed by the municipal workers. These have to be drain and dry up first before the muck is handled.
Even though the city is clearing close to 10,000 tonnes of garbage now, compared to the 5,000 tonnes during normal times, it is still very slow and inadequate. Despite nearly 50,000 workers being deployed, the clearing of the garbage is too slow, primarily because of traffic congestion, terrible condition of roads and inadequate space at transit stations, non-maneuverability at each stage of operation, the water soaked sludgy nature of the garbage, the unbearable stink and physical exhaustion and fatigue of the municipal workers and the supervisors and breakdown of the vehicles. On account of the fatigue and their families’miserable condition, absenteeism is also high and workers are unable to turn up for work every day.
All of us including the media, the Government and people are so involved with the daunting task of clearing the muck in our streets and homes, we have not had the time or energy to take note of the several thousand tonnes of garbage and debris washed away in the flash floods into the Bay of Bengal along with all the sewage. All the muck is now spit by the waves back into the famous beaches that Chennai is known for. The stench from the beaches will be as foul as that of our streets in Chennai.
The rainy spell is almost over according to Met department. But Innumerable pockets of Chennai continue to be flooded and surrounded by dark foul waters. These are not those low lying localities which mushroomed displacing lakes. And this flooding is not due to rain water either, but from the raw sewage gushing out of hundreds of manholes onto the streets. Even in the best of times, there was no difference between storm water drains and underground sewage drains in Chennai except for the nomenclature. Now, it should be construed to be a crime to call these two apparatus by two different names.
It can be safely stated that such flooding of raw sewage will continue to make Chennai into a open drain for the next several months as parts of the underground sewage network as well as the storm water network have simply collapsed under the sheer pressure and volume of water from the rain and floods. The drains throughout Chennai are chocked at countless points with tonnes of collapsed concrete and stones, plastics, napkins and all other debris and it will be impossible to clear them with de-silting machines and super suckers or by employing sanitary workers into the drains, which of course is prohibited by law as de-humanising. In several places, the Chennai Corporation and Metrowater staff are using diesel mechanical pumps to drain the overflowing sewage by by-passing them into the storm water drains, but all these efforts will be in vain. As the damage to the city’s existing drain system is so severe and permanent, several roads have to be dug up afresh to relay the storm water drains and underground sewage lines and network them. And forget for the present about the expanded localities of Chennai which don’t have the LUXURY of such civic infrastructure yet.
As on date, after the floods, thousands of homeless people and those in inundated areas are defecating in the open. Women, elderly and physically challenged put to unimaginable hardship. Suddenly, a large number of have to wait for the sun to set and sun not to rise to relieve themselves. As the rivers,canals and lake beds are full of water, thousands of people are using the railway tracks of Chennai and outskirts for the defecation. So many people are going without food, for they find no dignity in asking for food and to search for a safe place to relieve themselves. Here again, the State and Centre has failed to bring and deploy sufficient number of modular green toilets.
Chennai has about 200+ pumping stations to pump the sewage to the treatment plants as the city is almost at sea level and there is no natural gradient unlike other cities. Many of these pumping stations would have received a terrible hit on account of flooding as well as overload on account of water pressure. These pumping stations can only handle sewage water but not rain water. Any talk of sewage treatment plant now is redundant in the background of the collapse of the entire sewage /rain water network. Even otherwise, they were catering to only a fraction of the Chennai population.
Everyone is talking about how clean the coovum and adyar rivers as well as the other canals/nallahs appear now, as the floods have washed away the stagnant open sewage of these water ways into the Bay of bengal along with the tonnes of rubbish and other toxic stuff. While, we don’t know what will be effect on the coastal eco-system on account this, one thing is for sure in the backdrop of the collapse of the sewage network in Chennai. In a matter of a month or two, the two rivers snaking across Chennai city from neighbouring districts and the 31 canals will once again turn into the obnoxious open sewage that they were always.
The migrant labourer population of Tamil Nadu, especially from North and north-eastern states of India is guestimated to be around 60 – 70 lakhs. Most of them are concentrated around districts such as Chennai, Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur, involved construction work and other unorganised industrial labour force. A large number of them will be jobless as on date. While a part of this population are rushing back to their states, the fate of the remaining migrants is a question mark, especially with regard to their jobs, housing, food and sanitation.
Now, coming to repair and relaying of roads, it’s for everyone to see. Hundreds of kilometres of roads in the city and suburbs lay in tatters. There are no platforms and walkways. Women, elderly, children and physically challenged will have to risk their lives and limbs to walk on the road margins or cross the road. It will be Hobson’s choice for the Government officials, at every stretch and at every road junction, as to whether to relay the roads first to facilitate the chocking traffic or to dig up the roads to lay entire stretches of underground drains. Till then, Chennai will continue to experience civic nightmare, that’s for sure.
The roads offer a cocktail of flying dust from the tattered roads, the obnoxious diesel suit from the battered automobiles and floating deadly microbes emanating from the drying up sewage on the roads. This is going to be the feature for the next few months, at least. Hundreds of traffic police, the street vendors, road side shop owners, auto drivers, 2-wheeler riders, conservancy workers will be in the high risk category for chest, lung and gastro-intestinal infections and allergies. they will be the first-in-line victims. People will continue to queue up before clinics and hospitals and will have to wait patiently and endlessly for hours, for sure. The life inside homes and out on the streets is going to be chaotic and danger lurking at any time.
The livelihoods lost, the homes washed away and families ruined, the soil erosion of the agri cultural fields, the hours of labour and toil ahead for the farmers to put their land to use, the tonnes of salt pans washed away and the suffering of the fishermen, the individual sufferings of the elderly, the sick and the physically challenged, the silent misery that lakhs of impoverished migrant workers holed up at several localities in Chennai and other districts, the thousands of homes needed to be built for the homeless and the unorganised working class families who are going to play, like always, the most crucial role in rebuilding the city and the neighbourhoods have to be taken care of.
The Situation in rural areas were not so bad a health hazard but, all their agricultural fields are washed away by the heavy rains. People have lost their standing crop. The top soil has been washed away and the agricultural labourers are going to be left with out employment till the next agricultural season. The farmers are going to find it difficult to start new.
Women’s Collective is involved in minimal relief work. We have raised funds from our local donors and are doing relief work. We want to do rehabilitation work in large scale. We estimate atleast 150 of our working villages are affected and we would like to do land rehabilitation work in this area. This may be a right time for us to talk about natural farming and facilitating the farmers to reclaim their land.
Women’s Collective will be thankful if people would be able to raise funds to meet the expenses of the reconstruction and rehabilitation work we intend to do. Please do contact us in the following address;
Account Name: Women’s Collective
Name of the Bank: Bank of India
Name of the Branch : Koalthur
Bank Address; 25A, Red hills road, Kolathur, Chennai – 600099
Bank Emnail Id: firstname.lastname@example.org
Account Number : 80271020000211
IFSC CODE :BKID0008027
Swift Code: BKIDINBBMOS