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Chennai's story needs to be heard

Last updated on: December 03, 2015 16:39 IST

No one imagined that this could happen to Chennai. We were just a happy little town content with our Kollywood and Coffee, but humanity has won over once again, says Pavithra Selvam.

The rains have finally stopped. Relief work is ongoing and Chennai is collectively pooling in its resources to keep its head above the water. Today Chennai-ites are wading through sewage water and broken roads to reach out to strangers in the hope that someone else would do the same to their loved ones. In a matter of few weeks we've literally seen our city crumble and drown in front of our eyes. Tamil Sangam literature is rife with references of floods washing away the mythical lands of 'Kumari Kaandam' -- it somehow feels like history is repeating itself. 

I write this not as a victim, but as a witness to a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude. I write this to tell our story. I write this so that our voices can be heard. I write this from a position of privilege that I feel guilty for possessing -- but I write anyway because I can and I must. We need all the help that we can get and to get that we need our story to be heard. 

I live near the Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar temple, the oldest part of Chennai. It is among the very few areas in Chennai to not have water-logging. I have electricity, internet and patchy phone connectivity. My dad hasn't come home from office in two days. My husband, his parents and his mentally ill grandmother have been stranded in their second floor flat for the last four days. They have neither electricity nor telephone connectivity. They are strictly rationing their food supplies to last at least a few more days.

They are not alone. They are trapped with along with hundreds of other people inside their buildings and streets. 

Both my husband's family and my father aren't seeking to be rescued. The water levels are four feet deep. Ground and first floor residents have moved to their neighbours' homes in the second floor. They share their food and space and offer support to each other. They don't seek to be rescued because the situation isn't as bad as it is in other places. This is the story of millions of others who are stranded but aren't seeking to be rescued. 

The rescue operations that you hear of in the news are only emergencies. These rescue squads rescue people from places where water is neck-deep and belongings and homes have already been fully submerged. Rescuing people like my dad or husband would be a drain on Chennai's resources right now. They are safe in their second floor spaces. 

On Tuesday night, civilian rescuers started independent rescue operations by crowd-sourcing catamarans, life rafts, motorboats and SUVs. We knew people would die if we waited for the government or army to respond -- even if they really wanted to respond, there was not much they could actually do -- the city was very quickly sinking. Chennai had to take things into its own hands. The hashtags #chennairainshelp backed by Twitter India's support started to trend. Since most people didn't have electricity or internet, it was all word-of-mouth -- there was no time to verify information.

Actor Siddharth and RJ Balaji went out on the streets with a group of volunteers rescuing people as they heard about it. Rescue operations continued all night. People started opening up their homes and offering shelter. Random strangers on Twitter recharged mobile phones of strangers just by hearsay. A crowdsourced resource sheet was born -- www.chennairains.org. It is still being updated by volunteers who've hardly slept in 48 hours. Digital volunteers who had electricity and internet tweeted and posted information for people who were on their way home or stranded. Yesterday Sam Paul, Chennai's Toni & Guy guy, and Shihan Hussain, Chennai's favourite karate master, along with hundreds of other volunteers were out on the submerged streets until late in the night conducting search-and-rescue missions, putting their own lives at risk.

Many people were rescued, but so many more weren't.

Was Tamil Nadu ready for this? Absolutely not.

Did help arrive quick enough? No it didn't.

While the politics of this incident is an important issue that needs addressing, this is the wrong time to do it. The lack of coverage and appalling apathy from the so-called national news channels is disgraceful. Yesterday Rajdeep Sardesai made a video (external link) about the lack of coverage of the Chennai floods by the national news channels. ‘It takes a 180 people dead in Tamil Nadu for us to wake up,’ he said. I made a casual post on Facebook expressing my displeasure at an NDTV headline that alluded to the Chennai floods as a man-made disaster. The post (external link) went viral and received almost 500 likes and 225 shares in a matter of hours. Chennaiites and south-Indians in general are angry with the poor quality of coverage attributed to our region, especially during a national disaster. 

There is a lot of talk about poor town planning, marshland encroachment and land reclamation. Let's not make this politics -- this is not the time to play this game. We need solutions right now and quick. We have a situation of dire crises unfolding in Chennai. We have hundreds of thousands of climate refugees taking shelter in schools, malls, theatres, marriage halls and religious establishments. There are tens of thousands more who need to be rescued. These people need food, clothes, sanitation facilities and medicines. There is flooding all over the city -- the water isn't just rain water, it is rain water mixed with sewage. We are at the brink of a disease breakout. 

No one imagined that this could happen to Chennai. We were just a happy little town content with our Kollywood and Coffee.

But humanity has won over once again. Caste, creed, religion and social background have become immaterial. Who said we are an intolerant society? Look at Chennai, the collective good is the only thing that matters here on our streets.

Aid is pouring in from our neighbouring states. Strangers from Bangalore are making dangerous road trips with much needed supplies to be on the ground. This is who we are -- we stand united in all our diversity -- we are Indians. Our governments may fail us but we lift each other up and help each other as our brethren. Yes, we are a disaster zone. But we are going to get back on our feet and wade through the deluge. 

Chennai will emerge stronger and wiser, no doubt. But the more important thing for the people reading this is to take charge and tell your governments to clean up their game -- because it could be your city next.

Image: People wait for relief material and food packets at the roof of a building in flood-hit Chennai on Thursday. Photograph: PTI Photo.

Pavithra Selvam is a communications specialist born and raised in Chennai. Though she often lives in foreign lands, Chennai is her true love.

Pavithra Selvam