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When Chennai floods forced Chief Minister MGR to shift homes

December 08, 2015 13:58 IST

For all the blame-game over the flood preparedness in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, this is not the first of its kind. Nor would it be the last, given the nature of the north-east monsoon.

There has been at least one major monsoon floods in the state in general and Chennai city through the past so many decades -- 1976 (central rule, during Emergency), 1985, 1994-95, and 2004 (tsunami) and 2005 (the Mount Road boat-ride).

However, that there has been no institutional memory for the past, near or far, not only among the state’s permanent bureaucracy or even the so-called independent media, to recall, report and alert the government and the people alike, should speak volumes, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Independent of the issues and concerns over blame-fixing for the current flood damage across Tamil Nadu, starting with the state capital of Chennai, and also the uncoordinated relief work launched by individuals and institutions alongside the governments in the State and at the Centre, it’s time the authorities gave some serious thought to the medium- and long-term restoration of lives, jobs and industries, not necessarily in that order.

It is thus that the state government and the Centre together should consider a reconstruction programme, the kind of which TN polity in particular and successive administrations in Delhi have been demanding for the ‘war-victims’ in neighbouring Sri Lanka, for instance. Leaving aside the politics, loss of lives and the deep hurt and wound involved, the physical damage measures up -- with a certain psychological damage accompanying the same.

Given that massive investments /expenditure are required, and given that the state is facing fresh assembly polls in May, there is a need for de-politicising the reconstruction efforts, and also to provide adequate mechanism and human resources, over a period, without calling them away for poll duties in the coming weeks and months, and other administrative duties that are aplenty on the table of any official at any level, all the time.

The acknowledged fact is that no government(s) can mobilise the kind of funds that relief work of this magnitude demands.

It has to be equally acknowledged that despite their immediate attempts to reach out to the suffering people, institutional funding of the non-governmental kind could be expected to wither away soon enough. It’s in the natural turn of events.

In Tamil Nadu’s case, the credibility of the politico-administrative apparatus, now or even earlier, has been on the wane.

It’s not only about physical infrastructure. Tamil Nadu’s social infrastructure too has suffered near-irreparable damage.

If the trend is not reversed, then it could push back Tamil Nadu in terms of state GDP, industrialisation, human development index, and employability of its youth -- who have been on the top side of the chart for years and decades now.

The Centre and the state government could start with assessing not only the damage but also the all-round requirements. Then, not stopping with specific projects for which alone funds would be accepted and diverted, they could as well identify areas where corporates and NGOs could do good work.

Unlike in the case of post-tsunami relief work, this time round the authorities at all levels could set up single-window system for project clearance and also for periodic clearances. Political and official corruption at every stage has to be frowned upon. As the current situation has shown, people are just frustrated with it all -- and may not encourage it any more.

Recent central laws have mandated corporate social responsibility targets for the public and private sector alike. Some may even want to go beyond their revenue-based targets.

The proposed officials’ committee could interact with trade and industry bodies, and have coordinated groups to identify and implement individual projects.

If some corporates want to use up their CSR funds or other funding only on their employees who have been affected, they should be encouraged to do so. After all, the current floods have cut across class lines and bridged the urban-rural and elite-non elite divide so very cruelly.

Funding will be available from international institutions like the Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Lately, they have been behaving like ‘money-lenders’ who do not assess projects necessarily for viability and social indicators, but mostly politically.

Where there are conditionalities, only the economic concerns are addressed, they have been looking more at extraneous issues like democracy and human rights -- and not at corruption index and the like.

If any state government has any problem falling in line on the corruption issue, the Centre could accept international funding for flood relief projects that it might have to take up from its budget -- on railways, national highways and the like.

The Centre also has the tool of standing ‘sovereign guarantee’ to international credit taken by state governments -- it’s a tool that has not often been used in recent decades, mainly owing to ‘coalition politics’.

The present government at the Centre is free of such pressures for most part, and could consider setting right the aberration from which even its predecessor BJP-NDA government of A B Vajpayee was not an exception.

As part of the ‘sovereign guarantee’ requirement and other clearances that state-level projects would require, the Centre should re-visit the land laws and violations of construction laws in Tamil Nadu to begin with -- as a pilot project -- and extend it to other states under similar situations, all-round.

If nothing else, the Centre should not take a back seat if the courts were to intervene on issues and cases of the kind, particularly in the current context of flood relief work and past failures, in the case of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in particular.

Together, the Centre and state government could also encourage nationalised banks and other funding institutions to grant additional credit to the affected population. Where guarantees are not possible in the form of property, the governments should consider more imaginative alternatives.

Maybe joint ventures with foreign investors, particularly international financial institutions, should be considered for razing down badly-affected/damaged housing and other facilities in the flood plains and for raising new housing elsewhere.

It’s sad that in the state of Indra Nooyi and Sundar Pichai’s origins, the possible collapse of social infrastructure looks near-real just now.

That being the case, the authorities in their hurry to make things work overlook the real problems faced by the grassroots-level workforce in the agriculture and industry sector, and look elsewhere for quick-fix solutions.

Many a trade and business has been destroyed beyond repair. Their men are going to lose jobs. Many a small-scale unit of every kind would also have to close down. Big businesses with insurance cover and deep pockets even otherwise would come around.

The temptation for them in particular could be to look elsewhere for ancillaries and supplies -- particularly in terms of ancillary SMEs which many of them already bring with them as a package.

The irony of the current situation is that daily wage-earners and small-time job-makers in the urban centres, particularly Chennai, are migrating to their native villages, both inside the state and elsewhere in the country.

The landless farm labour and marginal farmers in the villages would be moving towards the city as their crops have been destroyed, and the temptation too for the governments just now is to address the concerns of the urban poor and other people in the cities.

As the unexpected and hence unplanned capital of the British Raj first and thankfully reduced to that of Madras Presidency later on, Chennai saw its size and population grow, first with the unprecedented drought in the second decade of the previous century.

Consequent to both, better education and a greater desire and dependence on white-collar and other fixed-income jobs, what with the Presidency’s major port too located in the city, the population has grown larger than the physical infrastructure growth could cope with, since.

Even governmental intervention, post-Independence has not matched the ever-increasing demand, more so after the post-reforms IT boom.

Taking big industries to district-towns such as Coimbatore and Tiruppur, Madurai and Tiruchi, Mettur and Tuticorin during the ‘socialist era’ helped, but the post-reforms IT era has seen only a reversal of this trend.

To the point, the state government’s creation of tier-II cities for IT industry, given that TN under a predecessor central government had been wired across, did not help.

Easy access to international airports, be inside the state or located in neighbouring state capitals, has not been incentive enough either, or so it seems.

The duplication of healthcare and education levels available in the city to the district-towns helped only as much. Education and healthcare went to those districts, but employment remained in urban centres, more so in Chennai.

It did not help convert the IT-based units into a ‘cottage industry’ in the same way the transistor made Japan into one in a bygone era.

Now, with the floods providing a new opportunity and impetus, the governments could re-visit such schemes, to try and decongest Chennai -- again as a pilot project to be adopted in other metropolises in the country.

For all the blame-game over the flood preparedness in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, this is not the first of its kind. Nor would it be the last, given the nature of the north-east monsoon, whose predictability however has increased over the decades.

If floods in the Red Hills reservoir, miles away, had inundated the central Mylapore locality in 1942, it has done so again, now.

If the Poondi reservoir floods filled the Ramavaram garden-home of late Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, washing away memorabilia, in the mid-eighties when he was in power, he had to be evacuated to a five-star hotel in the city-centre -- again in the middle of the night.

If the largest lake of the state, Madurantakam in Kanchipuram district overlapping with Chennai at various points, threatened to breach this time, in the eighties it actually breached. Just months after the flooding, however, the lake was empty and no irrigation water was available for downstream farmers who had already lost everything in the preceding floods.

As recently as 2005, fishermen’s boats plied the arterial Mount Road, or Anna Salai, for a day or two, thanks to the unpreparedness of the authorities to meet the seasonal north-east monsoon rains and consequent floods. So were many suburban localities.

This time, unlike the last one, the days that boats, of fishermen, army, navy and NDMF, which was not around the last time round, plied through not Mount Road but much of the rest of the city -- and in many places across the state.

The AIADMK and Jayalalithaa were in power then, as now.

The Opposition DMK, which has blamed the present-day rulers, followed them to power in 2006.

Going by what they have to say now, they did not seem to have done anything much about it -- particularly in terms of the violation of environment and construction laws, or in preparing an action plan ‘blue book’ of some kind for ready-reference.

Better, or worse, still, almost every political party, established or otherwise, has had some presence, either at the Centre or in the state, or both, then as now.

That way, there has been at least one major monsoon floods in the state in general and Chennai city -- then Madras -- otherwise, through the past so many decades -- 1976 (central rule, during the Emergency), 1985, 1994-95, and 2004 (tsunami) and 2005 (the Mount Road boat-ride).

However, that there has been no institutional memory for the past, near or far, not only among the state’s permanent bureaucracy or even the so-called independent media, to recall, report and alert the government and the people alike, should speak volumes.

And thereby hangs a tale -- or, a lot of them.

Image: A man uses a board to float through a flooded street in Chennai, December 5, 2015. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

N Sathiya Moorthy
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