Failing of A City System

Incessant rains over a couple of weeks inundated one of the major cities of India-Chennai. The disaster tells the story of the ability of urban infrastructure systems in Indian cities to handle natural calamities. The situation would not have been very different in any other city in a similar situation since the state of infrastructure and modus operandi of municipal corporations are not very different. Indian cities need to mull over their priorities and augment the pace of building an efficient city system that takes into consideration natural disasters, especially in these times when the threat of climate change induced calamities is looming large


Relentless torrents in Tamil Nadu swelled rivers and waterbodies; water breached banks and flooded roads and houses. Chennai was the worst affected city during the torrential rains in South India recently. Over 300 people died and millions of people were affected. Schools and offices remained closed for weeks; trains and flights were cancelled; thousands of people had to sleep in make-shift settlements; examinations were cancelled and people had to depend on government supplied relief material for food. It seems to have become a normal sight in Indian cities after a spell of heavy rainfall.

Many cities in India have had quite an efficient drainage system built during the British period. But it was not improved upon. Over the years, with more people moving to cities, construction of buildings, industrial towns and human settlements within the cities went up but the drainage and sewage systems were not strengthened proportionately. Similar disasters have unfolded in many cities of India, like Mumbai, Srinagar, and some cities of Uttarakhand, after heavy rainfall. In all these cases, the reason found was the blatant disregard of basic norms while carrying out infrastructure development.

Chennai has witnessed similar spells of rainfall in the past too but what went wrong this time that it resulted in a disaster in the metropolitan city, is a question that needs to be answered. Urban planners, politicians, bureaucrats and climate change experts have their explanations.

According to climate experts, as reported in Business Standard, the floods resulted from heavy rainfall during the annual northeast monsoon. It affected the Coromandel Coast region of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and the union territory of Puducherry, with Tamil Nadu and the city of Chennai particularly hard-hit. This flooding is attributed to the El Niño phenomenon during the El Niño year of 2015.

Many reports in newspapers and news channels say that unrestrained construction on riverbeds, floodplains and lakebeds in Chennai resulted in the disaster. They compared the current satellite images of certain pockets of the city with the images taken a decade ago. These reports suggest that many townships, industrial hubs, and government buildings came up on the floodplains of the River Adyar, flood-prone areas near Koyambedu, the Pallikaranai marshlands, on waterbodies, wetlands and on important drainage courses and catchments. Even the Chennai International Airport is constructed on the basin of the Adyar River. The original terrain of the city had adequate catchment and wetlands areas to absorb the excess water during flood- like situations but the uncontrolled construction on the wetlands left no place for water to go and resulted in flooding of the city roads.

The problem was aggravated further because, in the course of time, the storm water drainage system of the city was not strengthened to adequately pump out the water from human settlements. During the floods, most of the storm water drains were clogged or proved insufficient.

It will take time to assess the socio- economic repercussions but there are already estimates that the cost of the damage caused by the floods is in billions. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa said, “Losses are unavoidable when there’s very heavy rain. Swift rescue and relief alone are indicators of a good government.” This cannot be a justification for the disaster brought about by rains in a city like Chennai that has seen more rainfall than this in the past. It is the responsibility of the government to properly manage the ecosystem of its cities and build a system that is capable of handling situations like this.

Former Chief Justice of Madras High Court, Markandey Katju, says in one of his articles, “Urban greed has destroyed our drainage systems. Anyone who has studied history knows that the people of the Indus Valley civilisation built cities and towns with excellent drainage and sewage systems.  Five thousand years later, have we in India moved forward or backward?” He states that in various decisions of the Supreme Court, it has been held that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Supreme Court means a life of dignity, and not just an animal life. Thus, in Chameli Singh vs. State of U.P., the Supreme Court observed: “In any organised society, the right to live as a human being is not ensured by meeting only the animal needs of men. Right to live implies the right to a decent environment, medical care, food and shelter… These are the basic human rights known to any civilized society. The civil, political, social and cultural rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Human Rights Convention and the Constitution of India cannot be exercised without these basic human rights.”

He suggests that a PIL should be filed immediately in the Madras High Court, and the court should appoint a committee consisting not only of officials but also some technical persons and some responsible citizens of Chennai and other affected cities of Tamil Nadu, empowering the committee to take suitable action to deal with the flood and waterlogging situation on a war footing. In the future one can see what the Municipal Corporation of Chennai, or for that matter other corporations in India learn from the recent floods in Tamil Nadu. It is an alarming signal for cities to address unplanned urbanisation and take corrective steps to protect urban ecosystems.

♦ Over 300 people died and more than a million people had to leave their homes.
♦ According to various estimates, the flood cost damages are in the region of Rs. 20,000 cr.
♦ All the Indian states, corporates, film stars and sports personalities came forward to help the people of Tamil Nadu in their time of crisis.
♦ Social media sites played a vital role in reaching out to the needy. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other sites helped the people in need by publishing emergency numbers, the details of relief centres, etc.
♦ Experts blame the poor sewage network, unrestrained construction on river and lake beds, and unpreparedness of the city government to handle floods as reasons for the disaster.
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