Chennaiites who have lived through the devastating floods of 2015 can attest to how the event and its aftermath has had a lasting impact on the city. The sudden and massive scale of the deluge saw scores dead and many lose their homes and possessions. Rebuilding from a catastrophe such as this is a long process that the residents come to grips with it over many years. Krupa Ge’s evocative book Rivers Remember: #CHENNAIRAINS and The Story of a Manmade Flood delves into the various aspects of the fateful events that led to the lathe scale flooding. The book deconstructs the fraught relationship that the city has had with its rivers and the impact that our actions have caused. leading to the current scenario.
Read more about the book here.
We spoke to Krupa on the process behind the writing of the book and the key message to be drawn from the floods.
What were the various sources that you relied on for the research on the subject?
Personal experience, historical archives – including books by well known authors, officers of the British government, and anonymous accounts, government documents from the pre-independence/colonial era, Ananda Ranga Pillai’s private diaries, traveler accounts from 18th-19th century, letters written by Florence Nightingale, etc., RTI, news reports, social audit reports by NGOs, CAG’s reports, papers on ecology/environment and Chennai, records of baptists (for Buckingham Canal), contemporary books, research of Chennai historians such as Late S. Muthiah, V. Sriram, Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, activist-writer Nityanand Jayaraman, interviews collected in person, over phone and email, etc.
How difficult was it to obtain information pertaining to the subject such as the CAG report and the response by the government?
Well, it took a while. I filed an RTI asking for the CAG’s audit report on the floods, as it wasn’t being tabled nor were its contents available anywhere. While the central audit body directed the TN Auditor General’s (AG) office to give me the report upon receiving my RTI request, I was told by the state AG that it was privileged information that can’t be shared. I appealed further, using the necessary provisions of law and pressed upon the AG the importance of this file. As the only official document on the floods, this audit report needed to be made public. On the last day of my appeal period (by when the AG’s answers were expected) the TN government tabled the CAG report. On the last day of the Assembly and so no discussion took place on the report.
Once this report was tabled, I was able to quickly (and I must commend the AG’s office for this) access all of the information I sought – the CAG report as well as the 155-page response that was filled with objections from various state entities to the CAG’s scathing report on the floods.
What did you find to be the most egregious lapse or cause behind the disaster?
I wouldn’t say any one action or one individual caused the flood. We were building up to this disaster. However, the most shocking discovery for me was that we are using a reservoir manual that was drafted in the 1980s! And the protocol to be followed in the event of flooding is outdated and shockingly remains the same even now, nearly four years after the floods. The lack of an emergency action plan for our reservoirs is a cause for serious concern. This must be addressed immediately. Strict guidelines that detail how many flood warnings must go as well as a detailed analysis of flood plains (which areas are likely to be inundated and how much) are important as well.
What do you consider to be key learnings from the flood for Chennai as well as for other cities?
Communication. Catastrophes particularly but not limited to climate have become an undeniable part of our life now. We have seen floods, droughts, tsunamis and forest fires in TN in recent times. We need an effective communication strategy that can alert citizens, inform and educate them and save precious lives.
Various key departments must talk to each other, share information, before opening a reservoir. This sounds like a basic requirement; but I found in my research that it was not happening in Chennai at the time of the floods. How can senior officers of important departments (police, electricity) not know that a reservoir is being opened? That was the case here.
Re-think urban development. Big builders and commercial establishments must be actively discouraged from building on water bodies. People too need to re-think aesthetics, in the urban space. What does a river-view, lake-view or sea-view apartment or commercial establishment, which breaks the law or bends the law to suit its commercial needs, do to our city? To its future? These are questions that we all need to answer.
What makes a city, building or home beautiful? Flood forecasting systems that will scientifically calculate the quantum of rain (based on IMD predictions) and the load it will put on reservoirs, taking away the human element as well as the moral quandary involved in letting precious water out of a reservoir that usually quenches the thirst of our parched cities.
What were the experiences or stories that moved you the most in the course of your research for the book?
The work done by Eelam refugees from OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation) — from the time of the tsunami until the floods of 2015. They continue to rehabilitate victims of the floods even to this day. Their story was incredibly moving and is a unique refugee situation in perhaps all of the world, where the refugee community is helping the local community.
The stories of the fishermen coming to rescue people across the city and beyond, despite the fact that their own kith and kin were marooned and their homes were flooded. They also had to deal with damages to their boats from navigating the flooded streets.
The story of a young man who passed away while on his way to bring his brother home.
Dr. Bala Kumari’s story and how she fought the floods and sent four pregnant women to safety from her sinking hospital (KS Hospital) in Velachery.
[Krupa Ge is a writer and editor from Madras. Her reportage and cultural writings have appeared in publications such as The Hindu, The Caravan, The Wire, Firstpost, Ladies Finger, The New Indian Express etc, over the last 11 years.]