Chennai Floods: In Retrospect

“[The floods] submerged our house. With no belongings we were literally on the road.”

-Venkatesh Bethi, Chennai resident

“[My] bathrooms [are] submerged. Water coming out of the drains. I am an affluent actor. This is my house. Imagine rest of TN [Tamil Nadu].”

-Siddharth, Actor

“Chennai is a disaster zone. Two million displaced…dead bodies…piling up outside crematoriums…Snakes and scorpions inhabit the waters…[Chennai] will never be the same”

-Anita Ratnam, Dance



Over the past two months India’s southern tip has been ravaged by some of the deadliest rains witnessed in over a decade. The state of Tamil Nadu, particularly its capital city of Chennai, has been amongst the hardest hit. The floods are estimated to have claimed over 400 lives and around $3 million in damages—making it the eighth most expensive natural disaster of 2015.

At its peak, Chennai received over 1,612.1 mm of rainfall— a bit less than double the amount of rainfall it usually receives during the monsoon season. The extent of the excess is undeniable. However, meteorologists contend that the rains were not wholly unexpected— a 10-12% increase in rainfall should have been anticipated.

Of course the difference between a 10-12% surplus and a 90-100% is understatedly, huge. And it is a difference that the Chennai government simply could not have prepared for. Nevertheless the government’s response to the floods, in vivo, has drawn its fair share of critics. Notable among these is actor Kamal Hassan, who was quoted just a few weeks ago saying, “I am truly sad and sick…now when our state is in distress they are asking for donations to do what we appointed our government to do.” While Hassan has since recanted his words as, “a rant about…the sufferings of the people,” and not a “criticism of [Chief Minister] Jayalalitha’s government,” his commentary is in agreement with the verdict across Chennai. Questions about official apathy, delayed decision-making, reservoir management, and lack coordination are just some among the laundry list of complaints Chennai residents have made against the government. In an atmosphere of such confusion and chaos, many have begun to ask: why was the government’s response to the Chennai floods so ineffective?

One of the most commonly cited reasons for the ineffectiveness has been “bad-urban planning.” Retired Chief Planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), R.R. Kuberan, hearkens back to a moment of missed opportunity in Chennai’s urban development. In 1991, under the title of the ‘New Chennai Project,” Kuberan had made designs for entirely new city, situated south-west of where Tamil Nadu’s capital sits today. His designs were intended to work in harmony with the ecology of Chennai: a city originally rife with lakes and wetlands. He had planned to incorporate systems of natural drainage, thus allowing for a dry and stable city foundation. However, rampant and unregulated construction obstructed the project’s execution, and gave way to a city characterized by what Kuberan terms, “third-rate” development. This ‘third-rate’ development, which blocked waterways and drainage systems, is one of the main culprits behind the exacerbated effects of the floods.  

Some place the blame on an indecisive bureaucracy. Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, S. Janakarajan explains, “Flooding of Chennai and suburbs could have been averted by better management of water release.” What Janakarajan is referring to is the mismanagement of water levels in the Chembarambakkam reservoir— a lake situated in the outskirts of Chennai. It seems that if city officials had opened the floodgates of Chembarambakkam in time to accommodate the heavy rains of Dec. 2 and 3, their repercussions, i.e. the floods, may have been mitigated.  A senior IAS official involved in the rescue operations exasperates, “The city has paid the price for having a bunch of bureaucrats who don’t have the guts to act on their own. We are lucky that…[Chembarambakkam] reservoir, despite overflowing, did not breach.”  

Others point to a lack of ground management as responsible for the aftermath of the floods. Speaking from his experience as part of the relief efforts in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, actor Siddarth explains why the distribution of emergency supplies was so unequal. He reports,  “On the main roads, people who have supplies, and who don’t actually have a need for emergency supplies, are attacking relief vehicles, opening the trucks, and taking the relief supplies.” He adds that the personnel required to regulate these types of infractions has been completely absent.

It seems then, that Chennai’s struggles are not wholly ecological— some of its most damaging ones are none other than man-made.  And it is a painful truth to swallow that when the city has been hit by one of the greatest natural disasters it has seen in years, its aftereffects have been extended by problems wholly synthetic.