Callous and Criminal: Chennai (2015) follows Mumbai (2005)

Written by Debi Goenka | Published on: December 15, 2015
Why do urban Indian planners perpetuate both unscientific and against-the-natural ‘mistakes’?
More than 500 people have been killed in Chennai when the flood waters converted the beautiful city of Chennai into a cess pool for six days. Despite advance warnings of heavy rains, no steps were taken by the Governments of Tamil Nadu and India to warn the residents, carry out emergency evacuations and to make arrangement for food, fuel and drinking water for the emergency.

But the lack of action in terms of emergency and disaster management is the least of it. Who was the real killer is the real question – was it just the flood waters? Or the Nero fiddling syndrome? Or the greed and short sightedness of all the politicians, bureaucrats, town planners and corporates that had no qualms about permitting huge buildings, malls, IT Parks, etc. to be built on wetlands, lakes, ponds and river plains?

The answer is obvious.

If you look at satellite imagery and topographic maps of Chennai a few decades ago, and what exists today, you may be forgiven for wondering if these are images and maps of the same coordinates. Chennai city, which is barely above mean sea level, and which was built on an extremely gentle slope, had hundreds of waterbodies – small ponds, wetlands and of course the Adyar River – within its boundaries. Up to 30 years ago, there seemed to be no major change, and Chennai continued to be a charming and perhaps the most civilized and hard working city in India. But then suddenly, things began to change, just as change began in all the urban agglomerations in India.

Mumbai 2002

Mumbai 2015

Chennai 2004

Chennai 2015

Let us look at what happened in Mumbai in 2005.

On  July 26, 2005, the suburbs of Mumbai received about 944 mm of rain, most of  it within a period of 6 hours. Mumbai,  which prides itself as being the financial capital of India, the best administered city in the most advanced state of India, and the crème de la crème of society suddenly discovered that it had travelled back in time by more than three centuries and had again become an island. The city was completely cut off. Rail and road links were snapped. The phones stopped working. Power supply was cut off. And even the airport was submerged. And though Mumbai had a Disaster Management Plan on paper, it was never implemented. Our spineless and incompetent bureaucrats could not provide guidance to the Chief Minister who took over the control room, and immediately told all the Government employees to go home early so that they would not get inconvenienced if the trains stopped working. The tragedy of 26/7 has been documented in a report of the “Concerned Citizens Commission” that was set up by the Conservation Action Trust (CAT) to investigate and document the cause of this tragedy.

The “Concerned Citizens Commission” was chaired by Justice P. B. Samant, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court. Eminent citizens including Shyam Chainani, Chandrashekhar Prabhu, Sharad Kale, Darryl D’Monte, and Teesta Setalvad were part of this Commission. Public hearings were held over ten of the worst affected locations in Mumbai and over 13,800 written depositions were collected. All senior officers of the State Government, the Municipal Corporation, the super “planning” Metropolitan Authority (MMRDA), the Railways, the Airport Authority, and the Police, were invited to participate in these proceedings. Unsurprisingly, not a single representative of the Maharashtra Government, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, nor the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Authority turned up for these hearings.

What were the key findings of this Commission? Briefly, the Commission found that the Mithi River in Mumbai had been converted into a sewage channel. The MMRDA itself had illegally destroyed the mangroves and reclaimed the land to convert it into a commercial complex (what is now known as the Bandra-Kurla Complex). The Airport Authority of India had diverted the Mithi River and made it undergo three 90 degree turns (planned with great geometrical precision by their civil engineers) so that they could extend their runway. The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation had narrowed the mouth of Mahim Creek when they constructed the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and reclaimed 12 hectares of land inside Mahim Bay.
(Details of the Commission’s findings can be read at
If, in the previous paragraph, we replace the word Mumbai with Chennai, Mithi River with Adyar River, and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai with Chennai Municipal Corporation, will it not mirror the same set of circumstances? And the same tragedy?

We are now at a stage when we are planning 100 smart cities in India. But to me, smart does not mean a city with wi-fi coverage and CCTV cameras and IT Parks and SEZs. To me a smart city means a city that has been planned keeping its natural features in mind, one that protects its natural assets, has adequate infrastructure, and comfortable and affordable public transport, clean air and clean water and most importantly, a safe and healthy environment. How many of our existing cities can claim to have these characteristics? And how many of our Smart Cities will actually be really Smart?

The real tragedy is that neither the Maharashtra Government nor the Tamil Nadu Government seems to have learnt from these tragedies. If the rainfall repeats itself, we would have to survive the same tragedies again. The politicians, the bureaucrats, and the town planners would predictably say that you cannot plan for a one in a hundred years event, conveniently forgetting the fact that these are not one in a hundred year events, and that with the spectre of Climate Change, both the frequency and the intensity of extreme climatic events will constantly increase. The Maharashtra Government is still hell bent on building its second International Airport for Mumbai on 400 acres of mangroves, 1000 acres of mudflats and on a river bed. Fifty per cent of the project cost of the Navi Mumbai airport will be spent on destroying the environment.

What is truly amazing is the extremely short sighted approach of the Government and the “Planning” Authorities. Since the financial losses suffered by the citizens have to be borne by the individuals themselves or the insurance companies, these agencies seem largely unconcerned about the fact that the financial cost of the Mumbai floods ran into several thousands of crores, and that the financial losses caused by the Chennai floods would perhaps equal that number. If we add the loss of lives and the trauma and suffering that the citizens of Mumbai and Chennai were subjected to by their callous Governments, the damage is incalculable.

What needs to be done? As far as Chennai is concerned,  whilst relief and rehabilitation needs to be carried out on top priority, the need of the hour is to de-silt the Adyar River and the other drainage channels on a war footing. There is also a need to manage the water levels of the Chembarambakkam reservoir so that emergencies are not aggravated by the poor planning and non-existent leadership.

And the citizens of India need to wake up and realize that they cannot depend on their greedy and corrupt Governments and “Planning” Authorities to keep them safe from these man-made tragedies. We have to realize that civil engineering cannot replace Mother Nature, and that rivers cannot be converted to canals so that builders/devilopers can make their fortunes by building on the flood plains of these rivers. It would also be wonderful if the citizens of Chennai do what the Mumbaikars failed to do – prosecute the decision makers responsible for this tragedy for their sins of commission and omission.

(The author is Executive Trustee, Conservation Action Trust and Convener, Concerned Citizens Commission, 2005)