Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Cogitations & Colligates on a Catastrophe!

When Chennai started receiving her first spell of 'November rains' in the first week of November, little did Chennaiites imagine in the faintest of their imaginations that these torrential rains are bound to make an indelible impact on the history and geography of their City. It indeed did!

I was in Trichy, on the fateful day on 13 November 2015, on the invite of my beloved Professor Dr. C. Dhanabal to conduct a workshop for school teachers, when my courteous neighbor of two years Mr. Dhanaraj called me up from Chennai and said that the water levels are rising up, and ‘It looks like your bike will soon go under water. Please take it out and leave it at some safer place’, he exhorted. My hands were tied, as I was 320 kms away from namma Chennai, and so I asked my friend Deva to help me out. He promptly went there amidst the torrential rains, and soon retrieved the bike to safety. But he also added that the water level is slowly rising, and asked me to come back asap!

The barely visible balcony of our friend's house gone completely under water
I didn’t realize the intensity of the situation until he took photos of the same and sent it via whatsapp. So after finishing my morning session for the teachers, I rushed back to Chennai by my car, not being able to spend quality time with my good friend Dr. Benet, who had driven all the way to Heber just to meet up with me!

By the time I reached home, it was an incessant downpour, and water had seeped in through the main doors of the house, and things were looking really really bad! With the help of my good friends and relatives (help-in-time-of-need), managed to shift [in order of priority!], most of the important things to the first floor, and by the time we finished half the work and came downstairs, the water level had risen to four feet! It was indeed a great shock for us, as we’ve never witnessed these torrential rains in a long long time and never had water come anywhere near the main doors as well!
Our friend's Car - barely visible!

Now, we literally waded through the ‘by now hip-deep waters’ to reach our car, and somehow managed to come to safety!

We thought that the flood waters would come down in a couple of weeks, but we were wrong!

Flood waters indeed run deep!

The remaining three weeks were really really horrible to say the least! Rains only increased by the day, and by December 1, (when the second spell of torrential rains hit the city) the city was in complete disarray.

 Now, since our area Councillor Mr. Immanuel is a very good friend and an ‘everready’ help in time of need, we decided to step in and help him out in cleaning up the ‘historic’ mess that had engulfed our vicinities.  Mr. Sasikumar, Mr. Rajamanickam, Mr. Sudhakar, Mr. Pandu, along with a whole bunch of youngsters, with our area’s auto drivers and shopkeepers for company, decided to plunge into ‘service mode!’. Soon, under the supervision of our Councilor, ‘four-foot deep’ Waterways were dug up using the poclain excavators, and in no time a mini aqueduct was right there in front of us conveying the dangerous flood waters in a ‘disciplined’ manner!

Even as we were walking across the length and breadth of our beautiful little town, assessing the alarming intensity of the havoc, we were petrified to the core to find one whole nagar (Gajalakshmi Nagar) gone down in the floods, and just the first floors of many houses in the vicinity alone barely visible, that too placing them only by looking at their balconies! Hundreds of hutments and individual houses had totally submerged in the floods!

We called in boats to rescue us, and they reached us in about two hours’ time, and rescued at least 15 families marooned in the massive deluge! Service-minded youngsters from all walks of life joined us in reaching out to our fellow human beings in this hour of crisis!

When the first batch of flood-relief came by, we were not prepared to tackle the situation! So there was a hullaballoo of frantic proportions all over the place!

Our Vicinity on 'Service Mode'
As the saying goes, ‘It’s not how we make mistakes, but how we correct them that defines us’, the second time around we were on the watch!

This time, with the help of our councilor, we called in the police for help to coordinate relief work, and they were promptly there in no time! The time (1 pm) was announced to the people using megaphones (again, gladly gifted to us by a benevolent Mr. Rupesh), and police and volunteers were in full guard from 12 noon itself. As people started pouring in, they were mindful of the order that was restored, and  towed the line!

Afternoon lunch was served to around 3000 people and the basic essentials in ‘Food Packets’ were distributed to each of them.

Although the work is going on at a steady pace, and many volunteers from apartments from all walks of life have stepped in to lend a great helping hand, there were a few impediments too that we had to tackle!

When Aishwarya and her team with full enthu and verve, and ‘ms.benevolence’ writ large in their hearts, went to a nearby locality (Nerkundram) to distribute relief material in a mini-lorry, the ‘waiting’ victims of the floods, barged into the lorry all of a sudden, and didn’t even allow them to distribute it! Shouts of “Please wait, please take them one by one, please stand in line,” literally went unheeded! She was all tears as she and her team narrated this incident to us.

Sometimes, we could even witness violent youngsters who masquerade as victims barging in and ‘plundering’ the relief material, much to the dismay and agony of the volunteering youngsters. So we asked the ladies to wind up then and there! But by then, the damage was done!

Secondly, flood victims are on the roads literally all through the day, waiting for the next lorry load of relief material to reach them! Since there’s no coordination amongst the volunteering fraternity, sometimes food packets meant for an afternoon go down the drain as a colossal waste. Take for example, the brinji rice given yesterday to the victims. There were four groups of relief workers who came in four huge vans to distribute brinji or veg rice to the flood victims. But since the people had their full even in the first ‘helping’, all the excess food was considered ‘surplus’!

Thirdly, some people (not the Good Samaritans!) under the guise of relief workers are charging exhorbitant sums to rescue people from their marooned houses! One of our volunteers told us that, some (not all!) boatsmen got as much as Rs.500/- for rescuing one family from their house, which was saddening to the core!

Fourthly, when my friend Rajesh called up from Adyar and told me that, a team from Bangalore which went to distribute relief material without the ‘blessings’ of the local dons, was beaten up and the relief material that they had carried with them all the way from Bangalore (containing a medicine kit, food packets and clothing) were literally thrown into the flood waters!, we were all fuming with indignation at this apathy of a section of the ‘dons’!

Added to all these maladies, rumours of all hues and shades, purportedly through social networking sites added to the fear and panic of the people! Although social networking sites like facebook and watsapp have done great service to the people in this hour of crisis, some vested anti-social elements started circulating watsapp messages predicting a deluge and some others warned about escaped crocodiles, and yet others were misninforming people that petrol and diesel outlets were dry, and still others were ‘busy’ informing their friends that ‘this-and-that’ bridge has collapsed, this lake or river has had a levee breach etc, all adding to the woes of this alarming crisis of a hundred years!

One lesson (among many!) that could be learnt is the urgent and pressing need for an entirely Autonomous Coordinating Agency for disaster management in every district of the State! This Coordinating Agency should be a purely autonomous entity (on the likes of the Election Commission), vested with administrative power to take ‘time & locale-specific’ decisions, which could handle all aspects of disaster management including relief work, rehabilitation of the affected families, having health inspectors to inspect the quality of the food before they are distributed, Sanitation Inspectors to periodically assess the unhygienic places and sanitizing them, promulgating ESMA ‘kinda’ Acts to prevent disgruntled elements from obstructing relief work, and empowering the local cops to take punitive action against rumour mongers! In this regard, we hope that the upcoming Panel Discussion on the Chennai Floods, by the Madras Institute of Development Studies, on 15 December is an affirmative step in that direction!

Now, even as I am typing this post out to share my aches and aspirations on the flood situation in namma Chennai, my neighbourhood friends are busy going on their bikes unmindful of the incessant rains, with food packets made & packeted in their small houses, to distribute to the needy. So here I am prompted to put the full stop and get back to the call of duty!

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