27 Nov 2015 18:14 IST

Man-made disaster to man-made opportunity

How Chennaites and the government can bring the city back on its feet

The respite from heavy rains, temporary or not, has helped people in Chennai and other affected parts of Tamil Nadu, to take stock of losses that the downpour cost.

Initial estimates of the state government, headed by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, have pegged the damage at ₹8,481 crore. Most residents displaced by the floods are now back home. A family I know lost its car, two-wheeler and scores of other household items, not to talk about the damage to the house itself.

Similarly, businesses — both small and large — have lost productive man-days and suffered damage to their infrastructure. About 1,200 manufacturing units in Ambattur Industrial Estate downed their shutters: the Estate has 2,400 units and employs 80,000 workers.

Man-made disaster

The rains during this year’s North-East monsoon have created records — maximum rainfall in 24 hours since 2005; and probably the wettest November in a 100 years. But heavy rains and cyclone are hardly unusual for the coastal city.

And by no margin is the disaster this year, ‘natural’; it is a result of unchecked excesses of construction, ill-conceived plans and disregard for environmental damage.

Look at some of the figures pointed out in recent reports. The city has lost 650 water bodies in two decades, and just 27 remain today. New townships have come up on lake beds; the city’s largest mall is located on one. Major waterways have turned into drains. Only half of the city’s 2,847 km-road network have storm water drains, which can carry only three cm rainfall per day. On Monday, November 23, the city received nine cm of rains in a few hours!

And people suffered. It took a colleague six hours to reach her home from office, on a stretch that would usually take about 45 minutes to an hour. The real estate sector has taken an immediate hit. Flooding was the worst in upcoming and fast expanding parts of the city. A leading daily quoted a resident as saying, “I would not suggest any one to move in here, not even my enemies.”

Just two months ago, the Chief Minister had hosted industrialists from the country and overseas during a global investment meet, goading them to invest in the state. She promised tax incentives, land and infrastructure. The floods don’t augur well for these global ambitions.

An opportunity

It will be silly to compare the damage in Chennai to the destruction that natural disasters in the past have left behind, in India and other countries. But in a few of these cases, the disasters also provided an opportunity for the local governments and planners to build a city anew with better infrastructure. Economists have argued that such turmoil can be catalytic for a region’s growth.

Tom Wooten, who co-authored a book (http://thefloodbook.com/) on a little-known man-made tragedy that occurred in India in 1979, spent five years in New Orleans, the American city destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Wooten lived there, researching () the recovery of the local economy. It was a community-led initiative — neighbourhoods becoming small governments — that brought New Orleans back on its feet.

Wiser after the flood-experience, Chennaites too have an opportunity to lead the recovery of their city. As a community, can they rise up against another construction that endangers a water body?

What the government can do

In Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina , co-edited by two well-known American academicians, the authors stress on four key areas — making cities less vulnerable to disaster, re-establishing economic viability, responding to the permanent needs of the displaced, and recreating a sense of place.

Mark Zandy, Chief Economist of Moody’s Analytics, is more specific. In an essay in the book, he says, distressed households should be given short-term financial assistance and the focus should be on infrastructure improvements. A point he made will resonate the most with Chennaites — incentives for those raising houses above base-flood-elevation levels.

A doctor in my neighbourhood in Chennai, elevated his house years ago, spending ₹5 lakh on it. The cost has since increased. Last week, a friend, whose house was water-logged, enquired about the same and he was told it would cost ₹15 lakh to raise the level of his house. “It is too expensive,” he said with a sigh. Perhaps, the Jayalalithaa-government can use the relief fund from the Centre to address this issue.

She can read the case of Aceh, the Indonesian island, which is regarded as a success story in disaster reconstruction, building houses and highways. The Chief Minister could also note what the island didn’t do right. There is a debate if Aceh spent its aid wisely.