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Don’t just blame climate change: Chennai floods were a manmade disaster

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Don’t just blame climate change: Chennai floods were a manmade disaster

The city of Chennai – a coastal metropolis of 8.7m people and capital of India’s Tamil Nadu region – has been flooded by an extreme weather event. The city experienced incessant rain, in what has been its wettest November for over a century: December 1 broke local records, with 490mm of rainfall.

The results have been catastrophic: the Adyar and Cooum rivers overflowed, 35 major lakes breached their banks and large parts of the city – including the international airportwere submerged. Schools and hospitals were shut down, electricity and electronic networks were unavailable for days, and life was turned upside down not just for residents, but also for flagship IT and automobile companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Cognizant, Yamaha, Renault Nissan and BMW India.

The confirmed death toll from the flooding is 270 and rising, and a trade body has estimated that monetary losses will be in the region of Indian Rupees 15,000 crores (£1.5 billion). While the flood waters have now receded, health epidemics ranging from malaria to cholera and typhoid may well be imminent.

It is widely believed that Chennai’s misery was brought on by climate change, and that such extreme weather events are going to increase in frequency and impact. World leaders have blamed the event on global warming, even as the COP21 climate change conference plays out as expected in Paris. As the climate battles rage in the natural and political worlds, Chennai represents the human dimensions of disaster.

The human hand

Climate change is not the only guilty party: the scale of the disaster at Chennai was magnified by a rampant disregard for town planning, and the basic principles of ecology and hydrology. To name just a few of the violations: the international airport is built on the floodplain of the Adyar river; the Mass Rapid Transit System sits atop the Buckingham Canal; the government allowed buildings to be erected over more than 273 hectares of the Pallikarni marshland to the south of the city; and the city’s famed Information Technology and Knowledge Corridors encompass wetlands and marshlands that would normally act as a sink for flood water.

Modern states have always used urban and infrastructure planning as a way to control and exploit nature’s more unruly tendencies: whether it’s water flowing down a river, waves battering the coast or food sources growing on the land or in the sea. There have been countless examples: from the colossal web of transport lines and ports built throughout colonial East Africa and South Asia, to the extensive damming of the Tennessee River System, which inspired similarly ambitious projects in the Mekong River Basin and the Narmada Valley.

Competition is king

But the planning distortions of contemporary Chennai show that the state can take it too far, especially when it is attempting to meet the demands of a growing population and a competitive economic climate. Since economic liberalisation in 1991, Tamil Nadu has competed with other sub-national units in India – as well as productive regions in neighbouring countries such as China – to attract private investment. In the words of a retired Tamil Nadu bureaucrat, whom I interviewed for my research in 2012:

Companies are like bridegrooms. If they are bringing an iconic brand into the [sub-national] state, they come with a huge list of demands, the primary one being land. In the case of [an automobile manufacturing company], we had large, vacant … plots, which we could transfer to them in a short period. In addition, they wanted road, rail and port access. They wanted to be near a metropolis. They wanted all sorts of social infrastructure, like land for an international school and sporting facilities for families of executives… Overall, there were 80-90 parameters related to land, tax concessions and clearances for water, electricity, etc.

With increasing competitive pressures on states, land and natural resources become pliable reserves for meeting the exacting demands of national and international capital. But recent events in Chennai are a reminder that nature is flexible only to a point. It does strike back.

Dodgy dealings

While governments work formally with private entities to change the face of our cities, there is also a great deal of informal development going on behind the scenes. Private firms, India’s booming real estate industry, and middle class consumers work with unregulated brokers, middlemen, government touts, moonlighting officials, political strongmen, and various other intermediaries to acquire and build on land. The government acknowledges that there are 150,000 illegal structures in the city, and that 300 tanks and lakes have simply been built over. The actual number of breaches is probably much higher.

Chennai is by no means the only city where space is more often allocated informally than through the “logic” of planning. Privatisation of the commons, filling of water bodies, encroachment on ecologically sensitive wetlands and the illegal alteration of maps to reflect these changes is evident in my field sites in east, west and south India. This is a translation of a quote from a Kolkata land broker, interviewed in 2014:

Changing a pond record is backdoor work, and this is totally illegal. Every time it is changed, it happens under the table. The government office will have to be managed. All buyers (e.g. real estate developers) have a setting arrangement in the government office, and they all have a civil lawyer…. Politics also plays a role in our work … if there is a pond to be filled politicians will not leave us. They will demand Indian Rupees 10 lakhs to 20 lakhs (£10,000 to £20,000)… Besides, how will you fill the pond? You need mud, sand, and ash. Organisations affiliated to the locally powerful political party will supply this.

As Chennai emerges from the water and takes a fresh look at itself, poorer residents and slum settlers will probably be the first to be evicted, in order to free up illegally acquired space for development. But if the city teaches us one lesson, it is that we are in this together. We are reaping what we have sowed as consumers, voters, home owners – not to mention the role of politicians, government officials and private companies. To pass the blame would be as shortsighted as world leaders blaming each other for climate change.