Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Hemantha Kalam - 53 'Floody Irresponsibilities'

For sure, the recent news headlines about Chennai are on expected lines.

- Chennai faces worst water crisis; tanker prices soar

- Water Woes: Parched Chennai cries for relief

- Drinking, bathing becomes luxury in Chennai as water crisis grips city

- Water-starved Chennai IT corridor turns to BYOP (bring your own plates) and BYOD (bring your own devices) to tackle the (water) crisis

- Chennai: No water, work from home, IT firms tell staff

- Chennai hotels, hospitals hit hard by water crisis

- Man attacks woman with knife over water dispute in Chennai, arrested

- Madras HC (High Court) seeks report from Tamil Nadu government over water crisis in Chennai

The house that my parents constructed in Chennai in the mid 1960s was almost on the border of the then Chennai City but now is almost the heart of it. Our plot was cut out of a 11 ½ acre coconut grove with over a thousand trees. After laying out some 92 plots, with roads cut in between, each plot got an average of six to eight coconut trees. Initially, for at least about four to five years, there were only a couple of houses in the entire colony and I thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of the greenery the colony afforded both by the coconut fronds as well as the grass underneath.

Today, in the entire colony there might not be six to eight coconut trees. That is ‘development’ for you. Whenever a new construction used to take place, my father used to go and plead with the owners / promoters to leave some land uncovered from concrete. He was more often laughed at and taken in as a raving old man. He used to argue that we should allow the earth to absorb water from the rains. No, sir, many would not listen, as for them it is dirty to walk on the raw earth. We need to be on the concrete and we need our vehicles to be on the concrete. Our feet cannot get dirty. Period! 

In our own house, we used to brush and wash near some plant so that the water goes to the plant and not wasted. My father and I used to bathe nearer the well and the water is channeled to the coconut, mango, guava and sapota (chiku) trees. Only womenfolk in the family used to take their bath in the bathroom and even that water was channelled towards the papaya and other plants. Virtually not a drop used to be wasted.

And now, we are willing to squeeze water out of this dirt for survival and do not mind the source of water, really.

I am sure that my beloved dad, who is no more, is having the last laugh, from wherever he is.

Yes, now Chennai is staring at such an acute water shortage which I haven’t witnessed in my six decade plus life. Today the water table in our area is so deep that even our water well is on the brink of drying up!

Yet my worry doesn’t stop with the present water scarcity but with the future of the sewerage in the city. The human wastes have to be kept flowing through the underground sewerage and flowing cannot happen without water. If at a point of time, due to the scarcity of water, the flow stops, we are going to face clogged and 'concrete' drains very soon in the city which could create havoc with the health of the citizens leading to endemic and / or epidemic issues.

And what about the poor dumb animals? To whom will they call out their predicament?

Coming back to the issue on hand, the present Chennai water crisis teaches us four lessons;

(i) Whatever diamonds, platinum, gold, silver and other precious wealth items we may accumulate, we still cannot eat or drink them

(2) Prudence does not seem to be our virtue

(3) Not much of evidence seems to be forthcoming on the preparations being made by the government to really face, combat and contain the exigency and

(4) We haven’t really learnt our lessons from the nature and continue to be irresponsible.

During the first week of December 2015, Chennai, along with several other places of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh saw an unprecedented amount of heavy rainfall generated by the annual north-east monsoon, affecting most of the Coromandel Coastal region.
“Though the unusually heavy rainfall in southern India during the winter of 2015 has been attributed to the 2014–16 El NiƱo event, in July 2018 the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) categorised the flooding across Tamil Nadu as a ‘man-made disaster,’ and held the Government of Tamil Nadu responsible for the scale of the catastrophe, which the latter had termed a natural disaster” (Verbatim Info Courtesy:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_South_Indian_floods).

The flooding of Adyar River and the Cooum River in Chennai took the entire rain water to the sea.

In the year that followed, we had the very severe cyclonic storm Vardah crossing the eastern coast of India close to Chennai in the afternoon hours of 12th December, 2016 causing extensive damage to roads, supplies and power infrastructure.

The most important point to be noted is that this Cyclone also brought torrential rain, but again the water could not be contained in the catchment areas rendering the city water-starved within about a month after the cyclone affecting the city.

We are now in 2019 which means we had at least two full years of time to be more prepared like de-silting, deepening and expanding the catchment areas, lakes and ponds ensuring right utilisation of rivers and waterways.

And the last few months would have been more ideal for such activities with very little water in the reservoirs.

But then except for activities and initiatives undertaken by NGOs and individuals or CSR work by some organisations like Confederation of Indian Industry (CII),  no further serious prudential action appears to have been taken, for being prepared to face the imminent water scarcity.

Historically, excepting for continuing pro-longed arguments with neighbouring states for water, very little action seems to have been taken by successive governments in making the state, ‘water-contained’ and ‘water-disciplined’. We do not hear of much work done on dams or developing/maintaining the water infrastructure in the state in comparison with some of the neighbouring states.

Of course, after the 2015 floods in Chennai and 2016 Vardah cyclone, some noise has been made on removing encroachments from water bodies but really how prepared were people or its representatives in really facing a water emergency such as now is anybody’s guess!

Presently, the government tried and is still trying to arrange water from alternative sources like water stored in reservoirs created by stone quarrying, and supplemented to whatever extent possible from schemes like the 'Telugu Ganga' etc. To be fair to the government, it has also been trying to source water through tanks from other reservoirs in the state which might be having some water left out and whatever other sources are available. But these are more like sops than permanent solutions, which are needed and looked up to, by the people.

Apparently, the government fee / charges for a tanker truck that supplies water are some Rs.700 per tanker truck, but the waiting could be as long as 20 days and chances of your booking getting cancelled automatically (like the 'time-out' that happens with apps and phone banking etc.) mid-way are quite high and happening.

The private tanker trucks charge anything between Rs.2,500 to Rs.3,500 and on some occasions even higher, depending on the need / demand but then, even this supply is not guaranteed.

So an average family is spending anything from Rs.2,000 to Rs.5,000 both for bubble packed water (for cooking and drinking) and tanker water for washing and ablutions.

What happens to the hapless and poor people who cannot afford such high costs with their meager incomes?

Yet, how are people sourcing water for functions and celebrations like weddings? It is a puzzle!

Is it not the responsibility of a government to provide succour? Why can’t they be better prepared and plan for contingencies like this, is what people are wondering at? Industries should have been decentralised across the state, to reduce internal migration and pressure on one or few single cities. Tamil Nadu, to a good extent did this but perhaps this is not enough? But the most important point to be noted is that development should have been in consonance with need and not with greed!  

Will they start acting after the cities become deserted? Even if people have to desert where will they go? Other neighbouring cities are not doing great either.

This reminds of an anecdote.

I used to work for a nationally reputed Indian Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company. Our Sales Manager-South used to have his own way of motivating his staff.

Once, a particular detergent brand of ours was not moving in the market as he would have liked to. At that time, our nearest competitors, including a Multi-National and an Indian century old traditional business house, were on strike and their products were not available.

So, an internal circular from our sales manager, to his sales staff, went something like this (I am writing not from verbatim but from memory) “Our factories are producing to capacity. Stocks are available with all depots and stockists. Our competitors are suffering from workmen strikes. So when do you plan to sell our product? Do you expect the people to come into shops and stand in queues to buy our brand of detergent?”

Similarly does the government expect people to migrate or murder each other for water before bringing their act together and become pro-actively responsible? And mass migration would leave the houses unattended and could easily become prey for criminal activities.

The answer to be given to High Court should be an interesting read when ultimately that happens.

Meantime, should we, the people, look towards the skies, keep praying while increasing the sales of the talcum powder, perfumes and disposable tissues (we can’t use sand for the purpose like they do in deserts, as, much usable sand apparently has already been quarried off ill/legally) to be used in lieu of water to bathe and for ablutions?

Well, folks, what do you think? Please, do tell me! 

Till then, 

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Dhanyosmi (Sanskrit), Thanks (English), Dhonyavaad (Bangla), Dhanyabad (Oriya), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic), Shukriya (Urdu), Bohoma Sthuthiyi (Sinhalese) Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai),Asante (Kiswahili), Maraming Salamat sa Lahat (Pinoy-Tagalog-Filipino), Tack (Swedish),Fa'afetai (Samoan), Terima Kasih (Bahasa Indonesian) and Tenkyu (TokPisin of Papua New Guinea).

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy
Chennai, India