Event ReportsPublished on Jan 04, 2016
Man-made mistakes responsible for recent Chennai floods, says former TN Secretary

Mistakes in urban town-planning, illegal and legalised occupation of wet lands, unregulated construction along river banks, encroachment of water bodies and lastly a society that has abandoned its civic duties and responsibilities, were some of the key factors responsible for the recent Chennai flood disaster, according to Mr K S Sripathi, a former Chief Secretary of the  Government of Tamil Nadu.

Initiating a discussion on “Disaster Management and Relief” at the Chennai chapter of Observer Research Foundation, Mr. Sripathi, who was also the State Government’s Chief Information Commissioner, said that there were continued mistakes in urban planning. “Our town planning institutions are effective in responding to urban development problems. Nevertheless, the solutions rendered are reactive and disconnected. The institutions lack foresight, and holistic planning is almost absent. Town planners have squandered away natural water sinks such as wetlands, marshes and swamps in lieu of rapid development and urbanisation. Urban planning desperately needs a transformation,” opined Sripathi. Environmental sustainability needs to be a core element in city planning, and planning needs to be pro-active, holistic and collaborative, he added.

He said a recent survey has shown that Chennai has lost most of its wetlands and marshes, many of which have been converted into concrete jungles. Unregulated construction on the banks of the Adyar and Cooum rivers has narrowed down the river channel and altered the drainage pattern in many areas of the city. Additionally, infrastructure developers are continuing to violate building codes, assisted by lacklustre government enforcement. A case in point was one of the city’s largest technology parks, which had placed its captive power units and diesel generators in the basement, a clear violation of building norms.  The basement was inundated during the recent floods, and covered much of the three-storey basement car-parking, as well, Mr. Sripathi said.


Speaking on the recent flood situation, Mr. Sripathi said that unrestricted construction in low-lying areas and wetlands with scant regard to the region’s hydrology, had all exacerbated the calamity. He further pointed out that Kannagi Nagar (Velachery), Mudichur and Chemmanchery were high-risk areas prone to disasters. No settlements must have been approved in these low-lying areas, opined Mr. Sripathi. Conversion of erstwhile natural drainage canals into roads and private infrastructure, compounded by the lack of adequate storm water drains, resulted in severe water stagnation in several parts of the city.

Govt, major encroacher

Commenting on encroachments, Mr. Sripathi noted that government was a major encroacher. Several wetlands, drainage canals, and even river banks have been encroached upon, to build railway-lines and stations, roads, and other government infrastructure. A case in point was the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), which has been built on the Pallikaranai marshland. Providing a quick glimpse into the history, Mr. Sripathi said that the occupation of the Pallikaranai marshland started with the construction of the Mylapore Metro railway station, when the displaced people were moved (by the State government) there.

Apart from the government, private players in connivance with the political class are major encroachers. Despite eviction orders from the High Court, several constructions still stand on the encroached areas, some legal, while others that have been legalised to avoid eviction. It is certainly a difficult task for the government to evict the elite encroachers, on the flip side evicting slum dwellers may be an easy task, but resettlement and rehabilitation is a challenging one, observed Mr. Sripathi.

Coordination hiccups

Elaborating on the existing disaster-management mechanism, Mr. Sripathi said that the government machinery needs to be coordinated by the Chief Secretary of the state. The disaster response and relief is a mainstay of the Commissioner of Revenue Administration and the revenue department, supported by the district collector, state relief commissioner, local government authorities and other government institutions and utilities in the region. While there were initial hiccups in coordination, the state machinery bounced back into action by end of day on December 1, accompanied by the NDRF and Coast Guard to conduct rescue operations and provide relief materials.

In spite of the committed effort from the government, there were several lacunae. Non-identification of rallying posts for distribution of relief materials and government aid turned out to be a major problem in organising relief operations. Considering the technology apparatus available to government (such as GPS mapping, disaster hotspot mapping and several others), the relief response operations have failed to meet the public’s expectation, opined Mr. Sripathi.

Collaborative mitigation

Speaking on disaster mitigation, Mr. Sripathi said that mitigation needs to be collaborative, requiring public participation. The society, while cognisant of their rights, must also be aware of their civic duties. Active public participation, accompanied by strict enforcement (by the government) will go a long way in mitigating and managing disasters, opined Sripathi. He further discussed several simple mechanisms to mitigate floods.

Evolving a mechanism to lay roads without increasing the road level in conjunction with the houses, coupled with an effective storm water drain network that connects to the nearest water body will definitely reduce water stagnation on the streets. De-silting of local water bodies and temple tanks, avoiding infrastructure development in and around water bodies will help harvest rainwater and reduce flooding.

Proper disposal of domestic garbage and reducing the use of plastic bags will ensure that storm water drains remain free from clogs. Reducing our reliance on sand and cement by using new technology innovations in construction, strict adherence to building codes, supported by stringent government enforcement will ensure that infrastructure is safe and environment friendly, the former bureaucrat added.

Concluding the discussion, Mr. Sripathi noted that the lack of political will and administrative commitment had played spoil-sport in managing the recent flood disaster in Chennai.

(This report was prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Chennai)

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