Environment Reviews

‘Rivers Remember – The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood’ review: What the 2015 Chennai floods taught us

In 2004, soon after the Indian Ocean tsunami left several thousands dead in a deadly attack a day after Christmas, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, on relief duty in Tamil Nadu, held forth on the efficacy of the immediate response. “Remember,” he said confidently, “there is a robust first line response in Tamil Nadu; it is built into the system. It will kick in at every level, automatically, in times of crisis.” He had fair justification for what he said, for at that time, the response of the State post the tragedy was stunningly well-organised.

Eleven years later, after the December 2015 floods in Chennai, it could have been another State all together. In hindsight, it was a watershed moment. December 1, 2015, provided a clear indication that the much-feted, fabled response system of Tamil Nadu had collapsed. And, that included its capital city too. It was also when the people rose as a colossus, resilient, and all this not just on social media, but willing to share their homes, food and clothing, putting a shoulder under the burdens their neighbours, friends, family, even complete strangers, carried. Together, they picked Chennai up and put her back on her feet, because they wanted to, because they could.

This colossal let-down of a trusted authority is what Krupa Ge brings to the consciousness of the reader, with Rivers Remember.

A touching story about the people who suffered, rendered, at times lyrically, poetic as a gently flowing river, and then, with cold facts, cold as the waters that swirled the muck into homes.

Without a doubt, it is the chronicle of a Chennaiite, one who loves the city she grew up in.

She brings together facts most residents of the city have been aware of, since that dark December of 2015, but deftly weaves them into the stories of Nalini, Anantha, Paranjothi, Sudha Ramalingam, Dr. Bala, and traces the scars they, and countless others, still carry from that traumatic month.

Man-made disaster

While, unquestionably, there was extreme provocation, in terms of immediate environmental causative factors, Krupa reasons that the magnitude of the destruction that ensued was certainly man-made. A combination of factors beyond control did play a role, but there is no looking over what is clearly decades of bad urban planning, and abysmal disaster management, she says.

The ‘once-in-a-100-years’ (rainfall) theory was repeated every time a question was asked of the State government. But truth to tell, every decade has seen heavy rains with flooding in Tamil Nadu, Krupa points out.

The strength of the book is that it minces no words, calls a spade a spade, and worse. The author goes on a quest to look for the real reasons — rampant encroachments along waterways and on waterbodies as the State looked the other way, poor communication and warning to the people of flooding, poor post disaster relief and rehabilitation, some of it mired in politicking.

While the State government grew comfortable with its oft-repeated ‘act of nature’ excuse, a Central committee pointed out: “Instead of putting the blame on the forces of nature, we should use technology to fight it out.” The author also questions deliberate obfuscation of details of water release from Chembarambakkam, said to be a key factor, and the actual number of dead.

As she hitches her skirts, walking through tenements, speaking to people who measure the height of the flood through marks the water left on their walls, and rolls up her sleeves, filing batches after batches of RTI applications, digging though multiple reports, waving her fingers at government officials for all the sanctioned violations and concealed data, Krupa is on a mission for the city she loves. There are lessons for everyone in Rivers Remember. We would do well to pay heed — the monsoon has arrived.

Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood; Krupa Ge, Context/Westland, ₹499.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 5:08:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/rivers-remember-the-shocking-truth-of-a-manmade-flood-review-what-the-2015-chennai-floods-taught-us/article29797888.ece

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