Of worth, waste and Chennai Floods

The city's hydraulic infrastructure is being dismantled in the name of development

September 04, 2016 02:10 am | Updated September 22, 2016 05:00 pm IST

Urban floods are seen solely as an engineering problem, and better technology and planning, as the only solution. The role of non-engineering factors such as growth in increasing the vulnerability of urban settings is seldom considered. Can a city grow eternally without compromising its resilience to cyclones, rain, heat waves and water scarcity? Don’t notions of value and worthlessness have more to do with our urban predicament than calculations involving rain run-off coefficients and stormwater drain designs?

As a Tamil land-use classification, the word poromboke has survived since the medieval times. The word referred to shared-use areas like waterbodies, the seaside and grazing lands. These areas were outside ( purom ) the register ( pokku ), and were the source of sustenance and surplus for many communities.

The first connotations of worthlessness were probably appended to the poromboke in the early days of property-making by the East India Company. Subsequently, in the colonial government's eyes, poromboke areas were of lower worth as they yielded no revenue and were outside the property market.

Today, poromboke means “wasteland” although in revenue parlance, the latter is an altogether different category. In colloquial Tamil too, poromboke has become a pejorative referring to places or people that are worthless.

If the colonial government hinted at certain geographies as areas of low worth, the neoliberal Indian state has extended this notion of worthlessness to encompass entire peoples. The exercise of disaster-proofing a city never engages with the question of how or why the urban poor gravitate towards poromboke areas, why “de-valued” people are left to fend for themselves in “de-valued” spaces.

The term ‘illegal encroachment’ conjures up images of disorderly hovels constructed by the marginalised on the margins of rivers and canals. It never brings up images of glass and steel IT buildings, a world-class airport, a mega port or a court building. Implicit in all the talk about illegal encroachments is a suggestion that a licensed encroachment will not cause damage or be damaged by floodwaters. Where human law is preoccupied with licences, nature’s law is concerned solely with location.

Slogans like “world-class city” or “Make in India” come with specific ascriptions of value and worthlessness to places and people, and policies to re-order the landscape accordingly. Poromboke areas are seen as valueless, begging to be injected with new worth by converting them to “productive” uses — elevated rail over Buckingham Canal’s kalvai poromboke, an IT SEZ in Pallikaranai's kazhuveli (floodplain) poromboke and so on.

The city's hydraulic infrastructure has been and is being systematically dismantled in the name of development.

Under Chennai’s 2026 Masterplan, the area under residential land use is set to double, and industrial land use to increase from 6,563 hectares to 10,690 hectares. Simultaneously, the area under agriculture will reduce by 42 per cent, and areas under forests, hills and waterbodies will shrink to half the existing 56,000 hectares.

Expanding the built-up area will increase rainwater run-off and necessitate augmented drainage capacity. Ironically, the expansion itself will happen on existing natural drains.

More than 80 per cent of the 1,000 hectares allocated to “Special and Hazardous Industries” in north Chennai's Ennore region is wetlands. Kamarajar Port alone hopes to occupy about 1,000 acres of the Ennore Creek. This will intensify floods in the densely populated north Chennai region.

Once set in motion, the consequences of such an action cannot be managed by engineering interventions.

Cultural interventions that re-infuse the poromboke with the value that it was once associated with hold the key to disaster-proofing cities.

This requires poets, historians, social scientists, visionary politicians and cultural activists, not engineers.

( The writer is a Chennai-based social activist.)

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