Natural disasters almost spell death for the elderly in India’s mega cities

Experts maintain that the senior citizens are likely to constitute a significant chunk of the total deaths in Chennai floods.

December 15, 2015 03:12 am | Updated November 16, 2021 04:20 pm IST - Chennai:

With no support system, India’s greying population is defenseless against natural calamities. Photo: R. Ragu

With no support system, India’s greying population is defenseless against natural calamities. Photo: R. Ragu

On December 1, heavy rainfall doused Chennai. Over the next few hours, the city had received 50 cm worth of rainfall in the suburbs (Tambaram) and nearly 30 cm inside Chennai. This should put the numbers in perspective: that’s how much rain Chennai got during two weeks in November.

The rains lashed relentlessly as rivers swelled, breached banks and the >Chembarambakkam reservoir was opened without much warning.

As the >surge swept through the city, it swallowed everything in the way — cars, bridges, airports, hospitals, hutments and devoured the metropolis.

The State government declared Chennai as disaster zone; Army rescue teams were deployed to evacuate survivors in the worst-hit areas — where floodwaters threatened second floor houses.

In Ekkattuthaangal, Lt. Col. (retired) G. Venkateshan and his wife Geetha were increasingly getting nervous. With Adyar river rising, literally inside his dining room, the 72-year-old ex-army officer and his wife stood up on the dining table. When that was not enough, they put chairs on top of the table and climbed on top. But the water consumed everything, their entire single storey apartment went under — taking them with it.

I read about the couple on social media. Later, the image of the elderly couple kept coming to me: splashing through waters in their own living room. Screaming for help for hours at a stretch — and later, much later, with doors still firmly locked and no help coming, the shrieking died down. The house now filled with eerie silence — an image of perfect, urban isolation.

Safety net during emergencies

In India, the safety net, insurance against disaster is parivar- the Hindi word for family but means something more visceral. It encompasses everything from heirlooms to ancestors to actual living relatives who can/will help with emergency response.

In Chennai, however, the idea of parivar is transcontinental- it depends on Skype. And many other such fickle things, like electricity, telephone networks, internet connections, battery—all of which failed that day when Col Venkatesan was drowning.

For senior citizens in India’s megacities, natural disasters, are a near certain death warrant. For the poor, across age groups this is true. But for the upper middle class families- the Chennai floods were a rude awakening. At last count, the total number of deaths stood at 540 as per police estimates. With the state government yet to release the death toll, break-up of children and senior citizens the floods claimed, it is necessary to quibble with this number. Experts maintain that the senior citizens are likely to constitute a significant chunk of the total deaths.

The floods exposed a fatal flaw in the administration: the complete lack of ward-level data on vulnerable populations, says Meenakshi Balasubramanian of Equals, Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. “We needed to locate households with vulnerable people and we simply did not have the information. Such data is vital for any relief and rescue work to be successful especially in susceptible areas such as those near water bodies.”

According the National Health Profile, released by the health ministry last year, the elderly in India i.e. the population above 60 years comprise 8.6% of the population (103.8 million) and they are also a vulnerable section. Those above 75 years (20.52 million) are most vulnerable and almost 8% of the elderly population is bed ridden or homebound. According to census 2011, 10 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population is above the age of 60 years- 4,64,122 people to be specific. By conservative estimates, as many as 5% of older individuals are living alone.

For this population, the national health policy envisages an effective capacity for routine emergency and, “an army of community members trained as first responder for accidents and disasters.” However, as things stand, the institutional capacity for this is next to nothing.

Over the past week, The Hindu asked different experts a simple question: what is the most efficient, simplest way to keep senior citizens safe during disasters. The answer, unanimously was this: be a good neighbour. “The first point of contact for the elderly who stay alone is generally a neighbour. But during a disaster of this magnitude those you count on for help may be battling for survival themselves,” says V Siva Kumar Joint Director, HelpAge India, Tamil Nadu.

Further, the policy envisages a network of emergency care that has an assured provision of life support ambulances linked to trauma management centers- one per 30 lakh population in urban and one for every 10 lakh population in rural areas will form the key to a trauma care policy.

Sudha Ramamoorthy of Chennai Rain Relief, a volunteer's group that came together when the monsoon began last month, says she was not surprised by the number of elderly people she found stranded -- some for days without any access to relief or rehabilitation. In Nakeeran Nagar and MK Radhanagar, low income colonies by the Cooum river where her team visited, she met a middle aged couple - one of them a stroke patient - who had survived three days without food or water.

With every natural disaster, this is section gets least access to relief. What is more worrying is that this section is growing rapidly. Not only has the share of the elderly to the total population increased from 6.5% in 1981 to 7.4% in 2001, but also the old age dependency ratio has risen from 89 to 119 in the same period of time. Meaning, that with every passing decade, the number of older persons to be supported by every 1000 young people ein the commonly categorized as ‘productive’ is increasing.

With no support system, a sizable chunk of India’s greying population is at defenceless in the face of natural disasters. As flood waters crashed against refrigerators and sofa sets and turned the city’s, supposedly, most benign environment- peoples homes- into death traps, one thing is amply clear- Mrs and Mr Venkatesan were beyond hope, beyond help- even before water breached their threshold.

( With inputs from Divya Gandhi)

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Read all articles in the 'Fix Our Cities' series

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