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For a morally conscious government

The state’s role cannot end with mere rescue and relief. The government must be forced to pay for the losses suffered by millions of people across Tamil Nadu. It is time that we fought for greater accountability from those in positions of authority

December 08, 2015 03:08 am | Updated March 24, 2016 02:23 pm IST

Last week, Chennai experienced the wettest December day that the city has seen in more than 100 years. The rain’s effects were unprecedented and utterly devastating. Beginning Tuesday morning, thundershowers came furiously lashing down on the city, and by the time there was some respite from the rain, nearly 24 hours later, substantial parts of the city had been besieged by water. >Hundreds of thousands of people had been left stranded with no electricity, no access to food and drinking water, and, most tragically, nowhere to go for refuge from the gushing floods but to their respective rooftops, if indeed they were fortunate enough to have one.

Suhrith Parthasarathy

After the devastation The following Wednesday, especially as day gave way to night, the scenes around, and on, Chennai’s roads appeared almost apocalyptic. Several areas of the city were left marooned and inaccessible, and, with various reservoirs overflowing, the water levels on the streets rose alarmingly even after the rainfall had abated. As Vaishna Roy wrote in The Hindu (“ >And still waters run deep ”, Dec.3) — which, on Wednesday, and a rare occasion in its 137-year-old history, did not deliver a printed newspaper to the city — the worst of Chennai also appeared to bring along with it the best of Chennai, as an indomitable character appeared to animate all cross-sections of society. Social media was being used effectively to mobilise food, water, blankets, medicines and other essential resources for people who were isolated by the rain, and to also help direct rescue operators to areas where people were in greatest distress. Homes were opened up to provide dry spaces to those stranded, and several people came together to organise and pack food and water for distribution across the city. There were also heroes aplenty on the heavily submerged streets — fire and armed service personnel, police and corporation workers, and, not least, hundreds of civilians — who helped navigate people to safety.

The nature of the devastation is such that the aftermath of the flooding is likely to be felt for months, perhaps even for years. It has become a common refrain to claim, though, that this is no time for politicising the crisis. To do so when people’s homes have been wrecked, when many lives have been lost, and when roads have been left in a shambles, we are told, is tantamount to insensitivity. Now, it is unquestionable that several state functionaries have been working both selflessly and tirelessly to help bring the city back on its veritable feet, and our focus should indeed be on the immediate work required to allow Chennai, and its neighbouring villages and towns, to return to something resembling normalcy, if at all that’s possible. But, it’s even more important that, simultaneously, we ask the state — including the judiciary — and, for that matter, ourselves, vital questions on what has really caused this mammoth destruction.

Folly of assumed growth So far, the State government’s response to any questions asked has been all too familiar. It believes that there is nothing that could have been done to avert this tragedy. “Losses are unavoidable when there’s very heavy rain,” the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa, had said during the rains in November that preceded the present crisis. “Swift rescue and relief alone are indicators of a good government.” If one were to view this statement as representing even a kernel of the truth, a complete absence of urban planning, an inability to ensure effective compliance with development rules, a lack of enforcement of fire safety mechanisms, and an abject failure to provide adequately safe shelter to the homeless are all apparently jobs beyond a reasonable government’s domain.

Needless to say, what we have experienced, and are continuing to experience, is incomparable. As a developing society, we have never seen rains like this before in Chennai. The city’s infrastructure, as is quite palpable, was not built to face a catastrophe of this kind. After all, how could we have possibly predicted the kind of rainfall that we have seen? But questions such as this ought not to represent axioms of justification. As citizens, a number of us have benefitted from Chennai’s rapid urbanisation. But as these devastating floods have shown, our callous effort at assumed growth has come at enormous costs.

As a developing society, we have never seen rains like this before in Chennai.

It’s easy to view the present disaster as an act of god for which the government is simply not responsible. But any ecologist would tell us that the floods, as much as it might have been triggered by unprecedented rainfall, are substantially man-made. Over the years, in an effort to supposedly modernise Chennai, transport systems have been constructed over lands bounding, and, at times, on top of, canals and rivers; the so-called rules that regulate coastal regulation zones have been mercilessly broken; multi-storied buildings have been constructed on environmentally hazardous lands; and natural drainage systems have been blocked to enable a supposed development that is, at every level, simply unsustainable.

Condoning violations? Various succeeding governments in Tamil Nadu have been consistently reprehensible in allowing Chennai to decay into this urban mess. What’s most unfortunate though is that even in judging our follies, we are eager to point not at these egregious violations of building rules and absurd constructions made over forbidden land, but to the purported encroachments made on riverbeds by the poor, who have nowhere else to go in search of livelihood. When the dust finally settles, it’s entirely likely that it is these settlements, which will be targeted in an effort to make Chennai supposedly more flood-resistant. As has now become the norm, the most grievous infractions will not only be condoned, but will also find active support from the state — what we’ll see is a hallmark of a neo-liberal economy, a quite unique brand of socialism, a socialism that is meant for the rich and the rich alone.

In the days to follow, therefore, it is vital that the inexplicable stroke of misfortune that the rainfall in Chennai has brought with it is not used as an excuse to whittle away the moral bankruptcy of successive governments in Tamil Nadu. India’s Constitution might implore upon governments to guarantee a welfare state. But as much as ruling regimes might like to tell us otherwise, what we have had, in Tamil Nadu, with both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam at the helm over several years, isn’t as much governments focussed on welfarism as ones that dole out benefits with the sole view to securing votes.

The destruction caused by the recent floods ought not to be seen as a force majeure event.

Pinning down responsibility Unfortunately, the courts, which are meant to act as a counter-majoritarian institution, have also been complicit in acting as an enforcer of the prevalent will of the state. There is a deep suspicion within the judiciary of any socio-economic movement aimed at challenging the status quo, of any programme that seeks to confront the supposed developmental agenda of the state. As a result, flagrant violations of development rules and regulations, both by the government and by private entities, are routinely overlooked.

The destruction caused by the recent floods ought not to be seen as a force majeure event. Instead, the loss of property must be viewed as an illegal expropriation by government. The state’s role cannot end with mere rescue and relief. The government must be forced to pay for the losses suffered by millions of people across Tamil Nadu. It’s time that we fought for greater accountability from those in positions of authority. We must strive not only towards restoring an element of normalcy to the places affected, but we must also actively work towards ensuring that any supposed development activity undertaken in the city is environmentally sustainable. To this end, rhetoric alone would not suffice. We require a form of dissent that is far stronger, one that demands a morally conscious government, and one that requires the state to ensure that environmental rights and interests are not trumped by neo-liberal corruption.

(Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate in the Madras High Court.)

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