Clouds that burst our bubble

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While climate change took centerstage in the global consciousness, a real-time demonstration of nature's power in south India put the dynamics of the debate in perspective...

On the 29th of November, Chennai watched warily as the rain clouds began looming for the third leg of the annual monsoon. The two bursts of rain earlier this month had been fairly heavy.

After being ominously overcast, the skies burst open in the early hours of the 1st of December. By morning, there was no power. Not unexpected. By afternoon, though, loss of phone and internet connectivity. Whaaaa?!

My parents, sister and I sat together and spoke face-to-face for the first time since the late '90s.

As we sipped the wispy connectivity, we gathered that everyone else was stuck at home and in the same boat.

Rumours abounded. We received, from the watchmen and his buddies, fairly unreliable information which we had no way of confirming or busting.

The sound of rainwater is not as calming as it sounds on YouTube. Throughout the day, I was constrained, confused and bored. But come evening, I couldn't be tethered anymore.

On a day when my bus route was probably the only functional one in the whole of south Chennai, I felt I could afford to brave the rain and go to work. After all, however much it rains at night, tomorrow still comes, coffee in hand, looking for the newspaper, right?

At the Marina Beach....

There was excitement for a few seconds as some of our phones began to show connectivity. It took us a while to get the joke, though. Even if we had connectivity, no one we wanted to contact did.

A healthy conversation was building up in the public space, and I was raring to get down to work and bring the world the news...

... But I had evidently been one of the lucky ones to even have got out my home.

If work expands to fill the time available, it also bursts at the seams when it is crunched.

But on that day, nature had a point to prove about the efficacy of the human will.

We finished the edition, but no one was able to reach the printing press at Maraimalai Nagar roughly 60 km away.

Several options for printing and distribution were considered. However, it was finally decided that the edition would be called off. It wasn't an easy decision, though...

No one was sure of the state of the roads. And the office taxi service was unable to reach their drivers. So, many of us stayed back at the office.

Chennai had last seen rains on this scale about 10 years ago. But the observed devastation then had been much smaller. The city has since expanded with unchecked real-estate development on marshlands, tanks and other ecologically fragile areas which normaly would have acted as flood management systems.

It came to public attention that there are over


illegal constructions

according to the Chennai municipality... and more than


tanks, canals and lakes have disappeared

In subsequent weeks, we would come to know about several other such projects that were lined up for the coming years, including a large township in the floodplains of the catchment area of a lake!

As I killed the late hours with some handy research to get a better grip on the situation, I found that...

... even a perfunctory look at this disaster throws up several interesting questions...

... including questions about the extent of control we can really exercise over our enviroment, even in our thriving democracy, and the consequences of this mismatch.

The usually deserted MRTS stations were now crowded with humanity from nearby slums and acting as zones of refuge for thousands of Chennai's displaced. At least five stations had become makeshift shelters.

The government has since restarted the process of resettling affected slum-dwellers from their homes, now inundated around the river banks, to housing complexes at Kannagi Nagar and Perumbakkam.

The effectiveness of this attempt at resettlement, though, is rendered questionable by the fact that these areas have virtually no last-mile connectivity, schools or healthcare centres.

The water supply in the housing colony has been found to have fecal matter and declared unfit for human consumption.

More and more people are being dumped in these high-rise cesspools that have little-to-no maintenance and a living area of just over 150 square feet for a family of four-five human beings.

The dark storm cloud was not without its silver lining, albeit meagre. The days to follow would see a host of Good Samaritans come together from all walks of civil society and form voluntary groups engaged in assiduous relief work. This saw a boom in people's participation in city issues.

More significantly, though, several myths about the sustainability of our current lifestyle have been busted.

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