Why the middle class is only a minor victim but a big cause of the floods in Chennai

Why the middle class is only a minor victim but a big cause of the floods in Chennai
Photo Credit: CC(For illustrative use only)
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There is not a great deal left to say about the recent floods in south India. Nagraj Adve has flagged their connection with climate change here; Nityanand Jayaraman has written about the disappearance of Chennai’s marshes and lakes through a systematic pattern of urban redevelopment favouring the rich and propertied.

Some themes however merit further discussion. The first is the question of climate change and its connection with extreme weather events like this one. Global warming leads to an increase in evaporation: a warmer atmosphere can hold proportionately more water vapour than before (about 7 percent more for each degree Celsius of warming). This, in conjunction with other atmospheric patterns, favours precipitation that is more intense and disjointed. In other words, more rain tends to fall in a shorter span of time.

This means that levels of daily rainfall that were once relatively rare (occurring every fifty or a hundred years) are becoming more frequent. Worldwide, such events have increased by 12 percent in 1980-2010; in south east Asia alone the rise is 56 percent according to a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Over much of the US, the heaviest rainfall events are heavier and more frequent than in 1958 (with precipitation rising by as much as 70 percent in some regions). And all this at about 1 degree Celsius of warming – which could quite easily go beyond 4 degrees Celsius well before century’s end as things stand.

The perfect storm

The seas are rising, and will keep rising, because oceans absorb most of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions. Water expands as it becomes hotter (a process known as thermal expansion); meanwhile the progressive melting of mountain glaciers and the massive ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic adds enormous quantities of water previously locked up as ice.

Sea level rise makes storm surges (abnormal rises of water kicked up by tropical cyclones as they approach the coast) more destructive: the surge is lifted higher, inundating more land. Should they intersect with high tides and extreme rainfall (that dumps a lot of water very quickly into streams and rivers flowing into the sea) the prospect for coastal settlements is potentially catastrophic.

Tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal tend to affect Bangladesh particularly badly for a number of reasons, but the whole eastern coast of India is becoming progressively more vulnerable as a result of climate change. This is quite apart from the more “normal” effects of sea level rise such as coastal inundation and saltwater ingress (the process whereby seawater penetrates into inland water tables). The current floods should be regarded as a warning of the escalating hazards to which the coast is now exposed.

Before going on to them, it is worth mentioning the parlous state of irrigation tanks in the countryside (built, after all, to store surface runoff). Many are badly maintained; in some places villagers have simply parceled the lake bed into fields. This privatization of a common resource has few overt consequences when rainfall is low (as it usually is), but magnifies economic losses in seasons like this. Meanwhile a valuable source of irrigation and groundwater recharge is destroyed.

The complicity of the middle-class

In Chennai, the differential impacts of flooding are starkly visible. Slums and shantytowns along the Adyar river have been swept away; middle-class localities, by contrast, have suffered only considerable inconvenience. The responsibility for this tends to be palmed off upon corrupt politicians and bad city planning: this ignores the fact that it is essentially the middle-class that has made Chennai what it is today. Like other Indian cities, it has grown over decades through the elementary process of speculators and developers buying agricultural land at its fringes and converting it into building lots, with no concern for natural drainage. The middle-class has been only too happy to buy up land and houses in desirable locations without ever considering whether these were marshland or lake-beds.

The usual argument that municipal authorities are solely to blame for this mess evades a much wider collective complicity. Local chambers of commerce in Indian cities, and professional associations of shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and the like, make regular representations to government on issues of interest to them – tax breaks, light regulation, roads, electricity. On the necessity of zoning, public transport, parks, the preservation of waterbodies and the regulation of construction etc. they maintain a deafening silence.

Planning blueprints over the years have pointed to these imperatives; they have been flouted without exception by successive state governments nudged by business interests, big and small. Who would bet against the likelihood that the displaced shanty dwellers of Chennai will not be allowed to return and rebuild, or that the high rises, office blocks, government buildings and private hospitals on the Pallikaranai marshland will remain undisturbed despite increasing the risk of flooding for miles around?

In a sense, the recent floods have only intensified structural inequalities so pervasive as to be virtually invisible. I happened to travel with some members of the TN labour blog to tribal hamlets in Kanchipuram: in most cases, the Irulas did not so much as own titles to the land on which their huts are built. Many of these flimsy structures have been damaged, forcing their inhabitants to move into relief camps. They have been without work for many days, and, since they depend entirely upon wage labour, the short term outlook is grim. Yet what they wanted was not ‘relief’ but house titles.

Providing a plot out of the village commons where twenty or thirty huts can be built at a decent distance from each other should be no problem at all. Yet panchayats refuse to do this out of pervasive hostility and contempt towards groups like the Irulas and Narikuruvars. In other words, the lowest tier of rural self government simply abdicates one of its most elementary responsibilities – to ensure housing for all its members. Inevitably, state authorities charged with issuing formal titles, staffed largely by members of the dominant castes, show no interest in the question either.

The floods also reveal the understaffing of the state at the most basic level, where work actually gets done, and the falsity of the neo-liberal belief in downsizing. Waste management is a classic example. There are not enough workers to deal with garbage at the best of times; floods are the worst of times, when garbage piles up exponentially and more is generated in the name of relief. Yet the number of sanitation workers is wholly inadequate to the task. This reflects a pervasive pattern whereby the lowest levels of government suffer from a chronic shortage of personnel.

We visited a settlement of Narikuruvars in south Chennai lucky enough to have some kind of slum housing. The lanes were awash with filth and water; set beside their normal living conditions the hardships enumerated in Facebook posts and blogs pale into utter insignificance. It is they who do the municipality’s work for it, collecting garbage from many localities and sorting and recycling it. The least the the city government could do in return is to facilitate co-operatives, enabling them to bargain with house-owners for better pay, and provide them with safety equipment and access to welfare benefits.

Indeed among the most obvious measures to mitigate future floods is the partial clearing of the Pallikaranai marsh by removing its more recent buildings (with some form of capped compensation if necessary to reflect the fact that they received construction permits), and recruitment of personnel in essential municipal services.

The trope of ‘resilience’

As for the gratingly upbeat coverage of heroes and good Samaritans, the stories about resilience and a rediscovered sense of community, the fact that many people tend to come to the help of others during times of crisis should not by itself be a cause for self-congratulation. The question is how they – all of us – behave once the crisis has passed: the pervasive indifference to civic issues, the social fault-lines we take for granted, the invisibility of those who work with their hands.

Already, the pumping of water (contaminated with sewage) from affected buildings and streets reveals the absence of drainage at every level: there is simply nowhere for it to go except into another street or house or (by preference) a public facility. Pits are being dug through roads, and gaping holes knocked into drains, in the hope that the water will disappear like a bad dream.

It will, in time. And this crisis will be forgotten, like others before it in Bombay, Uttarakhand, Kashmir. But the deluge will return, sooner rather than later, in Tamil Nadu or somewhere else, and with it the same set of problems. For the floods reveal not only the foreseeable impact of climate change but also our complete unpreparedness – in terms of social policy or infrastructure – to deal with them. To argue that it is the business of the state to devise an effective strategy is to put the cart before the horse: for that to happen collective attitudes will have to change first.

At the end of Invisible Cities, his novel cast as dialogue between a fictional Marco Polo and an equally fictional Kublai Khan, Italo Calvino has the traveler explain to the emperor that the inferno of the living is ‘where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not the inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’

This is not merely a metaphysical conclusion but also a practical one. It is all we can do, and if we can do it, it is, in all conscience, enough.