Why is Chennai never monsoon-ready?

The northeast monsoon has finally arrived, albeit a little late. As against the normal date of September 1, the southwest monsoon withdrew (from some parts of Punjab, Haryana and north Rajasthan) on October 9. The India Meteorological Department said the most delayed withdrawal in past years was recorded in 1961 (October 1) followed by 2007 (September 30).

One would imagine that this delayed onset — and a harsh summer — would have given the government enough time to prep for the rainy months ahead.

However, while efforts are on to tackle any disaster-like situation, the network of stormwater drains (SWD) — crucial during the season — is not faring very well.

Post-flood report

Memories of the 2015 floods that wreaked havoc on the city are still fresh in the minds of Chennaiites. This year, the State government has sanctioned ₹38.52 crore for acquiring ‘special equipment’ to strengthen the State Disaster Response Force. Reports claim that over 6,000 trained personnel have been deployed across the State (for rescue and relief work) and 4,399 places have been identified as vulnerable sites.

Personnel from the Fire and Rescue Services and several volunteers have also been trained.

Construction of stormwater drains on Poonamallee High Road earlier this year

But how does one know if these numbers exist just on paper and if our officials have actually learnt from their many failures during the 2015 disaster?

After the floods, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) came out with a detailed performance audit titled ‘Flood management and response in Chennai and its suburban areas’.

Although the report strongly points out inefficiencies in planning and implementation, we are a long way from being monsoon-prepared.

SWD network

Over the last few weeks, desilting and re-laying of SWDs was seen in areas like Mylapore, CIT Nagar, Anna Nagar, etc., but the work is still continuing or is incomplete in many localities.

Last year, areas with functional drainage systems flooded even after light showers, raising questions on whether SWDs are executed with topographical, meteorological and hydrological studies in place.

Despite the CAG report pointing out that Chennai and its suburbs were way behind target in putting SWD networks in place, work was started in many localities only early this month, with work in some areas beginning only this week.

A snapshot from October 2019 of a conservancy worker draining stagnated rain water in Egmore

On ground

A report in The Hindu in August this year highlighted that 35% of Chennai’s SWDs were not ready for rains, and that many drains in key localities had not been desilted. Take, for instance, stretches along G.N. Chetty Road, Venkat Narayana Road, Panagal Park, and North Boag Road in T. Nagar. Work in certain lanes was started less than a week ago.

And several stretches along G.N. Chetty Road have been dug up for weeks. And now, the rains have arrived and work has been stalled.

The deep trenches are filled with water and construction material is strewn on the roadsides. It’s the same scenario in areas like Nandanam, Adyar (L.B. Road to be specific), and Mambalam, to name a few. Following this week’s moderate downpour, several areas were waterlogged and witnessed heavy traffic snarls.

With the IMD predicting ‘light/moderate fairly widespread to widespread rainfall with isolated heavy falls’ in the coming weeks, the situation is only going to get worse. And our clogged SWDs are only going to add to our woes.

This, obviously, is adding to the existing encroachment of roads, already crowded due to parked cars and illegal roadside eateries.

Despite the many months the government had to complete the relaying of SWD lines and desilt existing ones, officials chose to it take up just before the monsoon. What sense does this make?

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