Almost five years and five days to that fateful night when many lost their homes and possessions in the floods of Dec 1-2, the water-logged streets and suburbs became an unpleasant reminder of what was
arguably one of the most devastating outcomes of human laxity and poor disaster management ever recorded. The 2015 floods will go down as one of AIADMK’s biggest setbacks, which is why, with elections 6 months away, it becomes even more crucial AIADMK takes Nivar head-on. Not just to erase the bad memories, but to show lessons were learnt. It is commendable that Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is aware of that. And by personally supervising the opening of the sluice gates at Chembarambakkam dam, he is out to prove there is a new style of leadership at the helm of the party. To understand why this one act is significant, it is worth revisiting the series of incidents that led up to the flooding in 2015.
Chembarambakkam Lake is a freshwater reservoir upon which Chennai is dependent for its drinking water supply. Being rain-fed, the lake level is routinely monitored, and excess water during rains is released to prevent breaching. However, on the days leading up to the floods, Tamil Nadu was experiencing extremely heavy rainfall and inundation in several parts of the capital city. And despite reports on rising lake water levels, particularly Chembarambakkam, officials failed to take note of the potential danger. There were whispers that officials were awaiting ‘permission’ from the top which compounded the delay. When the excess water was finally released, the quantity was far higher than permissible limits, and the rest is history.
Even though the government attempted to term it a natural disaster by blaming it on unnaturally heavy rainfall and even connecting it to El Nino, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) categorised the flooding across Tamil Nadu as a “man-made disaster,” in July 2018 and held the Government of Tamil Nadu responsible for the scale of the calamity.
The impact of this flooding was catastrophic. In the days that followed, power supply had been suspended causing emergency services to stop, including hospitals where helpless patients lost their lives. The cost of milk, vegetables soared, many homes were irreparably damaged, cars and documents ruined – the list is endless. It is estimated that several thousand street vendors and petty shop owners were rendered jobless. The rainfall and flooding forced several major automakers to halt production, resulting in estimated losses of up to Rs 10 billion. Many major information technology companies closed their offices and transferred operations to other locations in cities including Pune and Bengaluru.
So for the CM, the visit to the dam on Nov 25, just hours before Cyclone Nivar made its landfall, was not just a photo op. This was a signal they are ready and prepared to do things differently. During the floods of 2015, EPS was minister of Highways and Minor Ports in then CM J Jayalalithaa’s cabinet, and it was a year later, in 2016 that he got the Minister of Public Works portfolio as well. He’s had a few years to hone his skills and despite the water-logging and power problems, the city limped back to its feet in 24 hours after Nivar. The airport resumed flights, Metro started services and all essential services continued to work. But most visibly at work was the government machinery with even Opposition leaders hitting the ground. While it’s not possible to predict the CM’s fortunes based on this instance of crisis management, it would be fair to say that if EPS continues to manage his optics and the concerns of the people as he did at Chembarambakkam, he could become the kind of leader the State has not seen in a while – one who walks the talk.