Chennai deluge is governance failure

The city’s residents are once again at the receiving end of the aftermath of a cyclone-induced cloudburst.
People wade through a waterlogged road after heavy rainfall owing to Cyclone Michaung, in Chennai, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (PTI Photo)
People wade through a waterlogged road after heavy rainfall owing to Cyclone Michaung, in Chennai, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Cyclonic storm; unrelenting downpour; flooding of houses, shops, factories, streets, roads and highways; vehicles floating like wood; largescale evacuation; boats transporting people; residents walking miles in knee-deep water to buy essentials; relief camps all over the place; citizens standing in long queues for food packets, doles and handouts from politicians have all become a familiar sight in Chennai.  

The city’s residents are once again at the receiving end of the aftermath of a cyclone-induced cloudburst. The experience is almost similar to the deluge of December 2015, and in some cases, worse. Soon after the 2015 deluge, Chennai civil society mobilised into a ‘Citizens platform’ and went through several brainstorming sessions at Stella Maris College and SBOA School. A consensus evolved that the deluge was caused not by nature but destruction of nature’s right of way and storage by heavily emasculating waterways, waterbodies, marshes and mudflats.

M G Devasahayam is a former
IAS officer with experience in
urban development.

Based on people’s inputs ‘Citizens platform’ placed its demands before the government in April 2016. These included framing of a visionary, regenerative water governance and security policy and implementing it by prioritising retrieval, rehabilitation, protection and maintenance of all water resources, associated common lands and water management structures.

Chennai Metropolitan Authority’s population at that time was 11 million, and estimated to reach 12.5 million by 2026. The Second Master Plan, notified in 2008 (SMP-2026) has the following ‘Vision 2026’: “To make Chennai a prime metropolis which will be more liveable, economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable, and with better assets for the future generations.”

Unfortunately, urbanisation was not being guided by this plan and the development agenda has become real-estate driven. The biggest casualty of this predatory ‘development’ is water management which has two dimensions. One, to prevent and abate floods and two, to assure year-round access to quality water for drinking, industrial and other purposes. This calls for an integrated water resource management blueprint for CMA to be made part of urban planning, development and governance.

This blueprint should cover rain audit, sustainable ground and surface water abstraction, wastewater discharge, treatment and reuse, water conveyance and distribution efficiency, sanitation services, public toilets and baths, stormwater collection and draining system, rainwater harnessing and harvesting, flood control measures, groundwater and aquifer conservation and recharging, reservoir optimisation and storage efficiency, cleaning and desilting of rivers and water ways; waterbodies linkage and networking; demand side management, community-based decentralised initiatives and technology-driven smart solutions.

Law of metropolitan governance is contained in Article 243P of Constitution (74th amendment) Act-1992 (CAA) which defines ‘metropolitan areas’ as those having “population of a million or more, comprised in one or more districts and consisting of two or more municipalities/panchayats/other contiguous areas.” It mandates the formation of a metropolitan planning committee for preparing draft development plans, considering common interests between local authorities, objectives and priorities set by central and state governments, and investments likely to be made in the area by various agencies.

Under the CAA-1992, the key to effective, efficient urban planning, development and investment as well as urban sustainability is the state of institutional framework ultimately responsible for it and the system of governance in which these institutions function. An attempt was made in this direction by Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission launched in 2005 and the city development plan (CDP) prepared thereof. As part of JNNURM initiative to transform CMC from a mere urban local body into a full-fledged urban local government, CMA’s CDP was revised. An international expert team of which I was part, did this and presented a CDP in 2009.  

Implementing the vision and strategies of SMP and CDP called for eco-sensitive development plan which was attempted by first identifying its ‘ecologically-sensitive’ and suggesting a macro-growth strategy to protect critical environmental assets and discourage urban sprawl. Blueprint therefore suggested rehabilitation of the city’s waterways to manage water resources better and to ward off threat of floods and drought. It recommended nil construction on waterways, waterbodies, marshes, low-rise-low density construction in adjacent lands and medium to high-rise-high-density construction at other places. A macro-growth plan was recommended incorporating these elements.

Considering the extremely poor capacity of the archaic CMC, CDP suggested a region-based metropolitan governance framework. This will be a union made up of an enlarged CMC and several municipalities, town and village panchayats within the boundaries of CMA with technical/management trained personnel. ULG thus formed would perform all the key functions as envisaged in CAA-1992 (12th Schedule) that include urban planning and development; land-use and construction; economic and social development; roads and bridges; water supply; public health and sanitation conservancy; urban forestry and environment protection; provision of urban amenities etc. IWRM would be a critical part of this governance framework.

None of these seem to have been implemented even after being reiterated post-2015 deluge. In the meantime, the governance-centred JNNURM has been replaced with digital-driven Smart City Mission. In the event instead of an urban government, CMA has a patchwork of agencies with chaos and corruption, ruling the roost. And so, Deluge-2023 is not nature’s curse but clear governance failure and Chennaites are fated to pay a heavy price!

Footnote is a weekly column that discusses issues relating to Tamil Nadu

M G Devasahayam  is a former IAS officer with experience in urban development

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