Chennai must look beyond the flood relief spectacle

The Chennai flood has left a watermark. It speaks of the heights the swollen waters had reached. And, ironically, the depths it is now touching, as well. Without fail, almost on an everyday basis, we see photographs of Chennai’s leading industrialists and businessmen including those wanting to be regarded as ‘leading’ posing with ‘Amma’ handing over cheques of 1 crore and above towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Within a week we have turned a tragedy into a political, financial and branding exercise.

Knowing very well the openness of India’s political leaders to flattery and, equally, their vengefulness, business houses have very little choice but to use this moment to earn brownie points and – let us not forget – benefits. Donations such as these earn tax rebates. How many of the donors are going to say ‘This is our contribution and we are not going to claim a tax rebate on it’? These donations are, therefore, not entirely about the ‘dharma of giving’. Nor are they entirely about pleasing the political power centre. No one seems to find the use of donations as tax breaks, in these times of need, to be poor in taste and worse in ethics. As one hand offers the cheque the other quietly accepts the rebate, one that these large companies can for sure forgo. But nevertheless the drama plays out unquestioned. World over we have built tax regimes that use tax breaks as ‘bribes’ to encourage contributions to larger social causes. Then there is the publicity generated from this show of generosity for both the corporate and the Chief Minister. This is a corporate-political coup, one in which the real happenings are forgotten and savvy philanthropy holds sway. There is always the counter argument that publicity is a much necessary component to ‘giving’ since it in turn inspires others to do the same. There is some truth in this, but so often giving ‘in the spotlight’ turns into ‘basking in the limelight’.
We, the people look at the amounts on these cheques with our mouths wide open and our respect for our city-based businessmen and women soars, reassured that the corporate world has responded to this crisis. But there is more. And it is more than sad. All this wonderment, dullens our minds to a very important truth. If we examine the origins of the ‘unprecedented flood’, we will see almost at once that it was not just what the skies were doing but what was happening on the earth. One major contributor to all that led to the collapse of our ‘urban settlement’ we call Chennaipattinam, was the thoughtless and limitless growth of industries, private and public the pollutants they have discharged into our land and water. For how long and with what abandon have the giants giving their giant cheques been a factor in the devastation caused by Chennai’s inability to receive and hold water in its tanks, ponds, water-bodies and wetlands?

There seems to be one unwritten agreement among business houses. They are all part of corporate associations such as CII or FICCI, which are basically ‘unions’ they use as lobbying platforms. Companies will never come out and hold a compatriot-member accountable unless the law of the land convicts him or his actions affects their own interests. Their silence allows for the exploitation of people and environments. These cheques therefore mean nothing unless the industries individually and through a collective voice look beyond their own business interests and say ‘Our development methodology has been at fault; we must all take a new look at it.’ What is needed more than cheques, is corrective action. No amount of outreach activities can replace honest empathetic living.

And what about us, the ‘ordinary’ citizens of Chennai, where do we go from here? We have all done our bit, haven’t we? We packed food, sourced much needed relief material, even rescued people. Now that it is done and we feel wonderful about ourselves, is it only time now to do what status quoists famously advise – to ‘ move on’? And in any case what does ‘moving on’ really mean? Are we going to casually leave behind the hurt, bruising, suffering, loss of livelihood and health that we were witness to? Time will heal and memories will fade we are told. But I don’t want these horrible memories to dissolve. Once that happens we slide back into being ruthless selfish consumers. We use people around us and build utilitarian relationships where everyone is a mere enabling tool to satiate our needs. But what I want and how I go about getting it impacts people and lands that I may never know exist. It is not only land sharks that are to blame for the destruction of our Eri’s and marshlands. For many of us these spaces did not matter. Those living in ivory towers believed that the disappearance of natural bodies will not affect them, after all money can buy anything. We the empowered are constantly putting pressure on living spaces within the city forcing prices to rise, consequently leading to the uncontrolled expansion of the city. The slum of course is an eyesore, one that should be erased the way we stamp out an anthill. The legal and the illegal are used by the powerful for their own ends, the poor always being on the side of illegality. The politician only takes advantage of who we are, a society of corrupt self-serving power brokers.

As a ‘person of Chennai’ I need to, at the critical juncture, change my mind-map of the city. It can no longer be limited to my geo-stationary position and functionality. Space is unbounded; we have carved out varied shapes, pushing people into matrices, social, financial and political hierarchy being the determinants. This manipulation needs to be addressed if we want to avert another rain-related or cyclone-driven crisis. Chennai to me must hereafter mean every narrow road, kuppam, housing board settlement and fishing village that dots its coast. The fruit seller I pass everyday en route my fifteenth floor air-conditioned cabin must become more than just another face on the street. A construction of a flyover must not only be about transport convenience and job creation. It must also be seen as a more-than-likely cause for environmental degradation, waterbody-strangulation, forced migration and unemployment. After seeing heaps of waste on our streets will I realize that my waste does not just go away? It is only removed from my sight and dumped in places where people who ‘don’t matter’ live. They suffer the consequences of my avariciousness, forcing them to scavenge through my rubbish for just one square meal. And let us please see this as clearly as we see ‘that’ garbage heap: the lack of awareness about indiscriminate consumption and waste disposal is not a problem of the uneducated mass; it is the educated rich class. It is that which needs to take so much more blame. We have created an aspirational living model that is inherently abusive. Culturally too we have to rediscover our identity. Culture moulds the way we think, feel, experience and respond and therefore a fundamental shift is essential. The Gana songs inspired by Kunangudi Mastan Sahib sung by a Dalit daily-wage worker living on the banks of the Cooum river and a Tyagaraja kirtana rendered by a Mylapore Brahmin Carnatic musician must live equitably within all of us.

I have heard many proudly proclaim that Chennai is back on its feet. But which Chennai are we talking about? The one that exists between Alwarpet and Besant Nagar or the one that exists in the irrelevant by-lanes of Vyasarpadi, Manali, Mudichur and Nesapakkam? Things are normal for whom? There are scores of people still battling the financial and emotional trauma of the floods. Heading back to work is not a choice, it is the unfortunate compulsion of their reality. Normalcy is only a convenient expression used by the privileged to justify their insensitivity. We are a long way from any semblance of it.
The drowning of Chennai was a watershed moment, not just for the inhabitants of its landscape. It revealed the undeniable inter-connectedness of all our lives. The Chennai disaster was man-made, some even call it mass-murder by sterile, synthetic people. It is an environmental, political and social issue but at its very core it is about human nature. The sooner we begin living with this awareness, the greater chance of transformation. Cosmetic solutions will congeal the wound, not heal the lacerations within. And when on another December night, the gash reopens we may have a heavier price, by far, to pay.

Originally written for Indian Express

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