All it took was a week-long rain to bring the city of Chennai and its suburbs to its knees. People who had, until the day before, been living in their secure middle-class laps of luxury suddenly lost everything and were reduced to literally begging for food, water, and milk for their babies.
At nights, the high tides of the sea push all the water out that flows into it from the rivers and canals. For some unexplainable reason, the Public Works Department chose to ignore this fundamental knowledge and released the excess waters from the lakes in the darkness of the night, with no prior information.
All these are nothing when you look at certain parts of the city where water, mixed with sewage, continues to stagnate even after weeks. One doesn’t have to try hard to figure out the reason for this – rampant encroachment. Driven by our requirements and greed, we plundered the jungles and destroyed the elephant tracks. The confused elephants, that weren’t able to find their routes, wandered into the human habitats and destroyed the crops. It was the same with water too. When its natural routes were either destroyed or blocked, water took the available routes. It just so happened that these routes were streets and roads.
Whose fault was it?
The slush that drowned the apartments in various parts of the city was the result of encroachments of the canals that took water from the lakes to the rivers, and on the dried-up ponds and lakebeds. The disaster was a ticking time bomb. The masses paid the price for the mistakes committed by a few. The blind eye that the governments had turned to these violations played a huge role in worsening the situation.
Politicians and governments of the present and past were more interested in consolidating their votebanks when they went about issuing pattas to the encroached land. Safety of the metropolis was the last thing on their minds. They probably might have realized their folly only after the rain water flooded Gopalapuram and the Jaya TV office. Rain doesn’t discriminate between the ruling and opposition parties, you see. When the government realized that the demand for removing the encroachments was getting stronger, in a better-late-than-never style, it appointed officers to clear the water courses.
A special team was appointed under the leadership of Rajaraman, the officer who had efficiently supervised the relief and rescue operations in Kancheepuram district. One of the members of the team is IAS officer Amudha, who is the special officer in-charge for the damage caused by the rain and flood waters. With the army by her side, she began rescuing the marooned in Tambaram and Mudichur.
When the rains finally stopped and water started to recede, she shifted her attention to removing the encroachments. Her first target – the more than 150 encroachments at Ambedkar Pudhunagar on Tambaram Kishkinta Road, the encroachments on the canals that lead to River Adayar in Mudichur and Varadharajapuram, and on the canals that drain out excess water at Manimangalam. Despite stiff opposition from local politicians, she goes about her tasks.
When we met her, Amudha was supervising the encroachment clearing tasks at Manimangalam.
“I have been appointed as special officer for the damage caused by the waters,” she began. “The government has given me three tasks. First, we rescued the people who were stranded in the water. We then concentrated on the relief measures. Finally, we are clearing the encroachments on the canals to make sure that there is no recurrence of such disasters. There were many who tried to stop and intimidate the workers, but we ignore them. It is these encroachments that led to the water stagnation. Most of these encroachments were shops and retail outlets.
“People have to understand one thing very clearly. They so passionately protest for so many unnecessary issues. When you see someone encroaching on your land and water resources, you must protest from the very beginning. Only this will put fear in the minds of the encroachers. You don’t have to be scared of the politicians and the political parties. If you block all the canals that lead to the rivers, water will, of course, flood the houses,” she said and shifted her attention back her work.
A temple stands on the canal near Manimangalam. The ‘devout geniuses’ who had built the temple had constructed its supporting pillars right in the canal. The passage beneath the temple was very narrow and it was completely blocked with floating garbage. Water couldn’t make its way to the canal and flooded the town. The water had completely drowned the ground floor and was fast rising to touch the first floor. Despite the widespread destruction, people were actually requesting Amudha to not demolish the temple! The authorities were forced to leave the temple intact and instead cleared the garbage beneath the temple and demolished the steps and the nearby road to make way for the water.
The owner of a nearby property encroached on the mouth of the canal to build the staircase to his two-storied building. The canal that was nine feet wide, barely measured three feet near the staircase. Amudha first demolished the staircase. She next gave the house owner three days’ time to remove all the belonging from the building and vacate the premises.
When she arrived with her crew to demolish the building, the owner thought he had a powerful argument when he said, “How am I supposed to vacate the building when there are no stairs to remove the things?”
Amudha replied, “We had demolished the stairs right in front of your eyes. Remove the household items immediately or we will demolish the building too.” She then went ahead and did exactly what she said.
Within minutes of demolishing the encroachment, the water that had been stagnating for days, drained into the canal and disappeared. Onlookers applauded and praised Amudha for her exemplary work. Her determination and dedication to the task has created panic in the minds of encroachers.
Encroachments, especially the ones on canals and water courses, should be removed all over Tamil Nadu, on war footing. It is the duty of the government to ensure that these encroachments do not crop up again. Lest we forget, it is our responsibility too.