Author: Ranjani.K.Murthy, January 7 2016 - Living in Chennai at the time of 2015 floods (which in fact hit several coastal districts of the state Tamil Nadu), and hearing commentaries of how climate change and poor disaster reduction/management were responsible for the deaths and the crisis that followed, I was thinking there is something missing in the debate. The missing element was the direction of development followed in Tamil Nadu, and perhaps globally.

The direction was based on allowing the markets to operate with little control, and the state not applying floors and ceilings as controls. At the time of the floods, real estate was booming in Chennai, as well as IT corridors. To support this in some areas, marshy land and water bodies were converted into concrete structures. In times of floods, the water could not flow to these reserve areas. The real estate boom was also created by not placing any ceiling on how many houses a household could own. There were households owning three houses (and cars) or more. Non-resident Indian were also allowed to invest in houses and land in Tamil Nadu. While in theory wet land (agriculture) could not be converted for other purposes, it was happening in rural areas for industrial, real estate and tourism purposes. There was little investment in maintaining canals flowing into river and sea. Instead, the emphasis was on market-led economic development, albeit restricted to manufacturing and services. 

While bans (e.g. non conversion of marshy land) and ceilings were few, there were also no floors. Along the Adyar river (which overflowed with water being released from Chembarabakkam Lake), there were poor households who resided in huts with thatched roofs. The government had offered some of the residents cemented one room accommodation 30 kilometers away from the city, but they did not want to go as their livelihood would be affected. That is, 'minimum floors' were not created for safe housing in the middle of the city. Many such households lost their belongings, and some, even members' lives. In affected rural areas as well, it was the Dalits (untouchables) and Irulas (a tribal community) who resided along the banks in huts. The government's rural housing schemes had not reached some of them.

Yes, some of the well-to-do households who purchased house in low-lying areas lost assets, but they can buy it back within a year or two. For the poor, who lost lives and assets, it is a long journey. When the government comes offering relief of Rs 5000 many of the poor women  are away working, while normally in the well-to-do households, somebody is there to access relief.

Climate change mitigation/adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures should go hand in hand with a development paradigm that puts environment, economic and social justice at the center. Otherwise, they will be ineffective

Image credit: Wikipedia