The flood that ravaged Chennai last week was not a natural disaster, but caused by the bureaucracy's failure to regulate release of water from Chembarambakkam reservoir (lake) in the outskirts of the city.
Those privy to developments in the state secretariat during the last week of November say that in the wake of international agencies predicting 500mm of rain for Chennai on December 1 and 2, public works department (PWD) officials had advised the secretary and other senior bureaucrats to bring down the water level in the reservoir from 22ft to below 18ft so the lake could absorb heavy inflow four days later.
But the proposal to release lake water was caught in bureaucratic red tape.Sources said the PWD secretary waited for chief secretary's nod to open the sluice gates -and whose nod the chief secretary was waiting for still remains a mystery. Orders to open the Chembarambakkam sluice gates -rather flood gates -were not received till the city received was pounded with rain and the reservoir started overflowing. “The state administration maintained that the release from the reservoir into Adyar river was only 33,500 cusecs (cubic feet per second; 1 cubic ft is 28.3 litres of water), which is the maximum capacity of the gates, from December 1 night onwards. But the actual release was more than double that, and nobody has any idea how much it was because water was overflowing from Chembarambakkam after the reservoir reached its full capacity of 24 feet. The problem was compounded as Athannur lake breached, releasing about 5,000 cusecs into the Adyar,“ said a highly placed source in PWD.
“The city has paid the price for having a bunch of bureaucrats who don't have he guts to act on their own We were lucky that the reservoir, despite overflowing, did not breach,“said a senior AS official, who was coordinating rescue operations.
Madras Institute of Development Studies professor S Janakarajan said the ad ministration should not have viewed Chembaram bakkam in isolation. The ake and Adyar river are con nected to about 200 tanks, he said. Even if 33,500 cusecs had been released from Chembarambakkam, by the ime the water reached Sai dapet, it would have swelled o 60,000 cusecs because of additional flow from other water bodies enroute. The administration failed to gauge this and hapless people paid the price for it, he explained.
The magnitude of the disaster was more because here was no advisory issued to people living in low-lying areas, warning them that their homes could get flooded. To add to the misery, Chennai city police officers were instructed to keep their cell phones switched off (much before mobile phone towers went down) and carry out all communications only through wireless sets.Hence, people in distress could not seek help by reaching out to officials in their locality.
TOI's repeated efforts to get responses from the chief secretary and PWD secretary went in vain. Some pertinent questions that remain unanswered are: Whose orders were the bureaucrats waiting for to open the reservoir sluices? Will anybody be held responsible for the lapses? And, at least now, will the government put a standard operating procedure in place to keep reservoirs at safe levels?
'Control Room Not Activated'
Experts call it the single biggest blunder by the TN government which is battling the Chennai floods.
Much of the 1.15 lakh-strong police force of Tamil Nadu remained largely idle during this past fortnight, as the government did not follow the standard operating procedure to mobilize the police for rescue and relief operations. While the 28,000-odd police personnel in Chennai were engaged in pretty regular law and order, crowd control and `VIP duty', more than 65% of the state police force based in districts unaffected by rains was reduced to being mere spectators, a retired police officer who had handled such situations, told TOI .
Usually , when a calamity strikes a region, the ready-touse control room at the state police headquarters is activated, and a circular is issued to all district police chiefs to rush a certain number of personnel to the affected region. During a calamity of this size, each district could have easily rushed about 1,000 personnel, the officer said.
“By not following this protocol, the government wasted the services of about 30,000 cops whose presence at disaster areas would have brought about public order and confidence,“ he said.Notably , neither the DGP nor the police commissioner was present at a press convened by the chief secretary and attended by other department heads and ministers.
The TN police have a ready-to-use master control room, complete with its own wireless communication network, high frequency communication system and microphone network meant for emergency use. This is in addition to a fleet of vehicles including two-wheelers, buses, trucks and all-terrain vehicles, drivers, divers, ration and diesel storage. Much of these facilities idled during the floods and during rescue and relief operations. Not many were aware of a food control room at the police headquarters, and hence it is no surprise that it received few calls during the crisis.
“The state government failed to establish a single command structure and bring all agencies under its control...when every VVIP visit witnesses such mobilization and single command is established as per Blue Book, why it was not done during the Chennai deluge is still a mystery,“ said another officer.