From Chennai with Love

I was born and brought up In Chennai, and there is something here amidst the crowd and sweltering heat that is unique and different that I love about Chennai. Its wide roads, huge beautiful old heritage buildings, the bustling Central Station, the ever so beautiful Marina beach… The last few weeks have been so difficult, watching the pain that Chennai was going through. But some obvious and hidden lessons have to come through from this pain.

 A lot of analysis will start soon on the reasons for the flooding that drowned Chennai. Yes, Chennai did get its heaviest rain fall in 100 years. This is big. But Chennai and its politicians and bureaucrats will have a lot of answering to do on why they gave away the marshlands and lakes that were meant to soak up excess rain to developers. Perhaps these very same politicians and bureaucrats were drowned with lots of cash at that point in time. But how dare they do this and drive the lives of thousands of citizens to misery. And the floods were merciless not caring if you are rich or poor. I saw an amazing picture on social media in which I believe it was AC Muthiah, the millionaire industrialist being rescued in a boat with his wife – what a leveler nature is! Soon the debate and blame game will start, and reports will be written and given to governments on what lessons Chennai has for the other cities of India. Seminars will be held, NGO’s will be busy urging other state governments with petitions from Change.Org and Avaaz to clean up their act.

Amidst this entire lesson learning frenzy, I suspect a vital lesson may be lost, a lesson on sustainable living. While the huge section of the population suffered loss of life and property, majority of the population suffered immensely because of other reasons – lack of electricity, water, food, and waste disposal. I want us to look at all these factors….

Electricity was cut off in most parts of Chennai to prevent electrocution from loose live wires falling onto the roads. In the 70’s when electricity was cut off we calmly used candles and carried on with our lives. But now lack of electricity resulted in one major catastrophe – cell phones could not be charged. Even when charged, there was no network because cell phone towers perhaps had to turn off their electricity because of flood waters damaging their electrical infrastructure. This caused panic as people could not get in touch with each other, something they were accustomed to. If they needed help, they could not reach anyone as they were marooned in their homes. They charged their phones in the cars, and soon the cars ran out of gas and the petrol stations did not have electricity or were flooded and could not supply gas to charge the cell phones! In parts of Chennai electricity could not be restored for more than 4 days. All UPS’s shut down as they could not be charged. Total chaos!

The second factor was water. In the old days, we got most of our water from our well in the backyard and most homes had a well for their household needs. With the depletion of ground water resources, wells dried up and every one if now dependent on either water purification RO plants or bottled water from the local super market. Remember there was no electricity so even the charming ever green Hema Malini could not help us get shudh paani from her Kent RO plant. Most super markets were closed because of flooding and those who were open were selling water at rates close to hi octane jet fuel.

The third factor was food. People could not cook because their homes were flooded. But for those whose homes were not flooded, they did not have electricity to use their electric induction cookers. Those with LPG cylinders were dammed if they ran out of LPG on those days. Add to this the fact that food in the refrigerators were rotting because of lack of electricity. No chance of buying any food because all establishments – vegetable vendors, super markets, restaurants, hotels were all shut for 4 to 5 days in a row. It was heart wrenching to see people waiting for some food to thrown to them from helicopters. The warm hearts of India ensured that they responded fast enough to ensure supplies of some food for the suffering.

The fourth factor was waste disposal. At a home level, residents could not use their toilets leave alone take a bath, as they had no electricity to pump water to their overhead tanks. Apartment complexes with generators ran out of diesel so even they suffered. Excessive flooding caused drainage water to overflow and mix with flood waters and this is going to haunt Chennai for months to come. In some households the drainage stared to back into their own bathrooms making them completely unusable. There was no place to dispose of whatever little food waste in the homes, so they started to rot within the house.

I am reminded of the circumstances that prompted me to develop a fully sustaining living model which I eventually did with my resort – Our Native Village, an eco resort,  just outside Bangalore. On the farm land where my resort is built, we do not have the civic services that urbanites enjoy in the city. We do not get electricity most of the time, we do not have water supply from the government, we do not have municipal waste management services, and the closest market for food is 45 minutes away. At that point in time I saw what I termed ‘man made poverty’; farmers suffering because they did not have electricity to use their bore well pumps. These were the same farmers who knew how to harness and live in harmony with nature. They had skills passed down across generations that helped them avoid the harshness of droughts and floods. But these same farmers were told, as part of the green revolution in India, that they have to be progressive and not dependent on rain to grow crops. They were given bore wells and soon became dependent on it and lost all their skills and knowledge on how to harmonise with nature. And then the same benevolent government that gave them their bore wells pulled the plug and said, sorry no electricity! When I saw this, I said to myself that there is a flaw in what we term and perceive to be progress.

This flaw is coming back to my mind when I looked at the lives of the folks in Chennai for 4 to 5 days when all civic services that they have become so dependent on come to a sloshing, wet, drowning halt. We have to become self sufficient and live a more sustainable life style and stop our dependence on the any outside entity to provide us with basic civic services like energy, water, food, waste management. We did it with my resort a decade ago. It is even more easy and cost effective now.

Here is a list of 4 if’s…..

If every household in Chennai had solar panels over their roofs to power their homes, their first problem of electricity would have been solved. Even with not too much sunlight, these new age solar PV cells are quite effective in generating electricity. If every household in Chennai has enough rain water harvesting capacity for their own homes, not just to charge the ground water but stored water for their own use, they would not have suffered lack of water. If every household could grow most of their food, it would have been so much easier and healthier also! A household of 4 needs about 500 square meters of space – space, not land to grow their own food. If every household had a small sewage treatment plant and a mini home composting unit for their waste, their waste disposal woes will have been taken care of. The least we can do is to take responsibility for our own waste.

What happened in Chennai was a once in a hundred year event. Will this repeat? Will it be worse? Will there be other such calamities that we are just not likely to be prepared? Will we learn? Will we apply the learning?

For all the love that the world has shown Chennai during these past weeks, and through all the pain that Chennai has gone through, this vital lesson on sustainable living is the return gift from Chennai to the world.