This article is part of HWO’s series on The Political Environment. The series explores how environmental change has been created and contested in the past, and asks how this history might widen the scope of our political imagination in response to global ecological crisis today. You can read an introduction to the series here.

In 1969, the Tamil writer Asokamitran penned a novel titled Thaneer (meaning ‘water’) about the daily-drudgery of collecting water in the city of Chennai. Jamuna – a middle class and upper caste resident in the emerging suburb of Anna Nagar – awakens sharply at the sound of raindrops, to collect rainwater in a pot and avoid the long queue at the water tanker. This is a common sight across cities in postcolonial South Asia, where large queues assemble to collect water from lorries (water tankers) or at hand/motor pumps with an agglomeration of buckets and vessels. While Asokamitran’s novel was about a lack of water, too much water – in the form of flooding – continues to plague Chennai as well. In 2015 – as Krupa Ge’s book Rivers Remember catalogues – a devastating flood hit the city, in which over 300 people lost their lives and thousands more were displaced from their homes.

Located on the southeastern coast of India, Chennai was the first urban settlement developed by British colonists (known as Madras). Today, the city has a population of over five million people and is one of Asia’s emerging mega-cities. It is home to the second largest beach in Asia, three riverine systems, and multiple lakes or water tanks (a part natural, part engineered irrigation reservoir). Its hydrology is fundamental to its pattern and rhythms of life – whether the East India Company setting up shop on the shores, the state and developers reclaiming and building over bodies of water, or the urban poor finding homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas.  By excavating the archives of urban hydrology in Chennai, we can see how the unequal production, impact, and representation of floods is embedded in property making and belonging, and forms part of a wider ecology of disaster.

Following the 2015 flood, the city’s past and present-day maps started to circulate among major publications and on social media. Several regions in the city, commentators pointed out, were flood plains: water tanks, lakes, or marshes which have been built over. Indeed, the first planned suburb of Madras city, of Theyagaraya Nagar – now a bustling market-place – was built through reclaiming large portions of the Long Tank. While the 2015 flood has kindled this important urban imaginary, we need more than engineering and planning solutions – since these tend to think of water as a stock, of surplus and deficit, for the city as an entity. Here, I attempt to rethink the archive of urban water to encompass the deep and entrenched inequality of water access and watery habitats. Put differently, the flood – read through the production of Madras city in the twentieth century – is a far more complex phenomenon than engineering drainage systems and building over waterbodies. Flooding, and disasters more broadly, are profoundly uneven in nature. For instance, North Madras which is historically home to the city’s working classes, rarely figures in present-day news-media narratives of flood.

Present day map on the left, with the region marked ‘Mambalam’; map from 1867 on the right, with the expanse of water and land marked ‘Long Tank’. Source: Microsoft Bing Maps; British Library

Floods are hardly new in the city and predate its rapid expansion in the mid-twentieth century. In 1910, the Madras corporation report remarked that the summer season for that year was the worst on record in 80 years. Due to the incessant rains, the ground-water levels were up 6-8 feet, and construction of different kinds became impossible.  In 1943, when the city faced a similar situation of vast flooding but with a significantly larger population, the armed forces were called in to help supply food and water for city inhabitants. Calling for relief, the Mayor of Madras, C. Tadulinga Mudaliar, observed that: ‘The poor people in slum areas are the worst sufferers. Thousands of women and children are helpless and require urgent relief. I appeal to everyone in the city and outside to contribute their might to grant relief to the distressed’. The Mayor’s call was therefore for relief, rather than structural change, while recognising some lives and the city itself as ecologically marginal.

In the postcolonial era, decolonisation and industrialisation led to the rapid expansion of South Asian cities. From 1941 to 1961, Madras city’s population almost doubled, from 881,445 to 1,729,171. A special report titled The Slums of Madras city, published in 1965, counted 548 slums in the city, which housed approximately 23.8% of the population. Although the report mentioned flooding only a handful times, it clearly recognised that slums were disproportionately located in low-lying regions, typically on the fringes of waterbodies. Take for instance “Attu Cheri”, which was situated on the left bank of the River Adyar. The report observed that ‘[d]uring floods in the river, water enters the slum and causes damage to the huts. The inhabitants leave their huts, move to safer places like Corporation schools and other public buildings and return to their homes after the floods subside.’ With such a large proportion of the city’s population residing in slums, any account of flooding requires a wider understanding of ecological disasters from the margins of the city.

“Havoc caused by monsoon in a slum” P.K. Nambiar, Census of India 1961 Volume IX Part XI-C Slums of Madras City

Despite earlier significant floods, there is little in the records of the Chennai Improvement Trust, established in the 1950s, or the first Madras [interim] masterplan, published in 1967 to suggest that floods were seen as a serious threat. As Madras grew rapidly, its planners were preoccupied by industrial zoning, the creation of suburbs, and concerns such as sewage and drainage (largely for property taxpayers). The memory of 1943 was short and the provision of housing continuously inadequate. Even as floods badly affected the city again in the 1960s, there was little planning for the communities affected by them. Poor housing was understood as a risk to the public health of the city at large and to the city’s workforce via mortality rates, epidemics, and chronic diseases, but little was done to connect this to seasonal (and therefore perpetual) ecological risks.

The archives of philanthropic organisations, international bodies, and Christian charities offer an alternative lens through which memories and the impact of floods can be reconstructed. For instance, in the World Council of Churches archive, we find a granular reconstruction of relief efforts during 1966, when floods, followed by a cyclone hit Madras city. The disaster destroyed around 50,000 homes, many churches, and schools. Working with the Madras Corporation, numerous organisations, such as the Catholic Relief Service and Ramakrishna Mission, raised funds locally and from organisations like US Aid. And, as several bishops emphasised, Madras city was in a far better position than its hinterlands, on which little information was available to the relief providers. Different hydro-geographies within the city experienced the rainfall differently. In the coastal parts of the city, damage to houses, boats and human life was due to cyclonic storms and wind. On the banks of the Cooum River, houses were submerged repeatedly, including in 1937, 1943, and 1967. Paradoxically, while the state did not want people to settle on the banks of rivers and lakes, it was only in these low-lying areas that land was available for newcomers to the city, such as refugees from Burma.

Yet, floods were only one part of a system of elemental disasters to hit slum settlements. Flood, fire, and lack of access to clean drinking water characterized the existence of low-income housing settlements as they grew in twentieth-century Madras. Consider the story of Mr G. J. Abel: a man with a small family, employed as a weaver in the mills of Madras. He was earning a fair monthly salary until chronic disease meant he could no longer continue to work. With the payout, Mr. Abel bought a small piece of land in a slum adjoining a waterbody and built a small house. In 1968, however, a fire destroyed the house and all of Mr Abel’s possessions. Starting again on the same piece of land, Abel was able to setup a vegetable stall in another part of the city. Here, the ability to settle on land, claim ownership, and belonging, in an area easily accessible to the opportunities the city offered were crucial to the way residents of Madras city made their homes.

“A Slum on the bank of a canal” P.K. Nambiar, Census of India 1961 Volume IX Part XI-C Slums of Madras City

What do these stories of disaster, relief, and everyday life reveal about the statist political imaginary and collective memories of flooding and ecological disaster more widely? In the 1970s, for the newly created Tamilnadu Slum Clearance Board, the solution to life in low-lying areas was to forcibly prevent new settlement and evict existing dwellers to far-flung suburbs. Yet, for residents such as Mr. Abel, these homes offered easy access to the city’s opportunities. The irony of flooding near low-lying homes is that clean water supply has remained continuously inadequate in these areas. When the earliest water-supply schemes were designed for the city, they were created first for British officials, then the armed garrison in Madras city, and subsequently the ‘rate-paying’ upper-caste city elite. Whether in flood, fire, or water-scarcity, British colonialism never designed systems of drainage, water-supply, or fire-safety for these marginal settlements, even as the city increasingly relied on workers residing in them.

As the climate crisis looms, Chennai city is emerging as a laboratory for organizations such as the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, due to the 2015 flood and its low-lying coastal location. But floods cannot be understood in purely engineering or geographic terms. Instead, they are embedded within property relations, inequality, and a wider ecology of disasters in low-income settlements. As the city holds its breath over yet another spell of low-pressure cyclonic activity across the Bay of Bengal, ‘unprecedented natures’ can no longer remain a political alibi. Rather, a political response must emerge from understanding the complex historical functions of disaster and risky life for the urban poor across Chennai.

Aditya Ramesh is a Presidential fellow in environmental history at the University of Manchester. His current research examines colonial and postcolonial urban spaces, disease ecologies, and rapid environmental change. His latest article, ‘Flows and fixes: water, disease and housing in Bangalore, 1860–1915,’ in Urban History. Aditya tweets @adityaramesh11.

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