Wednesday 25 May 2022
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Chennai: Social workers helped when govt disappeared

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Chennai — सिर्फ़ NEWS went to study the condition of Chennai after the city was exposed to devastating floods that also disturbed several adjoining towns, where many people suffered for essentials and were forced to start their life in a new way. This correspondent got a chance also to make an effort towards helping the stranded via social media as well as through coordination with ground teams.

The indomitable spirit of the Tamil people was in full display. Following Thiruvalluvar’s message of facing sufferings with a smile, the citizens were more than ready to help those in distress, overlooking their own troubles. Even though the city had been crippled, criminals were not on the prowl, making the best of the situation. Contrast this with the US where opportunistic crime becomes rampant whenever natural calamities such as Hurricane Katrina strike. The people of Chennai in particular and Indians in responded to the natural calamity in the most heroic manner. The few examples we furnish here are merely representative of the millions of deeds of social service.

Social Media is a powerful medium and trends like #ICanAccommodate, #ChennaiRainsHelp, #ChennaiRains, #ChennaiFloods gave workable information to people about the areas they could expect help from, along with hashtags like #VolunteerForChennai to urge others to help. Facebook groups were created for quick responses. After rescue/relief efforts, different teams are currently running a “Clean Chennai” campaign to bring the city back to its lost glory.

In this process, I interacted with Peter van Geit. He was born in Belgium, settled in Chennai; he is the founder of the Chennai Trekking Club. It is a 26,000-member, non-profit, volunteer-based organisation that creates awareness on active and healthy lifestyles through outdoor and sports activities throughout the year. His team is also engaged in environmental conservation through tree plantation and various other nature-oriented programmes.

Some of the volunteers who worked for the rescue and relief operations in Chennai

Anupam Kumar Pandey: What was your first reaction to the Chennai floods and what were your preliminary preparations?

Peter van Geit: It took some time before the gravity of the situation sank in. Initially, it just looked like yet another rainy day in which some roads of Chennai were submerged. Power and mobile networks were down. Only through a friend I came to know that some neighbourhoods were completely submerged. As I was not able to contact any friend, I decided to start with the rescue operations in my own local area. I made a makeshift raft from lorry tubes and rescued some 130 people from the flooded streets of the Old Mahabalipuram Road at Thoraipakkam near the Pallikarnai marsh. After 2 or 3 days, the Chennai Trekking Club got into the relief mode. Initially, 10 volunteers and later hundreds got involved in the initial relief efforts, distributing food and relief materials in the flood affected areas in the city. To coordinate between the suppliers of relief materials to the needy, we sent out hundreds of volunteers to scout the impacted areas around the city and keep track of relief status through an online map.

AKP: How much was the impact of the flood? Which areas were impacted the most?

PvG: The low-lying areas near water bodies like Palikarnai and other lakes and where the Adyar and Cooum Rivers breached their boundaries got impacted most. Especially near the rivers where the water currents were strong, the situation was dangerous. I was involved in rescue in Thoraipakkam, Kotturpuram and Iyappathangal during the first 4 days. Little coordination was possible as mobile networks were mostly down; so, communication was restricted. Areas in north Chennai got impacted badly also and received relief much later.

How was your overall experience of the rescue and relief efforts?

We distributed around 2,200 relief kits to more than 100 different areas in Chennai A with 400 volunteers.

It was heartening to see how many individuals spontaneously came forward to either provide food and other relief materials or volunteer in segregation and distribution of essential items to the needy. Chennai rose to the challenge and showed unity during times of calamity.

[Click on this link for the interview on Vijay TV with some of the families van Geit’s team rescued during the initial days.]

What went well and what went wrong during your entire effort?
The main challenge was (lack of) information or communication: To know which areas in Chennai were badly impacted, which people needed help most urgently, etc. The lack of power, mobile networks, internet access was hampering our effort to reach out to the needy during the initial days. The lack of coordination of relief materials across individuals and NGOs resulted in many lesser known areas off the main roads not being reached for a long time.

One special moment was the rescue of a pregnant lady from Thoraipakkam the day after the floods which deliver a baby the next day. I will never forget that.

Your opinion about State & Central government’s role in rescue/relief operations?

I did not see much of a government presence during rescue and relief. I think the government should, one, set up a proper command and control centre during the initial days after a calamity srikes: proper ham (amateur) radio network, coordination centres across the city, direction of rescue and relief to the most needy. Two, a central coordination centre and regular area-wise surveys by local councillors and the police to share a city-wide map and status with the public so that everyone has a very clear understanding of which areas need help and which areas have been covered to optimise relief efforts. Government should collaborate with the NGOs during relief as they can react much quicker.

Could you briefly describe the cleaning efforts by your team: team count, pictures, number of areas covered and local citizen support etc?

After the initial rescue and relief, we focussed our efforts on cleaning up the city through several cleanup drives.

On 13 December, 1,000 volunteers of the Chennai Runners & Chennai Trekking Club cleaned up 8 neighbourhoods in the city, with most people cleaning their own respective areas.

Between the 15th and 18th, 100 volunteers cleaned up the Suryanagar slum in Kotturpuram—badly flooded and polluted by the (filth-carrying and overflowing) Adyar River.

On the 20th, 200 volunteers cleaned up the Chitranagar slum in Kotturpuram. We witnessed a good involvement of local residents in our efforts.

On the 22nd, 50 volunteers cleaned up the banks of Adyar near Chitranagar. Our long-term plan is to create a model slum here which can be followed by other locations in the city.

On the 25th and 26th, 100 volunteers cleaned up the flood-affected government schools at Thoraipakkam and Pizhichalur.

Yesterday, 1,000 volunteers cleaned up beaches near the Broken Bridge.

Overall, the plan is to focus on the poor (slum dwellers), who are generally the most badly affected during monsoons and floods, help them clean up their communities and try to convert them into model communities that take ownership of their garbage. We also want to restore the beautiful Adyar by cleaning up its banks. [More details]

What is your view on the role of the social media and what is your message for “Clean Chennai”?

The social media was definitely helpful in communicating, sharing and collaborating between individuals and NGOs. It provides a solid platform for citizens to connect in times of need. Of course, the information shared needs to be scrutinised as it sometimes is no longer valid by the time you read it. The social media was also very much useful to inspire more citizens into rescue and relief by showing role models.

My message for “Clean Chennai” is that cleanliness starts from within, from all of us — 6,000 tonnes of garbage leaves the city every single day to get dumped at the eco-sensitive Pallikarnai marsh where the toxic mix eventually reaches back to us through groundwater and polluted air while burning plastics (steady rise in cases in city).

The garbage cannot be thrown away; it will always get back to you. We throw it away and through drains and rivers it ends up in the sea, poisons our eco-system; garbage gets thrown back on the beach and we get toxic sea-food on our plates. The message is simple: We need to change our behaviour, we need to take ownership of our garbage — simply segregate wet and dry garbage at home; dry garbage can be recycled and wet (kitchen waste) can be composed. That way 90% of our garbage footprint can be reduced. Let’s join hands to make Chennai clean.

Featured image: PTI photo dated 4 December

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Anupam Pandey
Anupam Pandey
​​IT analyst with mentoring responsibilities at IEEE, an associate at CSI India

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