Cyclone Vardah rips through Chennai: City's poor green record is a concern

The Chennai Corporation, the forestry department and the highways department — can do is to compensate for the loss caused by Vardah.

G Pramod Kumar December 15, 2016 08:09:14 IST
Cyclone Vardah rips through Chennai: City's poor green record is a concern

The new Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam seems to be too modest — for the devastation of cyclone Vardah, he has asked the Centre for only Rs 1000 crore. Had it been Jayalalithaa, it would have been at least ten times as much.

In fact, that was the opposition leader MK Stalin’s instant ballpark estimate. Trade body Assocham has put it at Rs 6500 crore. An estimate is an estimate and nobody knows how all the losses add up, and for how long, because every aspect of life and business has been disrupted. Even on the third day, many parts of the city are struggling without power and communications.

Cyclone Vardah rips through Chennai Citys poor green record is a concern

A tree uprooted in T Nagar Chennai. Firstpost/Pramod Kumar

Ten thousand electric posts and 800 transformers going down doesn’t summarise the damage because it could cascade down quite a bit. Most of the mobile phones went dead and even the BSNL lines, that depend on underground cables, were disrupted. Demonetised souls couldn’t eat because their digital fantasy wouldn’t work.

However, the biggest loss to Chennai is the loss of its precious green cover. As the The Hindu reported quoting a senior revenue official, about 10,000 trees have been uprooted and 75 per cent of them are in Chennai. In another report quoting workers on the field, the same newspaper said that the number of uprooted trees could exceed one lakh. This is in fact the most visible loss as well because what’s more visibly overwhelming and widespread than the mangled electric posts, tattered cables and the general raggedness, are uprooted trees.

All that one could see in the pitch dark city after the cyclone left the coast of Tamil Nadu, or rather Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts, on Monday evening were uprooted trees. Every neighbourhood and every street was covered by trees felled by the strong wind. The roads became unmotorable with ripped-out trees blocking them every few meters. Famous classical musician Sanjay Subramanyan tweeted the photo of a 40-year old neem tree that came down next to his house.

Uprooted trees topped the social media images of the impact of the cyclone. Although the workforce of the government, that ran to a few thousand, managed to move them aside to make the roads partly usable on Tuesday, they are still lying on either side of the roads. The next big headache for the civic authorities and the government is to find a place to dump them. Reportedly, they would be kept in the city playgrounds for the time being. The volume is too big to be transported to the municipal corporation’s dump yards. For a city that’s short on water and known for its intense summer, this is a tragedy because trees are its hard-gained treasure of a lifetime. Despite the adverse conditions, many parts of the city - mostly the traditional residential areas - have impressive canopies, tree-lined avenues and impeccably green parks. In fact, these patches held up even when it was losing its green cover to infrastructural development. Reportedly, in the last four years, Chennai lost about 10,000 acres of green cover although the state as a whole improved its record. In fact all the three cyclone-hit districts showed depleting green cover in the last satellite-based forest survey of India. In the light of this poor record, the impact of Vardah is a double whammy. Probably, it’s already showing on satellite images. Two of the most beautiful campuses in Chennai in terms of its green cover — the IIT and Madras Christian College (MCC) — have reported widespread uprooting of trees. A resident of the MCC said the college campus now looks like a warzone and the sight is heartbreaking because many of the trees were very old.

The only redeemable part of the tragedy is that some of the damage might be partial because what came down in a limited number of cases are the tree-branches that could grow back in a couple of years.

Since economic liberalisation, Chennai had 'developed' itself to be the city with the worst green cover in India. Even a highly polluted Delhi has three times more green cover. As this report explained in 2011 in some parts of Chennai, it lost about 99 percent of the green cover between 1997 and 2011.

If the city doesn’t repair the damage, the consequences are going to be grave because even during the disastrous floods last year, the reasons cited for the excessive rains and flooding included localised heat caused by increasing concrete and poor surface rundown that good green cover would have abated. Besides regular infrastructure, even utilities — roads, electric lines and sewers — come into conflict with trees and the narrowing roads allow very limited avenues for planting new ones although various research studies have proposed specific ideas for increasing the green cover.

The minimum that the three agencies responsible for green cover in the city — the Chennai Corporation, the forestry department and the highways department — can do is to compensate for the loss caused by Vardah. It’s also an opportunity to do something more — dust the proposals of various researchers, civil society organisations and agencies on how to make the city greener.

Unfortunately, it will still look too brown compared to other big cities in India.

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