Obfuscation to blame-games: How TN govt attempted to bury CAG report on 2015 Chennai flood

It took a year for the Tamil Nadu government to table the CAG report in the state Assembly, writes Krupa Ge.
Obfuscation to blame-games: How TN govt attempted to bury CAG report on 2015 Chennai flood
Obfuscation to blame-games: How TN govt attempted to bury CAG report on 2015 Chennai flood
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It is possible to guess why the TN government did not table this report for one whole year and sought legal advice before finally presenting it. Further communication that I accessed from the AG’s office through RTI revealed that the chief secretary of the state, Girija Vaidyanathan, wrote a letter to the principal accountant general, TN and Puducherry, on 28 June 2017 about this report.

The state’s senior officer felt that some of the observations in the final report—such as ‘the Government wanted to protect an illegal patta land in the foreshore area from being submerged’, ‘indiscriminate discharge … led to a man-made catastrophe’, ‘lack of seriousness attached to disaster preparedness on the part of the State Government’ and ‘reply was misleading and did not at all address the issue that the GoTN lacked an organised structure and approach for disaster preparedness’—‘are sweeping in nature and do not have any evidential backing’.

She further wrote, ‘It may be noted that if such unfounded observations find place in the final report, it would cause serious embarrassment [emphasis added] to both the state government and to the office of the Principal Accountant General.’

So, what exactly were the state’s objections to this report? The AG’s office revealed those too in response to my RTI query.

(I cannot emphasise enough just how important RTI is and why we must resist its dilution at any cost. The RTI gives us the right to peer beneath the iron veneer of bureaucracy and see just who is responsible for what. It is RTI that helped me find answers to questions about this flood that will stand legal scrutiny, and came to me written and signed by authorities, as irrefutable proof of the lax approach of the state and the measures it undertook in covering up its own shortcomings.)

In a 155-page response, various departments of the government such as the CMDA, PWD, Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, Greater Chennai Corporation, and the office of the Commissioner of Revenue Administration sought to not only blame each other but also gave bafflingly silly reasons for the extremely serious charges levelled at them by the CAG. They were so incompetent in even defending themselves that, in fact, for two completely different allegations, the exact same answers were used word-for-word.

Just why is this 155-page report, with highly local, technical information, important? This report not only shows us the ways in which land belonging to all of us—our common properties, spaces that belong to us and to the state, spaces that are meant to act as buffer zones and help in mitigating floods—are written away slowly and steadily by people who do not possess the authority to do so, but also throws light on how the real estate industry as well as others, with the outright support of the state government’s representatives and, in effect, the government, leech away mindlessly from what belongs to all of us.

The CMDA in its reply to the first draft of the CAG’s report passed the buck to the local officials on several allegations— for non-removal of encroachments, water channels covered in shrubs and bushes, and non-laying of even roads in Kundrathur, Perungalathur and Poonamalle areas.

While the entire reply docket seemed to be an exercise in obfuscation, which is possibly why the CAG did not take most of what was said by the state government into consideration and went ahead to file such a damning report, some of the most shocking revelations from this reply was the TN government’s attitude to facts. While the CAG pointed out that the lack of communication equipment for rescue operations were a huge hindrance—a fact corroborated by news reports from that time, in which rescue personnel expressed the same concerns—the government, in its reply, said: ‘communication was never a problem during the rescue, relief and restoration works’.

Responding to a question that asked why the government ordered excess sarees and dhotis and then distributed them as part of rations during Pongal, thereby misusing the Disaster Relief Fund, the Revenue Department said, ‘Since the people affected by flood did not show interest, all the suppled [sic] quantity could not be distributed and they were utilized for the purpose of Pongal 2017, free saree and dhotis scheme.’

The CAG did not buy the government’s explanation for releasing an extraordinary amount of water as being ‘within the rules’ and that the flood was caused by the rains. This, despite the state government giving pages and pages of garrulous explanation to recuse itself. The CAG’s report stuck to its initial stand, despite refutations from the government, that the release of 29,000 cusecs of water in a bid to save illegal patta lands in the foreshore of the reservoir caused the 2015 floods.

The CMDA, in one reply, said, ‘The contention of the Audit findings that the violation of the First Master Plan resulted in haphazard growth of the city, leading to adverse consequences such as congestion, impact on environment and flooding is not correct …’. This very first rebuttal from the authorities responsible for developments in the metro is troublesome.

In the rest of this response, the CMDA wilfully misrepresented what ‘flood plain zones’ mean. Their response to the allegation seeks to conflate the terms ‘water body’ with ‘flood plain zones’. The CMDA claimed that the areas that are likely to be inundated are marked as water bodies in the city’s master plan—‘all the flood plain area which include river, pond, eri, and other low lying area which are classified as water body in the revenue records, have been zoned as water body in the Master Plan’. They also insisted that the maintenance of these areas vests with the PWD and the local body.

The CAG report mentioned several properties, complete with their plot number, that are in violation of norms and should not have been there. For many of these violations, the response of the development authorities was that the PWD gave these properties No Objection Certificates (NOCs). An NOC is required when a particular piece of development is near a coast, in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), as construction is not allowed up to 500 metres from the high tide line of the sea or 100 metres from the high tide line of the creek. The law says that ‘the distance upto which development along rivers, creeks and back-waters is to be regulated shall be governed by the distance up to which the tidal effect of sea is experienced in rivers, creeks or back-waters.’ The high tide line calculation in Tamil Nadu has in itself run into controversies.

Satellite imagery shows how the high tide line of the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (which functions under the Ministry of Environment) ends much before a more ‘robust line’ proposed by the Institute of Remote Sensing, established by the Anna University, Chennai. The state government uses a manmade structure, a bridge at that, to decide where the tidal influence on the waters of the Adyar River end. It is the same bridge—the Maraimalai Adigalar or Saidapet Bridge—that was completely submerged, cutting off access to South Chennai during the floods.

In India, we have gone from taking the CAG’s words too seriously to completely ignoring it. Some years ago, it was the CAG’s report on the infamous 2G scam that was responsible for the misfortunes of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. The DMK and Congress parties lost the elections after these reports came out. However, the audit body’s report on the flood had no repercussions for anyone.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Rivers Remember’ by Krupa Ge, Published by Context (Westland).

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