Chennai floods, the aftermath

According to the Auto Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA), more than 50% of the employees have lost their homes and objects. Production has slowed down.

If you fly down to Chennai today and as you land, you will see it as a city of small lakes and ponds. However, once you get out of the airport and into the city, you will hardly see any water stagnation. In fact, things will look near normal. Everybody is back at work. Power supply has been restored in most places, even though connectivity remains a little suspect as countless computer systems had gotten swept away in the recent heavy rains.

The rain and the ensuing flood took everybody by surprise. For two days, the city was shell-shocked. Many brave hearts did heroic acts to save lives before the official machinery stepped in. Almost all corporates put their might into rescue operations. And all of them are doing what they can to help their employees rebuild their lives. Subhasri Sriram, executive director and chief financial officer, Shriram City Union Finance Ltd (SCUF), spent two days in the office with many of her colleagues. Hundreds of their employees either lost all their property or partially. It was not possible to carry refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and computers to safer places. “We are still assessing the damage,” she says.

As soon as the rains let up, the company, like many others, has plunged into relief work. They identified locations which needed immediate help. The employees (about 300) have waded through slush and sewerage in the most damaged areas, and have extended their operations up to Cuddalore which faced worse damage than Chennai. Some of the flimsy houses lost their rooftops when rescue helicopters flew over them. The staff has been working round the clock to pack relief materials and transporting the same. Immunisation camps have been organised and tetanus shots have been administered. SCUF has been trying to clean up schools which have served as relief camps. It has been a herculean task as most government schools had not been cleaned up in a long time. The government has to help people—who now have to leave the camps—rebuild their houses and lives.

Many two-wheelers and cars have been submerged in the water for days. As SCUF is one of the largest financiers of all brands of two-wheelers, three locations have been identified in north Chennai to provide free service to the damaged vehicles. What Sriram is particularly proud of is that the company managed to make a payment of R30 crore which was due to depositors. This was done in spite of banking disturbances. “We had to ensure our depositors, largely pensioners, got their deposit maturity amount or their monthly interest on time. The officer in charge worked through the night and struggled with server failures, but managed to pull it off. She came to office travelling by boat, train and an auto-rickshaw.”

The city faces a major sanitation problem. Ramky Enviro Engineers, which has the contract to clean up three zones of the city, has never seen anything like this. Thirugnana Sambandam, Ramky’s Chennai manager, says that Kodambakkam, one of the zones, has seen unbelievable accumulation of garbage. In normal times, it is about 650 tonnes. After the floods, garbage piled up has amounted to 8,000 to 10,000 tonnes. The company operates with 1,288 labourers, 20 compactors, three JCB machines, and 20 tippers. “People started throwing out articles in sheer panic. There have been thousands of mattresses floating around.”

Ramky has been working round the clock. Workers are being brought in from other districts. The company has had to use 20 JCB machines and 400 tippers. It has taken 11 days to see the beginning of the end of this pile up.

Sambandam says the government machinery—which has come under a lot of criticism—has been very cooperative. Now he worries about removing the dense fungus formed on the walls.

One of the worst affected places is the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) which is the information technology belt. IT major Cognizant has committed $40 million (around R260 crore) to help residents, employees and business partners in Chennai with relief and rehabilitation. This was the first large-scale commitment by a private player in the state. Cognizant is one of Chennai’s largest employers with more than 60,000 employees across 11 facilities. The company has said it will take a multi-pronged approach to support relief and longer-term rehabilitation measures in the city. Almost all IT majors have been generous in their contributions. They say that December will be a write-off with so many employees being affected, and having to take time off. Servers have been down and most machines have come under water.

The floods have also had a considerable impact on the auto industry. The auto components segment, which contributes nearly 28% to the state’s economy, is fighting a big battle to get things back to normalcy. According to the Auto Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA), more than 50% of the employees have lost their homes and objects. Production has slowed down. The irony is that the industry was seeing some positive growth after 2-3 years and many people had started investing again. Many of these are tier-3 and tier-4 suppliers, for whom a loss of R1 crore is a big amount. A large number of machines are either fully or partially gone.

The larger manufacturers will pull together and the tiny sector will get government assistance immediately. The ones which are under real distress are SMEs. All the industry parks have been inundated. People who pledged everything to raise R1 crore to buy machinery have lost the whole lot. Banks and insurance companies have to come to their aid without holding up their rehabilitation in red tape and other hurdles.

The middle class has suffered heavily. People have lost items for which they had saved up for years. According to a rough estimate, almost 30% of Chennai households have each faced losses between R2 lakh and R20 lakh.

This is a disaster which has affected almost everybody, one way or the other. Chennai is literally starting from scratch.

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First published on: 21-12-2015 at 01:38 IST