dog on pedastal in a flood

The Chennai Floods

Voices from the Future | Anjali Ponni Rajkumar

The Chennai Floods

 The Event: In 2015, the winter monsoon season brought torrential rains to Chennai, in southern India. Unprecedented floods followed, and some parts of the city of 6 million residents experienced floodwaters as high as 8 feet. About 130,000 people were evacuated to relief shelters, 347 people died, and 3,889 cattle perished in the floodwaters.

The government warning came too late for many Chennai residents. The torrential monsoon rains — the heaviest recorded in more than a century — had overwhelmed the dam. Photographer and artist Anjali Ponni Rajkumar was at home with her family in the affluent Purusawalkam neighborhood when the rains came, but she left immediately to help other residents.

“It took everybody by surprise,” says the 42-year-old Rajkumar, who runs her grandfather’s photo emporium and specializes in wedding photography. “The warning didn’t prepare us by any means. First, officials didn’t anticipate the extent of these rains and were forced to open the floodgates of some of the city’s 30 waterways. One close to me overf-looded, and some of the poor residents along the riverbanks swam to safety. Slum dwellers don’t live in houses, but in huts, so they couldn’t seek safety anywhere else.”

Some affluent areas in the city were affected, too.

“There, people did much better because they sought safety on higher floors or on the rooftops on their houses, and rescue boats were able to pick them up, and they checked into hotels,” Rajkumar says.

Personally, she responded quickly by volunteering at the nearby Egmore Children’s Hospital, delivering blankets and clean clothes to survivors.

“I had to walk in some water,” she says. “The hospital didn’t flood, even though it was surrounded by floodwaters. I also picked up emergency supplies for the hospital that were delivered to other parts of the town. I volunteered at the hospital for about one week. In the meantime, the slum dwellers were evacuated to nearby colleges.”

But not everyone welcomed help, particularly the poorest survivors. “There was a lot of anger,” Rajkumar says. ”My friends brought pizzas for the dwellers and they said: ‘What is this? We don’t want any pizzas.’ It got rowdy, and they threw the pizzas back to them. There was and still is a lot of resentment because of the division of the people into those who have and those who don’t.”

To Rajkumar, the reason for the divide is governmental corruption. “The government doesn’t really look after our people,” she says. “They allocate money to many things, but it doesn’t get delivered. It’s more about themselves: ‘How can I fill my pockets?’”

Rajkumar’s return to Chennai in 2008, after earning a master’s degree in biotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania, was eye opening and life changing. For the first time, Rajkumar saw the scale of inequality and poverty in her hometown and only a few miles from her house. In America, she was introduced to the idea of volunteering and to the spirit of caring for each other — she saw how Americans reached out and helped each other. The 2015 floods deepened that sense in her to further reach out, to do what she could for people and for abandoned dogs.

“During the floods I felt that, for the first time in my life, residents of Chennai really came together to help,” Rajkumar says. “It didn’t matter what walk of life you came from. Drinking water was sparse, so people delivered water for the survivors. Everybody did what they could.”

A shortage of water is not only an issue during the floods: Rainy and drier seasons fluctuate almost yearly. Rajkumar’s family is fortunate to be able to buy a truckload of water and store it in three water tanks at home. During water shortages, poor residents stand in line in the streets every day to buy one bucket of clean water.

“I first got involved with the children’s hospital as a volunteer arts teacher for children with cancer,” Rajkumar says. “Soon, I found out that the hospital didn’t have enough water for cooking or washing or cleaning. I organized a system so that an adequate amount of water is regularly delivered to the hospital. In general, our government does such a bad job storing water.”

Moreover, the hurdles of everyday life are so pressing for many residents that changing weather patterns don’t appear in regular conversation. “Or they might, just after the floods,” says Rajkumar. “But after six months, everybody goes back to their own worlds. I don’t think even schools educate kids enough on environmental issues.”

Rajkumar teaches her own her 5-year old son to recycle. “If we throw plastics away, the cows eat them,” she tells her son.  As for India’s future, Rajkumar sees great promise. “India has plenty of smart people and resources. We could be a very self-sufficient nation and grow in so many fields, if people in the government would just allow it. Even the floods could have been managed, if the government didn’t screw up. So far, I do what I can to help residents and animals of the city. I feel I can contribute in my own way. That’s my future.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss