Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Takeaways from the Chennai floods: The lighter side

Chennai has gone through an unforgettable ordeal because of extremely copious rainfall during the recent NorthEast Monsoon (ironically called ‘the dry monsoon’). Excessive rains have caused unprecedented inundation in many low-lying areas and water contamination everywhere. Hydrophobia (in its literal sense of morbid fear of water) is the newest fear stalking the city. Vegetable prices have hit the roof. One hopes that the elevated prices are not the ‘new normal’. This unexpected crisis has thrown up a lot of lessons.

John F Kennedy used to say that the written word ‘crisis’ is represented by two characters in the Chinese language, one for danger and the other for opportunity. Every crisis is an opportunity for the discerning to bolster their life-sustaining skills. We can learn a lot from the Chennai crisis also.

 The tragedy that struck the patients in the ICU of a well-known hospital was triggered by the damage caused to the generator by rising waters from an adjoining river. A stand-by generator kept at a higher elevation would have avoided this calamity. The Fukushima nuclear disaster that happened in 2011 had a similar trigger when rising waves from the sea resulted in sudden failure of multiple generators which were all unfortunately located almost at the ground level only. A basic lesson in Risk Management is the inescapable need for  provision of back-up  for critical services.

While acknowledging that the Chennai catastrophe caused undue hardship to all and especially to the poorer sections of the public, it is also possible to derive some cynical conclusions which of course are not meant to underestimate the sufferings of the affected.

Many of us were deprived of electricity for more than three days. Some say that the shutdown of electricity was a conscious preventive measure to preempt the possibility of electrocution in flooded areas. Others blame the impossibility of coping with this humongous challenge. Newspapers were not either printed or distributed because of logistical reasons. Mobiles conked out because of lack of charge. TVs and personal computers could not be used. But still we survived! We learnt that we can live without electricity, milk, newspapers, TV and net connectivity.

Surprisingly, we could even sleep more peacefully partly because our diurnal rhythms were not disturbed by watching TV and using computers during night time. Neurobiologists say that nocturnal usage of computers and TV deprives us of sound sleep by disabling the brain’s capacity to distinguish between daytime and nighttime. This lesson was driven home by the crisis.

However, some landlines continued to function. Frequent enquiries from friends and well-wishers disabused our minds of the existential angst as to whether we matter at all. But there was something strange happening in these enquiries. It was observed that friends located in faraway places called more frequently than those in nearby areas. If one may derive a behavioral law (to be known as ‘Distress Enquiry Law’) from this phenomenon, we may hypothesise that “in times of crisis, the frequency of enquiries increases exponentially with the distance of the caller’s location”. A person calling a Mylapore house from Matunga, Mumbai  can afford to keep asking, “Can I do anything for you?” without fear of being taken seriously. However a person in Mambalam will think twice before venturing to offer the same service for what if the Mylaporean were to take his word seriously and reply, “Oh, thanks. My house is flooded. I am coming to stay with you” ?

It was also quite a learning experience to know that most of us are technical experts. People liberally dished out reasons for power failure, non-availabilty of milk, bread and other essentials and failure of the drainage system. Economic laws relating to demand and supply, panic buying etc. were quoted with professorial authority by everybody.
Once electricity was restored and TV / PC / Laptop/ Mobile became functional again, we regained our circadian rhythm sleep disorders and became ready to be agitated by life’s minor inconveniences like delayed supply of milk and non-delivery of a supplement in the newspaper because of the delivery boy’s carelessness. In other words, we became our normal selves.

Have we learnt anything from this crisis? Of course, yes. But what is equally certain is that the next crisis will be of a different variety for which we will not be adequately prepared. Only now, the real meaning of expressions like “in deep WATERS” and “fishing in troubled WATERS” (fleecing by omnibuses and autorickshaw drivers and black marketing in items like milk and battery cells) has started SINKING in !

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