The buses ply without charging the commuters, food and clothes pour in from different parts of the country. A week after the heavy downpour and massive floods, the state capital might be limping back to normal, but the horror and despair continues. Amid a high probability of an epidemic breakout, people are clearing the muck and cleaning clogged drains, simultaneously searching for their missing relatives. What adds to the agony is the long waiting list at the crematoriums and burial grounds. The government hospital morgues in the city are almost full, with over 270 deaths reported so far.
The daughter of a patient who underwent a heart surgery last week at the Madras Institute of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (MIOT) Hospital—where 18 patients died due to power failure—and was in the cardiac ward, on conditions of anonymity, says her mother survived for three days with just a daily cup of oats and a piece of bread. The hospital was deserted by the doctors and it was only the nursing staff who took care of the patients. “The ICU was totally dark. There was nobody to help. There were no doctors. The ventilators went off on the first day itself. We were stranded since Tuesday night,” she recounts the horror. Though her mom is stable now, the three days at the hospital without essentials was a nightmare for the woman and her daughter. A few chocolate bars the daughter had in her bag and buckets of rain water helped them survive. “We had to collect rain water in small buckets and dishes meant for toilet purposes,” she says.
Their suffering brings to light the tragedy that unfolded at the MIOT Hospital where the patients died between 11.10pm and 11.30pm due to failure of the ventilators during the power failure on Wednesday night. The hospital, however, sources say, did not inform the relatives or the government about the death. The government has now ordered a high-level probe. Says Chief Secretary K. Gnanadesikan, “It is the responsibility of a multi-speciality hospital like MIOT to have power backup and generator support. The management had abandoned the patients. We will soon probe it.” He says.
However, Muruganandhan, who was admitted for a cardiac surgery, a day before, escaped the horror. Says his daughter Radhika, “On Tuesday night when the power went off, I approached the hospital staff saying I would take my father to my hometown. Initially they refused, but relented only when I insisted.” Radhika, who is also a resident of Chennai, drove 300km down south on Tuesday night with her father to reach her hometown, near Trichy. “I decided to head to my hometown, because I felt we would not get any help in the city.”
More than the MIOT incident, what angered the people was government apathy. However, Social Welfare Minister B. Valarmathi says, “We haven’t experienced a massive disaster like this. The government has been ensuring all measures to ensure people are rehabilitated and relief reach the needy.”
Despite the government’s assurance and the funds flowing in from the NGOs, the city is struggling hard to return to normal. The politics behind the relief work and the government’s failure to handle the disaster add to the woes. Reportedly a team from TCS was harassed and relief materials brought by them were thrown into the Adyar river by AIADMK cadres, last week. “They are making politics out of this and feel it would tarnish the government's image. “In every area in the city we see AIADMK men, waiting at the entrance just to ensure that the relief goes out through them,” says D. Jagadheeswaran, national spokesperson, Lok Satta Party.
Recently, Jagadheeswaran and his team of volunteers were chased out from Padikuppam near Nerkundram in Chennai when they wanted to distribute bedsheets and gather data about the needs of the people there. “We will have to register with the AIADMK goons rather than the local cadres before we reach out to people. This is atrocious,” adds Jagadheeswaran. Not only in Nerkundram, their volunteers were chased out from Manimangalam in South Chennai and Vyasarpadi in North Chennai, too, which are completely ravaged by the floods.
Retired officials say mismanagement and the power vested with one single authority in the government had led to the disaster. Apparently, power outage for over four days in major parts of the city had exposed the pitfalls in the government machinery. Interestingly, it was the same chief minister and her AIADMK government that handled the tsunami disaster in 2004. She had then appointed a four-member team comprising IAS officers, who were given decision-making powers, and engaged several foreign NGOs. “Rain is not a disaster. It is nature. If there had been preparedness and well-built infrastructure like in Kerala or Chandigarh, the excess rain would have naturally drained. But here corruption and the failure to stick to norms in every other department has turned nature’s gift into a disaster,” says M.G. Devasahayam, a retired bureaucrat.
He says immediate relief has to come from the government not in the form of distributing relief materials alone, but in the form of sanitation and medical aid. However, the Chennai Corporation has literally failed in carrying out the sanitation work, say experts. Apparently the press conferences to announce the relief measures and sanitation, which ought to be done by elected Mayor Saidai S. Duraisamy, were addressed by ministers Valarmathi and Gokula Indira. Duraisamy has been silenced by his party chief, say sources in the AIADMK. The garbage clearance, though done in a massive way, has not ensured that the sewer is cleared on war footage in every part of the city.
Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan, however, says, “Medical camps have been organised. The government is equipped with enough medicines and there is no epidemic, so far.” But government hospitals have run out of even basic ointments like Betadine and Whitfields. The officers whom I spoke to complain of virtual breakdown of administration,” says activist Paadam A. Narayanan of Change India.
Official toll: 270
Economic loss in Chennai: Rs 5,000 crore
Economic loss in Tamil Nadu: Rs 10,000 crore