The Marina Beach in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Marina Beach in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chennai needs an adaptive governance model to tackle climate change risks

Chennai needs continuous efforts to build the capacity of communities as well as existing institutions to enhance its resilience

The Tamil Nadu governor’s inaugural address to the 16th Legislative Assembly has proposed establishing the Chennai Metro Flood Management Committee (CMFMC) in the coastal capital city.

Subsequently, on July 5, in his first address to the State Disaster Management Authority as the chairman, the chief minister also reiterated the proposed CMFMC.

It would comprise experts in environment, urban planning, disaster management, will devise flood control methods and design storm water drains to reduce the detrimental impact of floods. The chief minister even urged officials to make disaster management in the state a ‘people’s movement’.

The proposed CMFMC has been long overdue. Those in power have aimed at enhancing the urban governance capability of Chennai. However, citizens have been seemingly excluded from the creation of ad hoc committees.

Meanwhile, floods are not the only disaster that Chennai has to deal with. Also, storm water drainage projects are not devoid of criticism due to faulty design or encroachment of social and cultural spaces of city dwellers without even their knowledge.

A German development bank-funded storm water drainage project has landed up at the National Green Tribunal for violating Coastal Regulation Zone notifications in Chennai.

This growing coastal city — both geographically and demographically — is in dire need of innovation in the ability to govern due to a multitude of risks arising from climate change. Will the CMFMC, being ad hoc in nature and sectoral, deliver its purpose and objectives to make Chennai a resilience city?

Since the 2015 floods in Chennai, all the three organs of the state — executive, legislature and judiciary — have, from time to time, laid emphasis on the need to find ways and means to tackle disasters, including urban flooding.

Unfortunately, even after half a decade, the city is still struggling to find a coherent approach to address multiple risks emanating from climate change to sea level rise, from tropical cyclones to heat waves. It is to be noted that since 2015, all disasters in Chennai have been managed by bureaucrats alone.

After 12 years of the enactment of the National Disaster Management Act (2005), Chennai framed its own City Disaster Management Plan (CDMP) in 2017 to be reviewed annually.

But, the CDMP has been merely focusing on guidelines of disaster management (through its bureaucracy) during the northeast monsoon period. It has completely failed in its ‘mission’ and vision, has not been able to enhance the role of citizens and their participation or building their capacity for a resilient future.

Enhancing community resilience is prescribed by United Nations disaster agreements — the Sendai Framework (2015-2030) and the Hyogo Framework (2005-2015). 

However, it has not been factored in to or considered in the CDMP. Not a single review has been done of the CDMP since. It may be prudent for the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) to initiate an inclusive, informed consultation for the review of CDMP as soon as possible and to finalise and approve it by 2022.   

Similarly, the State Disaster Management Perspective Plan (2018–2030), released in 2018, aims to build a safe and disaster-resistant Tamil Nadu through both structural and non-structural interventions, especially community participation with social inclusion.

Are these being followed yet by either the state government or the GCC?

Even Goals 11 and 13 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which prescribe to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, have not reached their targeted stakeholders. These include the most vulnerable groups such as youth, women, the homeless, elderly and disadvantaged people in the cities.   

Tamil Nadu and especially Chennai, has been following an ‘all-weather mode’l after the 2015 deluge. This model is nothing more than a nexus among networks of academics from elite institutions who have turned into consultants and technocrats.

Under the strict control of such a technocrat-bureaucrat-consultant model, several projects have been initiated, backed by studies that heavily depend on geo-engineering interventions. But these have remarkably failed to provide safety and security to the common citizens of Chennai.

This model has been successful in bringing both bilateral and multilateral finances in the name of climate change and disasters. But it has neither been able to create resilient institutions nor enhance the capacities of the communities and line agencies in the GCC or state agencies.

Ironically, more than a dozen high-profile projects have been executed for making the city resilient including Smart City, Water as Leverage, Cities Fit for Climate Change and C-40 to name a few. 

There is also a dedicated semi-non-governmental institution ‘Resilient Chennai’. Only ‘Resilient Chennai’ has been engaged in enhancing the resilient capacity of the most vulnerable communities.

The proposed CMFMC seems prima facie to be limited and heavily dominated by the technocrat-bureaucrat-consultant nexus. Unless it is expanded by maximising representations from citizen groups and vulnerable communities, it would be a single window.

Such a window would prepare so-called detailed project reports for bilateral funding agencies and not make Chennai resilient. Don’t make the mistake by following a truncated entity like river basin organisations.

A new model

The city probably needs to explore an innovative, ‘adaptive governance’ model. Adaptive governance, as a new model of cooperative or collaborative governance, is not confined to only climate change adaptation.

Rather, it is anchored on the ethos of adaptation processes and resilience towards minimising the risks of climate change. Thus, it is not confined to just government and its agencies or civil society initiatives.

It is a multi-tier and multi-layer cooperative and / or collaborative model beyond the strict control of techno-bureaucratic-consultant model. It is neither a fixed top-down nor a bottom-up approach.

It is flexible as well as reflective, innovative and strategic. At best, the adaptive governance motto may include elements of co-imagine, co-initiate, co-design, co-learn, co-implement and co-evaluate all the 3 Ps (projects, programmes and policies) related to the city and beyond. 

Before proposing a new set up, would it not be appropriate to enhance and empower the existing potential set up? The state has a Climate Change Cell under the department of environment, climate change and forests.

Can the Climate Change Cell be reoriented and reorganised as the highest consultative and advisory platform for the state and Chennai by involving representation from all concerned government agencies, citizen groups, vulnerable communities, private agencies and civil society groups?

Specific sector-wise and city committees like the proposed CMFMC can be part of the larger all-inclusive ‘Climate Change Assembly’ under the Climate Change Cell.

Chief Minister MK Stalin, who has first-hand experience in managing the city unlike the previous leaders, has the ability to bring bureaucracy and people together to address the capital city’s multiple risks.

He already demonstrated an inclusive model of consultation with all political parties to address the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)-related problems during his first week in office.

He can replicate this model in dealing with disasters and other challenges as well.

Chennai needs continuous efforts to build the capacity of communities as well as existing institutions to enhance its resilience; It should not form not ad hoc committees or work on  stand-alone projects.

Avilash Roul is guest professor and principal scientist at the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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