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On the evening of December 30, vehicles moving towards Chennai Central were slowly making their way from Saidapet on Anna Salai as blinding rain started pounding their windscreens. There had been no indication earlier of an impending deluge, but as they weaved and squeezed their way up to LIC, everything slowed to a crawl. At Anna Statue junction, it was paralysis. Everyone was trying to move in every possible direction to evade the chaos. It was 5 p.m.

Among the thousands going north were many clutching their luggage and hoping to make it to 5.30 p.m. Shatabdi Express to Bengaluru. They had only one option: get off on Pallavan Salai and make their way in the rain to Central. Or, just cancel their New Year-eve trip.

Many decided to walk, as the traffic piled up on the entry to Stanley Viaduct. New cars were getting blessed at Bodyguard Muneeswarar temple amidst the chaos. The harried train passengers, girls, old women, rural folk, some sheltering small children under towels looked bewildered at the angry metal monsters on the road waiting to muscle ahead. They scampered up the pedestrian path towards Central in the unrelenting rain.

The Shatabdi waited for exactly 7 minutes beyond the scheduled time and hooted off. Some passengers waiting on the ramp towards Central helplessly watched the online live tracker showing their train racing past Avadi by 6 p.m. while they sat in gridlock. The train was gone, unmoved by Chennai’s trauma that kept passengers from reaching it on time.

As the evening wore on, someone on a tall building filmed the now viral video of a gridlocked Anna Salai. Tens of thousands of cars were sitting on the road going nowhere.

On the roads, petrol and diesel worth hundreds of thousands burnt in idle engines, before people decided to switch them off. A lone policeman outside Central pointlessly tried to get the stranded vehicles to enter the Central MTC bus bay, as if that would free up EVR Periyar Salai. As the evening wore on, someone on a tall building filmed the now viral video of a gridlocked Anna Salai. Tens of thousands of cars were sitting on the road going nowhere.

The night wore on with a repeat of the scenes of November 2021, with interior city localities inundated. Madley subway in West Mambalam and Rangarajapuram two-wheeler underpass were officially closed, Duraiswamy subway was unusable, suburbs floated in yet another flood and residents were appealing on social media for food and essentials to be sent by boat. Suddenly, it was November 27 again, with no warning.

Pradeep John (popular as Tamil Nadu Weatherman) Tweeted to his legions of followers, “I want to apologize to you all, for missing to forewarn such an event to you. This has never happened in 15 years…” Many were frowning at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for remaining clueless. Chennai’s attention was turned from low key New Year celebrations under Omicron’s shadow to a now-familiar scourge: flood.

Where the game was lost

December 31 dawned with the weather gauges pointing to 201.2 mm of rain in Nungambakkam, and 148.9 mm in Chennai Airport from the previous day. Although this is not the highest figure, and 2021 looks set to go down in history as among the highest, with 74% excess over the season’s normal between October 1 and December 31 at about 1,370 mm (IMD data).

This New Year’s eve, Chennai was forced to look at its geography again.

The city no longer has a defined business district, such as George Town and has workplaces and offices spread across zones. But nothing can really move if the north-south axis along Anna Salai, EVR Periyar Salai (Poonamallee High Road) and Kamarajar Salai (beach road) is disrupted. The Jawaharlal Nehru Road (Inner Ring Road) was created as a reliever for some traffic from the southern end (Kathipara) to the northwest (Madhavaram), but it was soon rendered ineffective by unplanned corridor development, becoming another commercial and crowded road.

Moreover, thousands live in southern and western suburbs, and commute to the inner city for work. The Chennai Metro doesn’t go everywhere as yet, so two-wheelers and cars are default choices.

On Thursday, almost every subway connecting east and west Chennai was choked – Gengu Reddy, Nelson Manickam, Duraiswamy, Madley, Aranganathan. Unwary New Year’s eve visitors were out holidaying, classical music patrons stepped out for concerts along with local office goers and the city was suddenly besieged by rainfall. When thousands of cars and tens of thousands of two-wheelers are on the road and a flood blocks traffic, you get an automotive dystopia that can be called carpocalypse – stationary cars for miles along with snarling buses, vans and hissing two-wheelers in between.

The city no longer has a defined business district, such as George Town and has workplaces and offices spread across zones. But nothing can really move if the north-south axis along Anna Salai, EVR Periyar Salai (Poonamallee High Road) and Kamarajar Salai (beach road) is disrupted.

To those who are regularly caught in city traffic, it is amusing that successive governments have paid lip service to congestion even without rain havoc. Nearly a decade ago, in February 2012, the Tamil Nadu Highways Department was quoted by The Hindu as saying, “A detailed project report (DPR) that will take into account every conceivable problem and issue, ranging from need for acquiring extra land to utilising available space on Anna Salai, Jawaharlal Nehru Salai and Poonamallee High Road, will take shape in about nine months.”

Nine years have passed, and there was so much talk about smart cities with “smart” control rooms that will help avoid a crisis.

A protocol for gridlock

There are a few things that the city’s managers could do, using plain old media such as TV, FM, new media and social media. Everything is useful.

  • One, when things start going wrong, put out the word. The Government, especially the Police should tell people clearly that it is a bad day to make optional trips. Stay at home until further notice if you can. Simultaneously, regulate traffic to stop chaos. Warn people well ahead of congested areas, not after they arrive at that point.
  • Two, use plain old text SMS to tell the public the best options at the moment. Passengers could be asked to switch to Metro or suburban rail to reach Egmore and Central train stations or the airport. Even with bad connectivity, this message will go through, and it can be pushed by the cellular operators.
  • Use drones wherever possible to identify the worst problems and start regulating and diverting to prevent choking. On December 30, this writer witnessed choking in the virtual absence of policing at General Patters Road junction on Anna Salai, Anna Statue, Pallavan Salai and Central. Police came in well after things got out of hand.
  • Use mobile LED sign boards to warn road users of blocks ahead and ask them to curtail trips or take diversions. If such boards can be used for political campaigns, they should be equally good for critical messaging in a crisis.
  • In the worst flood spots such as road splays, use every tool possible, including tankers to suck out the water and make available more space.
  • Earmark a segregated bus lane on all arterial roads above, to speed up public transport. Raise the frequency of buses at all times. This will encourage more people to shift away from two-wheelers. This is an old idea that looks attractive anew.
  • Make safe walking possible everywhere, without exception. If footpaths are usable and safe – without being overrun by two-wheelers and dangerous holes – many people can still walk in the rain and avoid using vehicles. Shops and establishments will welcome the business.
  • On the day after the flood, get the Chennai Corporation, Metrowater, TANGEDCO, and Tamil Nadu Highways to receive standardised complaints on civic disruption and power blackouts, to provide quick relief. If the authorities can send out auto rickshaws warning people about distraint proceedings for non-payment of taxes, they can make an announcement welcoming complaints and promising time-bound relief too.
  • As per the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Chennai (2019), 47 intersections, many of them on the three arterial roads and JN Inner Ring Road, are forecast to deteriorate due to unsustainable traffic. Highlight to the public what has been done to keep them viable, and make them a priority for a revamp.

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