Plenty of good things have been said recently about my city – I have been earlier told (and admitted myself) that Chennaiites are standoffish or conservative; now things are different.

An unprompted people’s movement has received a standing ovation, and it deserves it. Thousands of Chennai makkal (people) dove to the rescue of the chaotic, flood-hit streets of Chennai in the last few days. The beauty of this togetherness stems from its immediate people-powered response to an unexpected crisis.

On the evenings of Dec 1st and 2nd, I was a distracted, frantic mess at the Greenpeace office in Bengaluru as I juggled work while trying to keep in touch with my parents and extended family in Chennai. A city I have grown up in, whose roads I knew couldn’t handle the incessant rains. However, little to no mobile network combined with a city-wide power cut meant phones were unreachable or periodically switched off to conserve battery. To curb panic, I’d solely make periodic calls to family in Chennai and relay updates back to those outside.

Meanwhile, I obsessively tracked the marvellously helpful Twitter – I am after all a digital campaigner. The tools we use for campaigns helped me pass information to a large network of family and friends living abroad, and also to help arrange for food for an old age home my parents support.

12 December 2015

Ill-planned urbanization and a disregard for environment have affected the city drastically. Pic Credits: Sebastian

I was concerned about our Chennai office, until our HR Director assured me they were contacting staff to ensure they were alright. Our employees, affected in these rains themselves, would soon be some of the many volunteers the city churned out. They have been serving as a bridge between those needing relief supplies and those providing it. Our office has become a warehouse for these supplies; trucks regularly roll out collecting and giving material to hundreds of people in remote, stricken areas. Just like the many other organizations are still doing. We stand together.

I was on a bus to Chennai as soon as the roads opened up. My ride from the bus stand to my house shook me up as I saw boats and knee-deep water in many areas I knew well. Everyone was blaming the overflow of the reservoir lakes as well but the rains had contributed to it and the city's tragic state. As the day passed and I spent time checking up on people and providing supplies, I saw relief trucks and volunteers that sustained the city. That was the true moment I felt the impact of the #PeoplePower that had helped Chennai stay afloat. In a relief camp I visited with Greenpeace’s solar panels there was immense praise from those affected for those who had hosted, fed, and clothed them, and for our simple idea of providing electicity. I felt honoured to help even in such a small way as we were part of something much bigger.

12 December 2015

Greenpeace solar panel tour providing free (and clean) electricity in powerless areas of Chennai


It’s been a week since Chennai reached its tipping point. Motoring through the dry streets of the city today, I find it hard to believe that it went through a record-breaking rainfall and flood disaster just a few days ago. Shops and restaurants are open, traffic is normal, people are back at work, and the environmental problems that catalysed the tragedy remain unaccounted for – broken roads, garbage mounds, lack of trees, improper protection of potholes and canals, unplanned development near water bodies, amongst others.

As someone working for an environmental organization, it is inevitable that I’d link this freak episode to global warming. Indeed, many experts and ministers have too. An utter disregard for the environment in the name of development and urbanization has made floods in the last few years poster children for the terrible effects of climate change. Similar episodes are happening all over the world - Chennai is just a trailer for the Big Picture of Climate Change

Do we have to wait for more episodes to happen before we rise to protect this country and the planet? Investing in fossil fuels like coal for energy production, mass deforestation, the littering of our oceans – all of this and more is paving way for environmental disasters.

We NEED to do more about it, not just today or this month, but all the time. My biggest hope is this - if a city of a few million can come together to combat a climate disaster, just imagine what this country of a few billion can achieve. India needn’t be a victim of climate change. It needs to be a hero. It can be. You can too.

Aswini Sivaraman is a Digital Campaigner with Greenpeace India.

PS: My love for solar energy was reinforced as we used it to charge tons of people’s mobile phones in a power-stricken city, so they could reach out to loved ones.

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