India

Chennai floods: 'We had to pay a bribe to cremate our mother'

  • 16 December 2015
  • From the section India
Flood waters in the Semmancheri housing board complex Image copyright Sibi Arasu
Image caption Semmancheri was one of the worst affected areas in Chennai

Residents of the southern Indian city of Chennai (Madras) came together to help each other as their city was hit by the worst floods in a century. But stories of how the unscrupulous exploited the tragedy are now coming to the fore. Sibi Arasu recounts one such tale.

In the 24 hours between 1 and 2 December 2015, Chennai received 500 mm of rain - a deluge not witnessed in living memory.

At least 270 people are thought to have been killed in the resulting floods.

Among them was R Nalini, 54, a sanitation worker at the Madras Institute of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (MIOT) Hospitals.

Swept away

The mother of three young adults, R Gokul Krishnan, 22, and twin sisters, R Keerthana and R Keerthika 20, Nalini was swept away by flood waters on the main road leading to her home, in the Semmancheri housing board, which is just off the city's Information Technology corridor.

Semmancheri was one of the worst affected areas in Chennai. Floods saw most of the houses there submerged in waist-deep water.

The housing complex, which is effectively a set of shanties on the outskirts of the city, houses 6,734 families, all of them displaced because of various urban development and infrastructure projects.

Image copyright Sibi Arasu
Image caption "She was worried that our house would be flooded and we would be in trouble, that's why she rushed back"

Nalini's family believes she was swept away while trying to navigate flood waters after getting off the bus.

"She was worried that our house would be flooded and we would be in trouble, that's why she rushed back," Keerthana, told me when I met her at their home.

"The last time it rained like this in November she stayed at the hospital but I think she got worried because none of the phone lines were working."

The children who presumed that their mother was staying over at the hospital began to worry when they didn't hear from her even the next day. They started a frantic search - at the hospital, at police stations near their home and the hospital even as the rains continued bucketing down.

Five days later, Gokul Krishnan received a call from an acquaintance in his neighbourhood, informing him that his mother's body had been found in an area adjacent to Semmancheri.

Bureaucratic nightmare

Nalini's body was taken to the Royapettah mortuary 26km (16 miles) from Semmancheri and placed alongside other bodies that had been recovered from various parts of the city.

Her children, accompanied by social worker Karunya Devi, visited the Sholinganallur police station on the morning of 7 December to acquire a police report to claim the body.

But the police station turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Image copyright Sibi Arasu
Image caption The family believes Nalini was swept away while trying to navigate flood waters after getting off the bus

"It took close to three hours to get a copy of the document," Karunya Devi told the BBC.

With a copy of the document finally in hand, the family went to the mortuary, where they found that the body, in an advanced state of decay, had not been attended to by staff.

"It was one of the worst sights in my life to see the condition Nalini was in, with her entire corpse bloated and covered with worms. We finally managed to get it all cleaned up and took her to the government crematorium back in Semmancheri," Karunya Devi said.

Uncertain future

But the worst was yet to come.

The government crematorium, supposed to be a free service, turned out to be run by local contractors, who demanded 15,000 rupees (£147;£223) to conduct the last rites.

"It was getting dark as well and the area still had no electricity. So we had no choice but to pay the bribe to get her final rites done," says Karunya Devi.

"They were asking for 15,000 rupees but we managed to get it done for 4,000 rupees," Gokul Krishnan told the BBC.

Image copyright Sibi Arasu
Image caption At least 270 people are thought to have been killed by the deluge and floods

Gokul Krishnan and his sisters who had already lost their father to a heart attack 15 years ago are unsure of how to move forward with their lives.

Keerthana and Keerthika work at a nearby grocery store , while their brother, a stone cutter, gets temporary work from building contractors. However their mother's salary was a vital component of the family's income.

Mr Krishnan says the hospital had promised to pay a month's salary but he's not sure if or when her pension fund will be released.

"I wish the government or somebody had made some kind of announcement about the rain," says Gokul Krishnan. He adds, "My mother would be alive now if they had done that."

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai.

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