If all else fails, dial new-age heroes: Use and misuse of technology in Chennai floods

If all else fails, dial new-age heroes: Use and misuse of technology in Chennai floods

By: || Updated: 04 Dec 2015 11:09 AM
Chennai: Abraham Thomas hasn't budged from home in the past three days.
Thomas, who runs his own consultancy, is a resident of Chennai's tony suburb - Annanagar - where he has been fortunate to get electricity all through the day, water, an Airtel phone service and access to all social media websites.
"There are only four blocks out here that are near normal. Five hundred metres out, there's a blooming lake," he says.
His office is out at Saidapet where the swirling waters have left residents stranded, disconnected and furious with the weak government response to the worst flooding that the city has witnessed in over a hundred years.
"The rains stopped yesterday. The sun was out for about four hours today," says Thomas, surprised by the way the fury of nature has cleaved the city into islands of calm and vortices of despair.
But the real heroes of this crisis are the new age technology companies like WhatsApp and taxi-hailing service Ola that seems to have morphed overnight into a boat ferry service that is working tirelessly to take people to safer areas.
Ola has handed over boats to the Fire and Rescue Department of Tamil Nadu who have deployed them in Saidapet and Ekkattuthangal in Chennai.
This isn't the first time that the car hire service has pressed boats bearing their distinctive badge into service. Back in November, when the rains first hit the city, Ola had inducted fibreglass boats that could carry five to nine people.
At that time, Ola spokesperson Anand Subramaniam had said: "Ola is about mobility. Even when there are no roads, we offer customers some form of mobility through our boats."
The car hire service has also created a number of "safety zonesemporary homes" in the city at Waltax Road and Ambattur where people are being given food and shelter free of cost. The homes are equipped with relief supplies and first aid kits.
A collective outpouring of generosity and help in the city has drowned fears and frustrations over the deluge.
Tambaram and Velachery have been completely submerged. A WhatsApp message said Madras Christian College - which abuts the air force station from where helicopters have been buzzing overhead all day - has thrown open its Anderson Hall as a refuge for those with no place to go.
Thomas, an economics graduate from MCC and a former resident of its Selaiyur Hall, says WhatsApp and Facebook have been right in the frontlines of this massive rescue and rehabilitation effort as groups of people and hashtags combine the power of their courage and compassion.
WhatsApp has been the chat service that has kept Chennai's spirit afloat by keeping rescue teams and victims in touch with a blizzard of cyber messages.
The big trouble is that in the flooded suburbs people have been struggling to stay connected with friends and relatives because mobile telephony services have been shaky and the power lines have been down.
One Bengali couple, working in Chennai's infotech hub, have had to move out of their flat in Saidapet to a company guest house where a generator provides power for just one hour a day. That's when they scramble to collect water that is scarce, charge phones, hunt for an ATM that can yield some desperately needed cash and find some high ground where they can catch an elusive mobile signal.
"My son and daughter-in-law have moved thrice over the last few weeks to a guest house, the latest being on Monday. On all three occasions, a rescue boat came for them. There is no power. The guest house operates a generator for an hour when they are asked to charge their phones and laptops. The telephone network is down. But they are communicating through WhatsApp and Facebook. That is the only mode of communication left to us in the absence of phone connectivity," said Kalyan Debnath, whose son Kallol and daughter-in-law Sangita live in Chennai.
One bunch of youngsters has been beavering away to help people through a newly formed website chennairains.org. "The site may be slow because of the traffic and all the editing that is going on. If you want any other kind of information, Twitter is still the better way to contact," said one message.
Meanwhile, telephony operators Aircel, Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular and Vodafone have joined hands collectively to put their networks back online. Mobile towers have been down because of the power cuts, waterlogging and the lack of diesel. Most of the operators are offering talk time credits to their customers to help them stay connected.
"The industry has introduced some special concessions and services in terms of talk-time/dataariff so that the people are not deprived of much needed communication facilities," said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India.

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