Why India’s Uber rival had to replace its cabs with boats

Floods in India's southern city of Chennai on November 17, 2015. 

NEW DELHI, India — “Your boat will arrive in six minutes” isn’t the usual notification you’d expect from your favorite cab-hailing app. But for some residents of Chennai, a city in the south of India, it signaled the only way to get out of their water-logged homes. 

The state of Tamil Nadu has received unusually high monsoon rainfall in the last few weeks, leading to fast-rising floods. At least 169 people were killed and the state has reported close to $1.3 billion in damages. In Chennai, roads lay completely submerged and residents in low-lying areas fled their houses, complaining of drinking water mixing with sewage. The city has evacuated more than 12,000 people.

Others found themselves stranded. With taxis refusing to navigate flooded streets, some internet users suggested that Olacabs — a homegrown Uber rival that dispatches cars and auto rickshaws — should send boats instead. 

Ola, amazingly, obliged. 

The company hired professional rowers, who went out on boats to pick up people or deliver water and food to stranded residents. The boats came complete with umbrellas and rain gear, manned by rowers outfitted in Ola windcheaters over their traditional lungis.

Apart from giving Ola the opportunity for a clever PR maneuver, the flooding has only highlighted shortfalls in Chennai’s infrastructure. Though the city government claimed to have carried out expensive desilting processes to clear out drains, results were hard to see under all the water. 

“Although preventive measures were taken, the damages due to very heavy rains were inevitable,” said Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. 

Yet environmental experts have repeatedly said that there is nothing natural about the disaster in Chennai. 

There is a simple explanation – terribly planned urban development. Chennai, the state’s most densely populated city with a population of more than 4.6 million, has allowed practically unrestrictedconstruction on nearly all of its bodies of water. Now universities, IT companies and housing complexes sit on what used to be marshlands, canals and river beds. Following the slope of the land, floodwaters habitually drown these developments during particularly heavy monsoons.

Take the new Mass Rapid Transit System in Chennai, which was the first elevated railway line in India. While it makes the journeys of 100,000 commuters easier, those who live around the tracks aren’t thrilled. Built along a section of the Buckingham Canal, the system more than halves the width of the waterway at several places, causing floodwater from torrential rains to spill over into neighboring residential areas.

Exnora International, an environmental NGO based in Chennai, even petitioned the Tamil Nadu High Court in 1996, warning the court about the possibility of floods and asking it to stop the environmentally unsustainable construction of the system. By the time the court finally looked at the case in 2006, the transit system was built. Judges dismissed the petition.

“We should not obstruct the scientific and technical progress of the country in the name of environment protection,” the judgment said, citing an earlier order. “No doubt, the environment has to be protected, but at the same time, we must never overlook the basic aim of our country which is to make India a powerful and modern industrial state.”

As Chennai rapidly develops, the city is once again submerged. Though these “natural” disasters are unlikely to cease, for now, at least, residents have Ola.