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Business as Usual in a City Under Water: Natural Disasters, Urban Modernity and Chennai's Information Technology Industry


· S. Shakthi Indian Institute of Technology Madras (Chennai, India)


07/28 | 09:00-09:20 UTC+2/CEST


The city of Chennai has witnessed profound changes to its built environment since the liberalisation of the Indian economy. The growth of the information technology (IT) industry, in particular, has resulted in rapid urban development to accommodate its expansion, facilitated by extensive state support. These changes are perhaps epitomised by the construction of Rajiv Gandhi Salai, a 40-kilometre, six-lane ‘IT Corridor’ traversing former marshlands at the southern end of the city, where most major IT companies operate out of sprawling, self-contained office complexes and IT parks.

In late 2015, Chennai was hit by severe flooding that brought the city to a virtual standstill, while leaving hundreds of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. This paper analyses the consequences of this crisis for an industry that functions as a symbol of modernity in this postcolonial city. Based on nine months of ethnographic field work before, during and after the floods, it interrogates the effects of poorly-planned development over a low-lying swamp for Chennai’s IT industry and its middle-class, upwardly mobile employees. It examines the material and discursive cracks in the smooth transnational flows that the sector relies on, as companies scrambled to stay productive through an extreme climatic event, worsened by the ‘planned informality’ (Roy 2009) of the post-liberalisation urban landscape. Using an interdisciplinary approach that draws from the sociology of globalisation and urban geography, it further unpacks the complex transnational circuits of power that impact the situated realities of this urban Indian profession.