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Deluge and Delusion

Indian cities are drowning because of poor governance and indifference.

Indian cities are drowning not just because of unusually high rainfall. They are going under because of decades of misgovernance and poor urban planning. Mumbai received over 300 mm of rain within 12 hours on 29 August. That is unusual. But it was not the deluge that brought the city to its knees. It was the delusions and indifference of those responsible for managing the city. Despite the terrible events of 26 July 2005, when the city crumbled under three times as much rain leading to loss of life and destruction of property, no lessons have been learned and even basic common sense appears to have been abandoned.

Mumbai is not the only city in India to have experienced unusually high rainfall over a short period this year. On 26 and 27 July, Ahmedabad was awash when rain that was 11 times the average fell on the city. On 21 August, Chandigarh received 23 times the average rain for this season. On 15 August, Bengaluru was inundated when 37 times the average rain fell on parts of the city. The flooding in these cities was exacerbated for the same reasons that Mumbai suffered on 29 August. It was not just the inadequacy of storm water drains, although in Mumbai this has been a long-standing factor that somehow never gets addressed. In all these cities, the root of the problem has been the callous indifference of the authorities to the natural features that facilitate the absorption of excess water. These are mangroves, wetlands, salt pans, floodplains, lakes, tanks and open grasslands.

In every city, we see how these natural sponges have been destroyed by changing regulations for land use that allow these spaces to be filled up and built over. In Chennai, which saw terrible flooding in November 2015, the airport stands on a floodplain; a bus terminal has been built in a flood-prone area and a mass rapid transport system is being built on a major canal. In Bengaluru, its famous lakes that provided water to the city and also acted as natural sinks to absorb excess water have been encroached upon and have virtually disappeared. In Mumbai, mangroves have been destroyed to make way for high-end residential buildings thereby ensuring that there is no barrier against sea-level rise in the future and frequent bouts of unusually heavy rainfall. Similarly, Mumbai’s salt pans that are environmentally crucial, are being considered for constructing so-called “affordable” housing, basically poorly constructed structures on land that are vulnerable to flooding.

By now it should be evident to those who run our cities that if you pave a city and do not leave any space for water to be absorbed, you are guaranteeing that it will flood. No storm water, regardless of its size or efficiency, can make a difference. Yet, in city after city we see that the interests of builders and realtors under the benign gaze of their political godfathers take precedence over long-term urban survival. The problem as with so much else in India, is not that of shortage of funds but of priorities. In Mumbai, a plan to enhance the British era storm water drainage system was devised in the 1980s, its implementation began some years later but till today, the drainage is not in place. Instead, funds are raised, allocated and spent on building infrastructure that serves the needs of a small percentage of the population, those that are better-off and in any case live in the better serviced parts of the city. Such plans include building more roads for private vehicles instead of strengthening public transport used by the majority. Such skewed priorities become even more evident after disasters like flooding where the people most affected are also the poorest. Urban poor settlements tend to come up in low-lying flood-prone areas. They face flooding even during normal monsoon days but when there is a cloudburst or a cyclone-like situation, they have nowhere to go.

Additionally, several studies are suggesting that global warming is partly responsible for unexpected and extreme changes in weather patterns such as the intense rainfall leading to flooding in so many cities. One such study by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Water Research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, which looked at rainfall patterns in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, concluded that climate change could be a factor in the increase in high intensity rainfall in these cities. Cities located by the sea are even more vulnerable because global warming is also leading to a rise in sea levels that would inundate these cities in the event of a cyclone, hurricane or a tsunami. Clearly, cities must take measures to adapt to and mitigate the fallout of the effects of global warming. This would necessarily require reassessing land use patterns, building codes and conserving mangroves and open unpaved spaces. This is not environmental fetishism; it is common sense, something that is sorely lacking in the people governing Indian cities. Perhaps the only recourse is for citizens, who continue to pay the price for such blind and delusional planning, to assert their right to live in a safe and sustainable urban environment.

Updated On : 4th Sep, 2017

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