Warned yet unprepared, why?

India’s Urban Nightmares

By Poonam I Kaushish

Kolkata is craving rain to escape from oppressive heat, Mangaluru is braving floods and Mumbai is drowning under unprecedented rains resulting in the worst flooding since 2005, a consequence of increased concretization and progressively variable rainfall patterns. All standing mute testimony to a callous, heartless and selfish polity and babudom bereft of cure and consolation. Given the aam aadmi translates only into mere sterile statistics to be manipulated at will. Resulting in public outrage and anger all cursing the Government!
Year after year, it’s the same sorry state of affairs. Lord Indra’s fury encapsulates our water woes. Whoever said when it rains it pours miseries, was dead on! Western and Southern India resembles a disaster zone as water seeps into homes, schools and colleges remain shut, flights and trains disrupted or cancelled leaving thousands stranded. Notwithstanding the nationwide rainfall deficit stands at 9% and 10% kharif shortfall specially in the east and northeast.
Questionably, why do our netagan prioritise floods only at crises time? Why can’t they implement basic suggestions? Why is so little done to develop a long-term response to an annual predictable problem, wherein many die, lakhs are rendered homeless and property worth crores is lost. Does anyone really care?
Not at all, given that floods, landslides and cyclones are a yearly affair in most parts of Mera Bharat Mahan. Millions of words have been written and millions more will continue to be written about our deluge miseries but it’s like water off a duck’s back.
Undeniably, the Government’s approach is one of criminal casualness — kaam chalao! It only reacts after things come to a grinding halt or people have lost their lives. Less said the better of the levels of unpreparedness among our civic authorities during the monsoon season. Insufficient cleaning of drains, inadequate pruning of over-burdened trees, dug up roads, no de-silting et al. While the severity of the rains can be termed as an ‘act of God’, the mess, misery and damage is certainly man-made and mostly caused by human error.
Primarily, because our policies are based on poor land management and myopic flood-control strategies. In fact, a cursory glance at the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Disaster Management shows that over 67.4 per cent area of the country is vulnerable to natural disasters like floods, cyclonic winds and storms. Yet the Government’s couldn’t care less, ke pharak painda hai.
Moreover, why do politicians feel that mere sanctioning of hundreds of crores will solve the problem? Little do they realize that funds doled out instead of helping the people, are used by most State Governments for purposes other than disaster management. Bluntly, neither the Central Disaster Management Authority nor the State Disaster Boards implemented any project properly. Unfortunately, many civic officials spend years lining their pockets instead of taking care of civic facilities.
Lack of coordination between bodies makes matters worse. Delhi has it the worst, with five independent municipal bodies, the State Government-run Public Works Department and a police force under the Central Government. Resulting in a perennial mess year round: Jams, chaos and confusion.
Think. It is open knowledge that extreme weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change. Yet our cities are not designed to withstand these as nothing is being done to make cities more resilient. Heavy development has destroyed green spaces and mangrove forests, its natural flood protection resultant in inadequate drainage system as no amount of man-made storm water drains can make up for natural drains.
No effort is being made to reduce the higher population density in urban areas and make them less vulnerable to the changing climate leading to greater loss of life and property than rural areas. Extreme rainfall also leaves cities at greater economic risk. The economic loss to Chennai from the 2015 floods cost $3.5 billion (Rs 21,381 crores).
Scandalously, a total of 15 States including Rajasthan, Himachal, Kerala and Manipur did not have a flood forecasting system till August 2016. What makes the situation more precarious is that most telemetry stations are non-functional. Of the 375 telemetry stations installed country-wide to get real-time data on water level in rivers and rainfall, 222 (59%) were non-operational. While flood-prone States have yet to demarcate specific areas vulnerable to flooding.
If extreme rainfall events become more frequent, cities need to be prepared for extreme flooding. They aren’t. Storm water networks are either blocked or not adequate, Many of these drains also carry sewage, which should be separated and treated but is not. With sewage mixing with storm-water, it is difficult to channel the excess rain water into local lakes. Garbage also finds its way into and obstructs storm-water drains, floating out when they overflow.
Changing urban land use and de-forestation disallows water from soaking into the ground. Consequently, with concrete and tarmac all around, we are creating almost a near-total impervious area. Thus, the flood gets amplified in urban areas because of change in land use. Cities grow without adequate infrastructure, and the existing infrastructure collapses quickly because it is designed for minor floods and not extreme events that we are seeing presently.
Alas, despite guidelines being laid out by the National Disaster Management Authority, urban planners and managers go for designs calibrated for milder events to reduce cost. Environmentalists warn, without redesigning their infrastructure and preparing for extreme weather, India’s cities will increasingly succumb to its ravages.
Time now to involve experts and environmentalists who can evaluate ecological problems, study its context and be involved in decision and policy-making. With special emphasis on problems created by burgeoning population and its impact on the local eco-system, growth of hap-hazard housing, environmental insanitation and decay, drainage and stagnant water bodies. The focus needs to change from responding to disasters to averting disasters through better preparedness.
If there are trees, plants and open areas around, rain water will be absorbed by the Earth, but if we continue to build concrete jungles, flooding should not surprise. Undoubtedly, this will come at an enormous cost. We would need thousands of crores to deal with national calamities like the annual kahein-sukhaa-kahein-baaarh ritual.
If India is to progress rapidly, its cities cannot come to a halt during monsoons. Sure, heavy rains will slow things down and there will be some amount of traffic jams and water-logging, but better planning and preparedness can ensure that monsoons do not lead to an economic blackout. The Government is making several ‘Smart Cities’ but where is the civic planning?
In sum, there are no short-cuts. We need to highlight our priorities, formulate policies based on needs and find solutions. It is now imperative to re-think our strategies and approaches to safeguard the environment, build infrastructure, improve service delivery, establish close links between policy, research and service with the aam aadmi at the centre of development.
Our polity needs to pull up their bootstraps and focus on long-term rather than short-term planning and shed their passion to pander to vote-banks. One needs neither a bleeding heart nor blindness to know what should be done. Decisive indecisiveness will not do. It only holds out promises of more misery, more wrenching news bulletins and more cries for the Government to act. The time is far gone to play the pied piper and aver it’s only life, stupid! —- INFA