What happened in Chennai could easily happen to your city. Given the way we abuse urban spaces, almost every other city in India is a disaster waiting to happen. Those responsible have blood on their hands. Lack of proper urban planning and corruption make our cities susceptible to virtually any weather event. Public memory is short, repeated warnings from town planners remain trapped in files and implementation is either tardy or thoughtless. The truth: Most urban disasters are man-made. So when the Tamil Nadu capital went under, climate experts wore a told-you-so look. Others bemoaned lack of government intent to stop abuse of natural buffers, call a halt to mindless concretisation, and ensure upkeep of waterways and drainage channels.
Truth is, while extreme weather conditions are on the rise, their manifestation on our cities is worsened by man-made decisions faulty legislation, lack of will to enforce laws and plain human greed. Politicians, bureaucrats and builder lobbies collude to chop and change urban plans and legislations. In Delhi, they have legalised unauthorised colonies on the Yamuna riverbed.
Like Chennai, where suicidal development projects led to crowded neighbourhoods such as Mudichur, Velachery and Pallikaranai coming up on wetlands and 300 water bodies vanishing, ecological tensions are building up in other cities where government policy and corruption allow lowlands and water bodies, which receive the runoff from torrential rain, to be filled and plotted out for ‘development’.
Take Bengaluru. While the city’s built-up area has grown exponentially between 2000 and 2014, vegetation, according to an Indian Institute of Science study, has shrunk. The status of water bodies is worse. None of this would have happened without politicians, babudom and the builder lobby working in cahoots. Shockingly, Hyderabad, which once had 3,000-plus lakes, has only a few left now.
Law and disorder
That brings us to the question of laws. We don’t have a dearth of them, but invariably fall short on implementation. Often city administrations are complicit in violations or expediency gets the better of caution when it comes to taking the shortcut to progress. Protective laws, when they exist, often prove self-defeating.
Even otherwise, what can explain Chennai’s Mass Rapid Transport System train service coming up on the Buckingham Canal, killing a British-era canal that drained water away from the city? Hasn’t this proved reckless?
Similar expediency was seen in the permission for the construction of the 60-acre Millennium Park bus depot on the active flood plains of the Yamuna in Delhi. If and when the rivers or canals they’re built on breach their banks, these structures will either be swept away or inundated. In fact, in Delhi, water expert Himanshu Thakkar says there’s no law to stop a real estate rampage on the Yamuna floodplains. “There’s the Delhi Masterplan to provide some protection to the river plain, but no proper monitoring agency to check deviations. It’s not too difficult to manipulate the process,” he says. So, Barapullah Bridge project Phase III to connect east and south Delhi continues without an environmental impact assessment clearance although it involves changing the river’s course.
In Mumbai, while the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications aim to save delicate littoral ecologies, a disingenuous method puts endangered areas under less stringent CRZ categories. The mudflats and salt marshes of Thane, Malad and Vasai creeks, defined as CRZ III, should have been under CRZ I with strictures against construction and use. D Stalin, director of NGO Vanashakti, says, “Since the law on CRZ III is ambiguous, this category is often tweaked to allow all kinds of construction.” It isn’t surprising that the financial capital’s buffer zone of mangroves receded by 36.6 sq km between 1991 and 2011.
In Kolkata, the biggest loss has been the conversion of marshlands to the east of the city in the past four-five decades to create two satellite townships Salt Lake across 12.35 sq km and New Town spanning 37 sq km. This was accomplished even when the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority’s Masterplan had specifically spoken against it.
Water channels be dammed
As in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai, Kolkata’s network of water bodies, the nayanjulis and inland canals, are disappearing. In Dakshin Dum Dum Municipality, for one, the filling of channels along VIP Road from Baguihati to Kaikhali has risked the area to submergence when it rains. A canal is now a mall’s parking.
The situation isn’t very different in Delhi. “We have finished off the catchment area of many water bodies here,” says Manoj Mishra, an environment activist. “Sarai Kale Khan used to be a water retention area. An interstate bus terminal was built on it.
This attitude of construction at whatever the cost also manifests itself in myopic and mindless planning, as in Hyderabad’s HiTec City (Gachibowli). The IT corridor has no storm-water drainage and drowns when it rains. Likewise, Gurgaon in the NCR goes under even in light showers.
In Mumbai, 26 subways in the western suburbs were originally culverts below sea level. They have now been paved over as roads providing east-west connectivity. Many, including at Andheri, Goregaon and Malad, are flooded when it rains at high tide. These examples show how corruption, self-defeating legislation and short-sighted planning have become force multipliers for the debilitating impact of climate change. Now, when it rains, the area gets flooded.”