A southern deluge that shook us all

There’s nothing a government hates more than a flood. Droughts and floods expose man-made calamities for what these really are, and there’s no hiding behind catchall phrases like climate change or natural calamity. Climate change can only explain the record rainfall, it does not explain why cities do not have contingencies in place to divert floodwaters. Climate change does not explain why town planners consistently ignore hydrology and terrain to allow builders and encroachers to take over river banks, swampland and low-lying areas. Climate change does not explain why a government does not repair and overhaul a city’s storm water drains or its sewage systems.

One news report from the drowned city of Chennai said the government gave up on cleaning up an arterial but choked canal because it was too expensive. In Mumbai, the 2005 floods were exacerbated by an arterial river which had been completely encroached upon, turned into a sewer and blocked with plastic and garbage. Governments are usually wary of removing slum encroachments as people are unwilling to be resettled. Vote banks come into play and the government will always withdraw fearing a backlash at the hustings. The current administration has been tom-tomming its development agenda through catchy slogans, pummelling environmentalists verbally on right-of-centre TV news channels.

The south-eastern coastal city of Chennai looks like post-diluvial Venice. Today it is Chennai. Tomorrow it will be my city Pune in western India. Last year it was Srinagar. Ten years ago it was Bombay. And everywhere it’s the same story. Rabid-rapid urbanisation and its scorched-earth policy. In the wake of marauding concrete poured to build airport runways, technology parks and residential communities, we have lost floodplains, rivulets, streams, marshes, wetlands, swamps, tree-covered hills and mangroves. image

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Water will flow and it will seek out the path of least resistance and that is why it goes into roads, bowl-shaped erstwhile marshlands and low-lying areas colonised by concrete. Water needs ground to soak it up and roots to catch it. Without the aforementioned marshes, wetlands, swamps, grasslands, pastures, farmland, hills covered in native scrub, which are declared wastelands and given over for ‘development’ to businesspeople for factories and special economic zones, and forgive me for repeating this again, water will obey the force of gravity to stream into houses and improvise rivers out of roads. We have to leave areas aside for hydrology to do what nature intended.

We have marked out bio-diversity zones in the planning maps of our cities. But contractors and builders collude with businessmen/politicians/corporators to have these zones converted into development zones. Protesting environmentalists will be singled out as obstructors, and in some cases penalised and their organisations’ licences cancelled or their sources of funding questioned.

Here in western and south-western India, the precious Western Ghats, where a unique hill-forest ecosystem hosts as-yet undiscovered species of flora and fauna, is in imminent danger from the same old nexus between industrialists and elected politicians. At the centre of it all is extreme greed, not capitalism or free markets. There is no ideology in greed, which often unites both left and right. The people that live in more remote villages in the Western Ghats are poor, but they are the first ones to suffer the ravages of a battered environment. When their lands are taken away for development and industry, they never receive adequate compensation as they are told their lands have been appropriated for national security and prosperity.

The lessons from this paradox of a man-made natural disaster will sink in only temporarily. Let’s imagine that the rubber-stamp environment ministry is replaced with another appointed this time to dovetail ecology and economics. But then the attacks will begin all over again from business houses and their lobbies, when their projects do not receive the required clearances for failure to follow strict environmental safety protocols. The government realises that pressure groups have gained the upper hand through mainstream media and social media campaigns. It will crunch the numbers to find that it will lose the next round of elections and bring back its rubber-stamp ministry. Cue catastrophe. This cycle will keep repeating in perpetuity — until some balance is achieved between the need to make profit for a few and the need to save the planet for all; until demagogues everywhere from TV studios to election rallies get down from their pulpits and actually work for the people they insist they represent.

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