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BRP Bhaskar: Tragedies waiting to happen
December 08, 2015
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It was a tragedy waiting to happen. A torrential downpour, the heaviest in a century, submerged large areas of India’s fourth largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), a week ago, snapping power and water supply as well as transport and communication facilities.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Chennai has become an island,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament. After an aerial survey of the flooded city, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the devastation pained him and announced a relief package of Rs10 billion in addition to Rs9.40 billion sanctioned earlier.

The city, with a population of nine million, had received 490 mm of rain on December 1. Low-lying areas were inundated and hundreds of thousands of poor rendered homeless. As swelling lakes and rivers breached their banks, floodwaters rose up to the second floor of apartment buildings in newly developed suburbs, trapping an equally large number of flat-dwellers.

At least 325 persons died and about 1,000 were seriously injured.

In mid-October, a month before the northeast monsoon set in, the Meteorological department had forecast unprecedented rainfall this season. If the authorities had immediately cleaned up the clogged drains the flood might not have been so severe.

Not that the devastation was avoidable. Its primary cause was not the clogged drains but the unregulated and unscientific urban development of the recent past.

Chennai is the country’s fastest growing urban agglomeration. During 2001-2011, it recorded a growth of 32.5 per cent, as against 20.3 per cent during the previous decade. The three larger cities had witnessed a decline in the growth rate during the period: Mumbai’s fell from 30.5 per cent to 12.1 per cent, Delhi’s from 52.2 per cent to 26.7 per cent and Kolkata’s from 19.6 per cent to 7.0 per cent.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar blamed the deluge on global warming caused by the industrial activity of the developed world over the past century and a half. Environmental activists said the role of climate change was yet to be established through studies but there was enough material to establish the role of unplanned urban development.

Sunita Narain, Director-General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), pointed out that intense construction activity had destroyed water bodies in all cities, including Chennai. Professor Saswat Bandopadhyay of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad, attributed the devastation to “complete disrespect of basic urban planning and hydrological cycle”.

Chennai had become an information technology hub at the turn of the century. The rapid expansion that followed led to fourfold growth of the city area. According to the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, built-up and paved areas increased from 29.5 per cent in 1991 to 64.4 per cent in 2013, resulting in drastic curtailment of open areas. The city with 2,847 km of road has only 855 km of stormwater drain.

A CSE study found that only a fraction of the more than 600 water bodies which existed in 1980 were in a healthy condition in 2008. The area of 19 major lakes shrank from 1,130 hectares to 645 hectares during the period. The drains that carried surplus water from tanks to wetlands were encroached upon.

Builders find it easy to get around legal restrictions. City officials identified more than 150,000 illegal structures during a survey but there was no action.

The state itself is guilty of ignoring environmental regulations. Some important institutions stand on marshlands which were allotted to them by the government. The extended runway of the Chennai airport, the country’s fourth busiest, traverses the Adyar river.

In the last decade the country has witnessed several disasters which are rude reminders of the dangers of unregulated development. However, there has been no effective measure to prevent such tragedies.

About 500 persons died in Mumbai in July 2005 in the deluge caused by heavy rainfall. Following this, the authorities drew up a plan to widen drains, clean waterways and build pumping stations. It is yet to be implemented.

More than 5,700 people were presumed dead in floods and landslides in Uttarakhand after a cloudburst in 2013. A Utah State University study team linked the heavy precipitation to climate change.

Environmentalists said the heavy loss of lives and property was the result of obstruction to flow of water caused by debris left after construction of dams upstream and of mushrooming of resorts in the Himalayan pilgrim centres.

Last year floods in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, took a toll of more than 200 lives.

The authorities have failed to rethink policies despite recurrent disasters. What’s worse, they are ready to relax the rules further to speed up developmental activity.

With the Centre planning to build 100 “smart” cities across the country, environmentalists fear more tragedies are waiting to happen.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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