The media images — both print and visual — are similar from Guwahati, Delhi and Mumbai. Vehicles stalled in knee-deep, muddy, dirty water which has overwhelmed the streets; drenched pedestrians step gingerly through the water with mixed feelings of disgust, anxiety and anger.
In the city that never sleeps, a scooterist dies after trying to evade an open manhole cover. And the local police file a case against her for negligence. It would be funny if it was not so tragic.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi says that those who blame his government for failing to curb floods have got it wrong. Look at Delhi, he says: even the country’s capital gets flooded. This effort at justifying local governance failure didn’t do him too much harm: thanks to the lack of a coherent opposition, Gogoi’s Congress swept the recent Guwahati municipal elections.
In addition, he said that the huge amount of waste generated in the city was a sign of progress since it shows that people have purchasing power. This surely must rank as one of the most unique explanations for the disastrous, ugly accumulation of waste in one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Surely, an improvement in income does not mean that residents, officials and elected representatives don’t have anything to do about managing waste and delivery of basic services!
Non-degradable waste dumped haphazardly leads to the clogging of drains, worsening water-logging and local flooding.
Different arms of the administration claim to have cleaned Delhi’s drains. But why do the roads still flood when it rains heavily? They claim that the floods are ‘unprecedented’; but so were they in 1976, 1977, 1978, etc, that it’s like tossing three glasses of water into one small tumbler.
Everyone in Delhi knows that the deluge comes several times in a season but every time it catches the local administration unprepared. For over 30 years we’ve heard the same tired excuses trotted out by engineers, politicians, officers and others. Every year there are the usual angry media reports and NGO campaigns, but little changes.
Water finds its own level. But we have done everything to destroy the natural balance, giving into the building lobbies, trying to cover every square inch of space with concrete, brick, tar and glass, building monstrous malls, crowding the middle earth with metros, paving and repaving roads and sidewalks, killing water bodies and dumping every kind of waste — human, industrial and domestic — into the Yamuna, which was once a great river.
When such mini-disasters take place, I try and drop my household help at or near their homes. But that afternoon, the level of the water on the roads made it impossible for the car to leave the colony. One maid reached her home to find it inundated by a foot of water. No food was cooked at her place that night and the family went hungry because even the dhabas had shut down. A thunderstorm which throws the international airport out of gear may be an inconvenience to the middle class and affluent. But it deprives poor and vulnerable families of food.
There are other hazards: the evening after Delhi collapsed from the rain battering, I took a walk in my neighbourhood of Saket. As I stepped out on the footpath along the main road, I felt as if the ground was disappearing from under my feet but quickly scrambled to safety. A slab of concrete had just crumbled. I could have easily become another statistic, of those falling into uncovered manholes or being electrocuted by live wires.
Who will take responsibility for this criminal abuse of the tax payer’s money? After all, it is the greedy nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, engineers and contractors that ensures that basic services are not delivered.
Those who are responsible for these failures in governance need to pay. They have designed, delivered and defended such disasters over the years. Fines are inadequate — send them to jail. Without fixing accountability, the same cycle is doomed to be repeated.
But that’s like asking for the moon. Look at the Delhi chief minister’s response. It’s a classic copout, a combination of insensitivity and ignorance: she asks the capital’s residents to “pray to god to stop the rains.’ Go tell that to the farmers.
Sanjoy Hazarika is Founder-Director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal