From floods in Mumbai and Chennai, there are lessons for all of India

  • Ayaz Memon, Mumbai
  • Updated: Dec 04, 2015 16:55 IST
An aerial view of the submerged Chennai airport taken from an Indian Air Force helicopter when the rain briefly abated on Thursday. (AFP photo/PIB)

There was so little that was reported on the floods in Chennai in the Australian media when I was in Adelaide last week for the ‘PinkBall’ Test that I can only recall a brief item in one of the newspapers on one day.

This compelled tracking the tragedy online, where too the coverage was meagre, though it did build up towards the end of the week as the floods showed no sign of abating.

It took a fair while for the Indian media, particularly television, to move attention away from the usual stories. Some of these were of consequence of course. But mostly it was the predictable cacophony of the inane and the asinine.

The story on the floods was swept away, perhaps because there was little scope for ‘outrage’, I suppose.

It is not the brief of this column to critique the media. This would also tantamount to self-flagellation so I’ll leave it at that. But a comment from an Aussie journalist, when we discussed the floods, was quite profound: “So much of what we call ‘natural tragedies’ are preventable, if we understand nature and learn to live with it.”

From a Mumbai perspective, the devastating floods in south India can only ring many alarm bells. It’s almost as if this was to be expected. The unimaginable rains of July 2005 aside, flooding, destruction and disruption are recurring.

As is now emerging, the problems for both Mumbai and Chennai seem distressingly similar as well: unpreparedness of authority, rampant construction and complete lack of foresight.

Even as several nations are arguing over the effects and responsibilities of climate change in Paris right now, citizens of Chennai are feeling the brunt of a planet that is hitting back. And we in Mumbai can’t afford to be casual: nor indeed any city in the country.

Years ago, we were warned of extreme weather events by climate change experts but too many governments decided to ignore the warnings or to dismiss them. To be fair, this was not restricted to India, but across the world.

Yet the argument in India changed subtly to a pernicious logic – if you spoke up for the environment, you were anti-development.

Why being circumspect through knowledge and experience is anti-progress has hardly been explained.

And frankly, this need not necessarily be the responsibility of enterpreneurs and businessmen. Except for the most conscientious, their focus understandably will be to find opportunities for profit or creating wealth and move on to the next project.

The power to provide clearances for these projects lies with civic/state/national authorities. These must be held to account. For reasons of ignorance or hubris, they’ve been the most culpable. Consequently, every big city and small town in India faces the same issues that Chennai is now suffering from.

Our civic authorities are unable to comprehend that if you destroy mangroves, marshlands, wetlands, block nullahs in the inner city from their natural path into the sea (in the case of Mumbai and Chennai, certainly), litter the city with non-destructible waste, among other things, then there is nowhere for floodwater to go and disaster beckons.

In the Mumbai context, the issue is not just about the land reclaimed from the sea or the salt pans on which new suburbs have, and continue to be built; it is also about how the existing city is being recast.

It is, therefore, as much about mid-town areas like Grant Road and Bhendi Bazar for instance, as it is about Mira Road, Bhayander, Virar et al.

The message is clear from Mumbai on July 26, 2005, and Chennai now: If you do not take geographical and geological factors into consideration in the race to develop and destroy natural checks and balances without study or remedy, the consequences could be catastrophic.

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