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Metro Matters: Let’s fix the basics before planning for smart cities

In Delhi, while the officially designated landfills were already experiencing mini-landslides under the weight of city’s garbage when the Ghazipur disaster struck, hundreds of water bodies have been turned into makeshift dumpsites for want of proper waste disposal.

columns Updated: Sep 04, 2017 13:00 IST
Shivani Singh
People gathered at the garbage mound in east Delhi’s Ghazipur. A part of this ‘trash mountain’ collapsed into a canal on September 1 killing two persons.
People gathered at the garbage mound in east Delhi’s Ghazipur. A part of this ‘trash mountain’ collapsed into a canal on September 1 killing two persons. (Mohd Zakir/ HT Photo)

It is ironic that the monsoon, often described as the lifeblood of the Indian economy, can cause its major cities so much misery. In the last one month, we witnessed a string of civic disasters, probably some of the worst recorded in recent times.

Mid-August, residents of Bengaluru were forced indoors when two of the city’s giant lakes spewed so much toxic froth that it became difficult to breathe. A week later, Chandigarh, India’s best-planned city, was swamped with such forceful rainwater back-flow that cars floated away.

On August 29, floods in Mumbai killed five and left thousands stranded. Two days later, a 117-year-old building in south Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar collapsed, killing 34 people. Delhi, which was already anticipating severe waterlogging with the return of the monsoon rain after a brief dry spell, had a chunk of its biggest landfill come hurtling down on people, killing two.

Although the authorities blamed heavy downpour for these civic tragedies, none of this came without a warning. Poisoned with city’s sewage and industrial waste, Bengaluru’s lake crisis was building up for years, leaving us with unbelievable spectacles of water bodies catching fire. Chandigarh’s natural storm water channels remain choked for the last two decades.

Read: Metro Matters: This monsoon in Delhi, let’s give lowly creepers and hedges a chance

Evidently, Mumbai learned no lessons from the 2005 floods that killed 500 people. When the city flooded again 12 years later, the project to upgrade the British-era drainage system was only half complete. Mumbai’s natural drainage system — the wetlands, lakes and the Mithi river — remain stuffed with concrete and garbage.

In Delhi, while the officially designated landfills were already experiencing mini-landslides under the weight of city’s garbage when the Ghazipur disaster struck, hundreds of water bodies have been turned into makeshift dumpsites for want of proper waste disposal.

The national capital’s gutters and stormwater channels are clogged with plastic, construction waste, road dust and domestic sewage. Ponds and water bodies are long lost to real estate development. Unsurprisingly, even minor showers cause waterlogging, sewage back-flow and traffic jams. We talk about building smart cities even as we can’t stop our biggest urban centres from falling apart.

Far more obsessed with growth and urbanisation than India, even China has decided to pay more attention to the basics of civic planning than just executing “vanity” projects. In 2012, when flooding killed 79 people in Beijing, the authorities, like they do here in India, blamed the volume of rain and not their city’s mindless concretisation and inadequate drainage for the tragedy.

But a rethink followed and Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped in to announce the development of 16 sponge cities. The project, launched in 2015, is about developing storage ponds, filtration pools, and wetlands in residential areas, and roads and squares built with permeable materials that allow storm water to soak into the ground more effectively.

The pilot projects in Beijing, Shanghai and Xinjiang have shown that 85% of the storm water run-off can be reduced yearly, China Water Risk, a non-profit organisation, reported. The harvested grey water is meant to be used in toilets and for washing the streets.

Read: Metro Matters: How to secure children in Delhi? Let’s hear it from them

While there is anxiety around long-term funding and top-down approach in implementing the project, there is general consensus among all city administrations that this is their best shot at achieving flood mitigation and water security at the same time. Today, 30 Chinese cities are on board.

As the threat of climate change looms large, cities world over are, in fact, getting bolder in their initiatives to achieve resilience. Seoul (South Korea) has reclaimed the Cheonggyechon River, which had been covered by a highway. Inspired, planners in Mexico City are proposing to tear down the east-west highway, one of the busiest roads in Mexican capital, which encases the Piedad River. Initially done to control flooding, the cementing reduced the river to a drain, destroying its ability to absorb storm water.

Delhi has similarly built mega structures such as Barapullah elevated road and Dilli Haat at INA over the natural channels that used to carry rainwater to the Yamuna. Ideas to demolish them and free up the nullahs may never gain political currency. But what’s stopping the city administration from unclogging the rainwater channels that can still be unclogged?

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com