The flood story from Kashmir to Chennai: Why don't we ever learn a lesson?
This was the story of Chennai a week ago. It was the same story in Srinagar 3,000 kilometres to the north just 15 months ago.
Large parts of the city under water, ceiling-high grime in the lower floors of thousands upon thousands of houses, tens of thousands sick in hospitals, losses amounting to tens of thousands of crores …it’s a dismal list. This was the story of Chennai a week ago. It was the same story in Srinagar 3,000 kilometres to the north just 15 months ago.
The rest of the story too is common to both places: failure to de-silt water bodies, colonies built on former marshes and wetlands, reclaimed lakes, vast rural-to-urban migrations… yes, regarding causes too, the story is long, and it is depressing.
For, if there were lessons to be learnt, they would have been learnt from the Kashmir floods last year. But no lessons were learnt. That devastation was put down simply to flooding of the river Jhelum – floods which the state government kept telling us were unexpected. Of course, the cyclonic storms off the Chennai coast in the Bay of Bengal can be called unexpected even more easily.
It is of course tough to predict when exactly a flood will come. But an array of factors can make obvious how badly a flood will affect populations if and when it does come – factors that are not only predictable but manmade. But if causes were to be acknowledged, the state government, city officials, and the Centre, would have to take some responsibility for dereliction of duty – and no one is willing to do that.
In both places, one in the Himalayas and the other on the Deccan coast, the marshes, wetlands, lakes and other waterways that served as natural catchments for excess water had been taken over by concrete jungles – extensions of each of those rapidly expanding city.
In each place, politicians had ignored the likely consequences of this unregulated expansion. Their responses were shaped by populism, and even more so by the nefarious influence which property investors exercise on politicians and officials – not to speak of the property investments of the corrupt in both categories.
A historical review of Google maps of both areas makes clear the extent to which both have been ravaged by haphazard urban expansion, and the extent to which construction has obstructed the natural flow-paths to and in catchment areas.
Natural gradients allow excess water to flow freely from higher planes to low-lying catchment areas such as marshlands, swamps, rivers, lakes, wet lands and other minor and major water bodies. But official are callous about the likely effects of disturbing the natural equilibrium. So much so that the Srinagar Development Authority has built a huge office building and 'habitat centre' on what was wetland, cheek-by-jowl by Kashmir's main flood overflow channel.
It has benignly allowed colonies to come up in nearby areas that used to be lakes and marshes. Of course, these were the first parts of the city that were severely flooded when the waters rose last year – for silt had simultaneously been allowed to make the river, the remaining lakes, and the flood channel – all the catchment – much shallower than before.
The situation is no better around Chennai. Real estate sharks have encroached on the city’s biggest fresh water lake, and built high rise apartments. Not far, an educational institution has put up signboards claiming that it owns the lake, and has reclaimed a part of it.
Some of the biggest commercial complexes and business centers have been built on the lake, canal, or part of the river bed. Chennai’s builders learnt no lessons after the collapse of a 13-storey residential building, which was being built on a wetland.
Not just Srinagar and Chennai, cities across the country have woefully inadequate drainage, sewerage and other proper facilities. This applies even to towns such as Gurgaon that have some of the highest priced real estate globally.
Waves of migrants have come to both Srinagar and Chennai over the past couple of decades, pushed there by government policies and the lure of opportunities. Most of them look to buy a small plot or apartment as cheaply as they can, oblivious to the dangers of flooding. Government officials and politicians, often influenced by property developers and hoping for migrant votes, fail to regulate construction.
The state governments in both Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir failed to de-silt the rivers and other water bodies that remain. If they had, those channels might have been deep enough to carry more flood water without overflowing. Both have increased the city limits without proper plans in place.
Dismissive attitudes to the environmental dangers are not just callous. It is unconstitutional. Article48 of the Directive Principles mandates the State Authority to protect the environment. Article 51 makes it the responsibility of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife.
Before getting excited about `smart cities,’ as some residents of both Chennai and Srinagar have recently been, the entire country needs to wake up to the dangers of greed-based and shortsighted `development.’
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