By Narendra Luther
A British officer, after years of experience in the country remarked perceptively that Indian agriculture was a gamble in the Monsoon. It looks now that it is not only agriculture but also our entire life which is at the mercy of the annual water-laden winds given the name by the Arabs and corrupted by the English into Monsoon.
July 2005: The city of Mumbai was deluged. The entire urban system went for a toss. People of all rank in life from those living in slums to those commuting in their Mercedes Benz cars were stuck for at least 24 hours. Houses collapsed. Many people were killed. The army was called in to rescue the marooned and to provide succour to those who cold not come out of their rubble.
Causes given were: Worst rains in 40 years. Inadequate civic infrastructure. Flagrant violation of municipal rules and regulations in constructing buildings.
The Chief Minister promised to take necessary remedial action and said such a situation will not be allowed to recur. The Prime Minister visited the city. Relief funds were sanctioned. The weather changed and every thing was back to normal. The focus of news shifted to Dawood Ibrahim and his trial. Later, Pramod Mahajan’s fratricide became the scandal of the season for couch potatoes.
The devastation was not limited to Mumbai alone. It was replicated in varying degrees in different parts of the country in rural as well as urban areas.
Then we had an unduly long dry spell. Monsoon did not keep its time in 2006. We feared drought. Prices of daily needs started shooting up. People of different faiths organized mass prayers for rains to their respective Gods.
July –August 2006: The story of Mumbai of the previous year is repeated not only in Mumbai but also in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Locality after locality is shown sunk deep in water. Army boats and Air Force helicopters are drafted for rescue and relief operations. The situation in Surat city was incredibly horrifying and one wouldn’t believe it if one did not see it on television. Sixty percent of the city lay marooned under hose deep waters. As in Coleridge’s poem, there was ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink’. Roads became canals and trucks failed to swim in them. The airport in Visakhapatnam became a lake and there were no flight to or form it for over a week. My own experience of being stuck in a traffic jam caused by rains and the consequent absence of any traffic policeman on duty seems too trivial to be mentioned. The media highlights cases of individual daring and bravery in saving lives of the marooned people.
This is an annual tamasha and we are all so used to it as if it is immutable as death. We have become immune to the fact that it is a case of man–made tragedy and is entirely remediable. That is, if we have the necessary will to take some action.
It is a cliché that India lives in its villages. For some decades now the rate of urban growth has been greater than that of rural growth. People keep on migrating from villages to towns and cities in search of better opportunities. They swell the slum population. Everyone does not succeed in getting an honest job. Some of the failed ones take to crime or politics. In either case they increase the burden on civic amenities. Such migrations and transformations are a universal phenomenon. But the developed countries have handled them systematically. India is one of the countries in the east where a systematic approach has not been developed. Instead of foreseeing the problem, we chase it. Widespread corruption and the pursuit of populist policies to consolidate vote banks prevent common sense solutions.
Causes of the tragedy
Global warming is blamed for erratic weather phenomena. That is beyond our control. The rural tragedy is caused by our failure to tame rivers intelligently. People of Megha Patekar’s ilk blame it on big dams. To some extent they seem to be right. Some of flooding of villages has been caused by the sudden release of huge quantities of water from reservoirs.
The cause of flooding of our towns is entirely within our control. Not only has our drainage system not kept pace with our urban growth, whatever additions have been made have not been all sound engineering. The cambering of roads which is an elementary requirement is not done properly. Outlets for water from roads at lower levels have not been provided. Similarly, weep holes at stagnation points are missing. In many cases drainage lines have been laid without giving due regard to natural slopes of the area and the catchments. In some cases the drainage nallahs and lines are silted up or clogged and so are unable to take in the rainwater. It happened in Hyderabad in 1971. That was pure negligence. Thereafter, I saw to it that the silt in the drains was removed before every monsoon season. The result was that in 1976 when more rain fell than in the earlier floods, there was no flooding. That was purely because due attention was paid to a routine function. Such functions are neglected because there is no drama in them. When they blow crises, the very officials who ought to have been punished are hailed as heroes. Again in 2001 flooding on a massive scale occurred in the new fashionable areas of the city. That was because of large scale unauthorized constructions and faulty construction of roads. I called it a case of suicides and murders. People who built without due permission in low-lying areas and even in lakebeds and courses of nallahs were committing suicides. Those who permitted them were guilty of murders. Yet, no heads rolled.
The National Urban Renewal Fund
In a proper system of administration what happened in Mumbai and other areas in 2005 should not have been allowed to recur the next year. Yet we all saw it and those in authority saw it without any feeling of guilt or shame. Now the Central Government has sanctioned the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Plan with an outlay of Rs. 64,000 crores. The amount is lager than the annual budget of many states in the country. This could be used to supplement budgets for specific schemes to prevent the recurrence of urban deluge. Yet we will see how the funds under this plan will be diverted to some other non-crucial schemes and flooding of cities will remain an annual feature.
A point to be stressed is that there is no divide between rural and urban problem of infrastructure. Both are two sides of the same coin. We must see them as whole. One affects the other. If the rural areas are developed properly the fatal attraction of urban areas will diminish. It needs a holistic approach. It is of course easier said than done.