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Lessons for Mumbai from the Chennai floods

By Neeta Kolhatkar
December 08, 2015 15:46 IST

Flooding in Chennai

IMAGE: Flooded Porur in Chennai. Photograph: PTI

The major cause of the floods in Mumbai in 2005 and in Chennai in 2015 has been the reclamation of reservoir areas and rapid, unplanned, urbanisation, says Neeta Kolhatkar.

The Chennai floods have revived the debate on development and urbanisation at the cost of the environment. I have stopped believing that these two concepts -- urbanisation and environment -- can ever complement each other.

Urbanisation has always occurred at the cost of the environment, especially in India. Somehow with every new government, the land sharks gain the upper hand for the expansion of concrete over water bodies, at the cost of our mangroves that fiercely protect our coast.

And each time activists oppose unplanned, rapid, urbanisation, they are termed 'anti-development' and threatened. Sadly, the judiciary that citizens pin their hopes on has often allowed urbanisation at the cost of the protection of mangroves and marshy lands.

On July 26, 2005, Mumbai witnessed never-before rain and flooding. Last week, a similar situation was witnessed in Chennai. But we cannot blame the rains alone for the flooding of these cities.

Both times we were reminded by environmentalists that the major cause of floods and intense water-logging was the reclamation of reservoir areas, be it the Mithi river (now a nullah made up of flowing sewage) in Mumbai or the waterways of Chennai where urbanisation has been permitted.

Both Mumbai and Chennai are endowed with mangroves and a coast that was the pride of the cities. Environmentalist Girish Raut, who has been fighting against the reclamation of land around the Mithi river, has old contour maps, drawings and photographic evidence of the construction along the Mithi river, especially in the airport area that have blocked any outlet for the river.

The culprits are mainly industrial, commercial and residential areas which have encroached upon the various water bodies. Their activities release large quantities of waste water containing chemicals, oils, plastic and heavy metals into the river and drains.

Besides, truckloads of solid waste containing plastic, metals, glass and debris are frequently dumped on the banks of the Mithi river leading to illegal reclamation, altering the path of the river.

The problem is further escalated when one sees the magnitude of reclamation in the Santacruz and Kurla areas (Mumbai suburbs through which the river runs) with slum rehabilitation projects that have sprung up like concrete mangroves along the river.

The other major problem is that open spaces in the city are dwindling fast. Schools, educational institutions, non-government organisations and other institutions are given priority over parks, gardens and open spaces that are actually the city's buffer zones, which allow water to seep in and prevent flooding.

These, says Raut, are the true oxygen zones for cities, along with the mangroves and other marshy areas that have an in-built capacity to prevent floods.

Compounded with this is the complete collapse of civic sense and discipline at all levels -- from the municipal corporations that need to fulfil basic civic work, regular desilting and drain cleaning, to indifferent citizens who pile up trash that choke the drains.

Mumbai has unique problems. The island city has a sewage system only thanks to the British. The rest of the city has no such luxury.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation that boasts of being the richest in the country shamelessly delayed the Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drainage (BRIMSTOWAD) project. This longest delayed project has seen an escalation in cost from Rs 1,200 crore (Rs 12 billion) in 2007 to Rs 3,900 crore (Rs 39 billion) in 2012, with an expenditure of Rs 1,884 crore (Rs 18.84 million) from March 2013.

In November 2005, the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay submitted a report to the Maharashtra government stating that a large number of storm water drains had inadequate capacity and were not sufficient for 25 mm/hr rainfall.

Tall promises were made after the 2005 deluge. The municipal and state governments are committed to fulfil basic civic work and take precautions. Install Doppler machines, desiliting, drain cleaning, all of which reportedly suffer from corruption and shoddy work by contractors.

Many are blacklisted, but still find their way back into the system. People at every level receive huge kickbacks and our problems are never resolved with the same issues being discussed even after billions of rupees have been sanctioned. These projects are never completed.

This lackadaisical approach is not seen when a plot is to be allotted, land is to be acquired, when encroaching on mangroves, getting permission to carry out a real estate project. Within months, the horizon is changed and the land is reclaimed.

We do not learn from previous mistakes and worst of all, we do not heed the environmentalists. Unfortunately, across society, the levels of intolerance to environmental issues is scary, and no one cares that these could come back to haunt us.

So, let us stop blaming nature for calamities. It only gives back in multiples what we grab greedily from it.

Neeta Kolhatkar
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