It is almost surreal to witness how this monsoon has confirmed Amitav Ghosh’s direst predictions in his latest book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable about extreme events being the consequence of climate change.
Gurgaon and Bengaluru have been marooned, as have parts of Mumbai. Although one can’t attribute global factors as being directly responsible for these occurrences, there is no doubt that heavy downpours are being influenced by the climate and becoming more frequent as well as more intense. Chennai was witness to this last year.
The series of book launches and interviews that Ghosh was giving also coincided with the eleventh anniversary of the mega flood that took place in Mumbai on July 26, 2005. As much as 944 mm (37 inches) fell over the suburbs in 24 hours, with three-quarters of this in just five hours, bringing the city to its knees. About 450 people died and the city – the country’s financial capital -- suffered an economic loss of Rs 2,800 crores. The airports were shut for a couple of days.
At his launch in Mumbai, Ghosh cited how the megapolis was certain to face inundations in the not too distant future with rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change. Mumbaikars may be deluding themselves by believing that cyclonic activity afflicts the east coast with the Bay of Bengal but in 2015, more cyclones hit the west coast than the east. Gujarat faced one in June which killed at least 80 and flooded, among areas, the Gir Forest National Park, the country’s sole lion sanctuary. Karachi, another coastal city, was affected too.
In the Indian Ocean, the desert country of Yemen was hit was two “rare” and deadly cyclones within a week. A resident of an island off the coast told Al Jazeera that they had not seen such strong winds and rain in decades. "We are expecting a true disaster to befall us," he said. According to meteorologists, the storm was the worst in 55 years and this area of Yemen, a desert country, received a year’s rainfall in just two days.
Ghosh mentioned that Mumbai, unlike New York, another coastal mega city, does not have the advantage of barrier islands which act as protection against rising sea levels – The Hungry Tide, as he titled his earlier novel. His remarks would have unsettled most in the audience. The irony is that the most affluent citizens who live along the coast would be the first to be hit; even those in skyscrapers would have little consolation if they were confined to their high-rise apartment complexes, with the waves swirling below them.
Unlike the eastern coast where Andhra Pradesh and Orissa have been accustomed to facing cyclones and have put in place good evacuation plans, Mumbai has no disaster management operations worth the name. What is more, where would the well-to-do go? Most middle class citizens have lost touch with the rural hinterland, unlike those who live in slum colonies and do have a fallback.
In 2005, the island city was almost severed from the suburbs as levels of the Mithi river rose and threatened to inundate a bridge over it for the local railways, which are seen as the “lifeline” of the city. One of the worst ironies is that 41 people are still described as “missing”: obviously, they were simply swept away by the torrential downpour, leaving no trace whatsoever. This could well be a premonition of worse to come.
Ghosh cited how there were basically four major arterial roads which run in a north-south direction in Mumbai. In the event of a disaster, these would simply be jam-packed with vehicles, bringing traffic to a grinding halt. This is exactly what happened in July 2005, when the only way some minimal relief could be delivered was by boats, which was not planned for.
Some of the myopia which Ghosh refers to in his book regarding the unwillingness or inability to contemplate the impacts of climate change was very evident in Gurgaon.
As a recent article by Prof Sanjay Srivastava, author of Entangled Urbanism: Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon, underlines, DLF builders wrote to the Haryana Town & Country Planning Department in 1979 asking for permission to convert 200 acres at the original site in a village Chakkarpur into an urban residential complex.
While a senior bureaucrat objected, he was overruled and permission was obtained in 18 months. There was no planning of any kind, but a free-for-all approach, with roads not being demarcated properly. Drainage was given short shrift and the state ceded its responsibility for creating basic infrastructure before construction of residential and commercial spaces. There was a glaring discrepancy between the lives of the rich in gated communities and the poor who were left to the mercy of sewerage waters this monsoon. But recently, even well-off commuters were caught in traffic snarls for hours, as were those in Mumbai in 2005.
Mumbai is likely to see further deluges as it finalises its 20-year development plan, from 2014-2034. Last year citizens were so outraged about the glaring mistakes in the plan, as well as the over-reliance on market forces by permitting “Transit-oriented Development” with the floor-space index (FSI) going up to a staggering 8, that the plan had to be shelved.
The deadline for handing in objections to the revised plan expired on July 29 this year. Citizens were given just two months to comment on a 1,000-page document, which even architects found difficult to digest. One of the main objections to it has come from Apna Mumbai Abhiyan, a coalition of 37 citizens’ organisations.
Drafted by the NGO Nivara Hakk and the architect-activist P.K. Das, it questions where the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is going to find 3,330 hectares for “affordable housing” when it hasn’t reserved such land for it. The draft plan cites that most of such land – 2,100 ha -- will come from “No-Development Zones”, which are areas kept for future infrastructure and other needs. Another 1,100 ha will come from “Tourism Development Zones” along the coast in the northernmost suburbs, which is a contradiction in terms. The remaining 130 ha will come from salt pans.
The suspicion is that by proposing this socially meaningful measure, the BMC is trying to camouflage the fact that it will actually obtain such land from what it terms “natural areas”, on which construction is forbidden. The Abhiyan notes that over the years, “we have witnessed large-scale destruction of mangroves, illegal land-filling, disposal of debris and garbage into creeks, rivers and lakes. Even the sea fronts have been treated as dumping grounds.”
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park – Mumbai is unique in being the only mega city in the world to posses such a precious natural asset – has also been whittled away by builders.
Now even the adjacent Aarey milk colony -- one of the two large remaining green spaces in a city where each citizen has access to only 1.2 sq metres of open space – may see the construction of a depot for a Metro line. This will certain set in motion a gradual conversion of such land into real estate.
Instances abound of such conversion. The Sahara group has illegally landfilled mangroves and the Malad creek in the western suburbs, till it was forced to stop. This area has been marked in the plan as a No-Development Zone, which means it could be used for construction later on. The mangroves are already growing back there and it should be designated as a natural area. There is also the fear that roads to access No-Development Zones will have to pass through contiguous natural areas, thereby posing a threat to them.
As Mumbaikars realised in 2005, Mumbai has a network of rivers like the Mithi as well as nullahs, which deserve to be kept free of all encroachments to ensure that they absorb the excess rainfall during a downpour. However, the plan hasn’t specified the length of such rivers and nullahs, which are entitled – under the BMC’s own regulations – to a 6-metre buffer on either side, to allow these water bodies to be cleaned regularly and particularly before the monsoons.
In a comprehensive mapping of Mumbai a couple of years ago, which was exhibited in the National Gallery of Modern Art in the city, Das calculated that natural areas -- ponds and lakes, rivers, nullahs and creeks, hills and forests, wetlands and salt pans, mangroves and beaches – comprised 14,493 ha – almost twice as much as the plan does at 7,537 ha.
There can’t possibly be such a huge discrepancy and this only heightens the suspicion that the plan hides more than it reveals.