Mumbai, built on land reclaimed from the sea, is threatened by the sea as never before. We knew it but those in power did precious little in the last decade. There seems to be an awakening, finally. The Maharashtra government announced this week that it is setting up the State Council for Climate Change to coordinate between departments whose work directly impacts how the issue is addressed.
The man pushing the agenda is the state’s environment minister and Thackeray scion, Aaditya. He appears to have borrowed from the vast body of work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and plugged into the C40 network. He speaks of ‘climate emergency’ to flag off the urgency of mitigation and adaptation work, and, going by media reports, believes that Mumbai does not have the luxury of time to address the challenge. So far, so good.
M-CAP website unveiled
The Mumbai Climate Action Plan (M-CAP) website was unveiled last week. This is the website, not the plan itself, which will be ready later this year to coincide with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). This is a fundamental shift for Mumbai and for other cities in Maharashtra. From mere lip-service, the climate crisis is now recognised at the highest echelons and mainstreamed for bureaucrats and politicians.
At the unveiling, Mumbai’s municipal commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal said that rising sea levels, triggered by climate change, may mean that large parts of the city – including 70 per cent of areas in south Mumbai – are underwater by 2050. This had the intended shock-and-awe effect among the chatterati and interpreted climate change for lay persons. However, this was not new information. Those working in ecology and environment, urban planning and design, and the future of cities’ domains have been trying to alert the government and the BMC about it.
Much of south Mumbai may submerge or sink, at least once a year, below the projected high-tide line by 2050, predicted a study in the ‘Nature’ journal two years ago. Independent planners, activists, academic researchers, and NGOs had demanded back in 2014 that the BMC factor in the impact of climate change into all new development projects and, in fact, weave it into the revised Development Plan 2034 itself. Similar demands were made earlier too. Their demands had fallen on deaf ears.
While the awareness of the dangers of climate change and attempts to work its mitigation-adaptations into city building are not new, the attention it is getting now is. This is why the government’s mainstreaming of climate change is more than welcome. But we must recognise that this is a start, a much-delayed start. Mumbai is about a decade behind already.
What does this mean? First, it demands that mitigation and adaptation measures be paid equal attention with similar urgency unlike international cities which took their time to debate between mitigation and adaptation before measures were put in place. Mumbai does not have time to debate; its administrators must hit the ground running.
Second, the M-CAP when it is ready must be comprehensive and sensitive to the unique geological-hydrological and socio-economic features of the city. It cannot copy-paste from cities whose climate change plans are well-recognised such as that of London, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and Paris. All plans set out actions to cut emissions, ensure carbon neutrality or reduction, make physical infrastructure climate-resilient, work towards a low carbon future across industry and transport sectors, and more. However, each is tailored to a city’s needs. Mumbai has to evolve its own.
Third, Chahal’s prediction has set alarm bells ringing for millions living and working in south Mumbai. A few who have alternative locations to live in may be sanguine but most are worried, rightly so. The plan must detail the steps that the municipal corporation, and other agencies, will take year on year as 2050 approaches. The tendency is to take a macro view, use climate change jargon, and be vague about where the buck will eventually stop. This will not work. Ideally, the M-CAP must have a ward-by-ward plan of possible impact and mitigation measures. What is suitable for say Ward A or C will not work in Ward M or T.
Climate change, or more accurately climate crisis, has affected people’s lives, work, safety and pleasure. Mumbaikars may not speak the technical terms but know warmer summers, shorter monsoons, extremely heavy city-paralysing rainfall for a few days during each monsoon, highly differential rainfall in various parts of the city, and so on. They simply say, “Mausam pakka badal gaya hai”. It’s for the government and BMC to arm them with information, outline how to behave during such calamities, and incentivise long-term climate-resilient behaviour.
Fourth, Mumbai has a thriving land economy which, in turn, impacts transport, work centres, home locations and so on. Many of the ills that plague the city can be traced back to the land economy which is tacitly supported by political and administrative structures. Climate-resilient actions are going to hurt this economy and its captains, but it is for the government and the BMC to stand firm. In fact, the BMC should not shy away from scrutiny of its projects such as the Coastal Road.
Mumbai is on the precipice. The responsibility to prevent its submergence lies solely with those in power in both the government and the BMC – the Shiv Sena or the Thackerays.
Smruti Koppikar, journalist, urban chronicler and media educator, writes on politics, cities, gender and development. She tweets @smrutibombay