Here Come The Rains... And That Annual Indian Apathy Moment

Here Come The Rains... And That Annual Indian Apathy Moment

Despite decades of research and warnings by the scientific community, cities remain woefully unprepared

Srinath Sridharan Ambika VishwanathUpdated: Sunday, June 30, 2024, 10:15 PM IST
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Monsoon rains reveal the cracks in our cities’ foundations, not just in concrete but in commitment to thoughtful urban planning and accountability. Every year, the monsoon season descends upon India, transforming major cities like Mumbai, Delhi NCR, Chennai, Bengaluru into war zones of chaos and frustration. Roads become rivers, traffic grinds to a standstill, and the public's collective patience wears thin. The lack of effective city planning and administrative preparedness for rains and the blistering summers that precede them is a glaring failure that demands immediate attention. But who is listening?

For the ordinary citizen, the monsoon should be a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of summer. Heat that is increasingly rising every year by 1-4 degrees; this past summer alone the country saw temperatures in places crossing 50 C and recorded 42,000 people suffering from heatstroke. Of course we don’t have actual data to know how many have been affected. Monsoons are also meant to herald a new season, especially for a largely agrarian economy like India, where key consumer and export crops like rice, paddy, sugarcane and maize are rain dependent.

Instead, it is a harbinger of hardship. Streets flood within hours of the first downpour, submerging homes and businesses. Commuters brave knee-deep dirty water to reach their destinations, risking health and safety. For those living in low-lying areas or informal settlements, the situation is even graver, with homes inundated and belongings washed away. What might seem inconvenient to a select few, on June 28 several MPs shared videos of themselves in Delhi wading through ankle deep water to get to their cars to get to Parliament, for most it is a severe disruption and threat to safety. The taxi driver who lost his life due to the collapse of part of the roof of Terminal 1 of Delhi Airport is a stark reminder of who faces the brunt of bad construction and poor urban planning.

Shifting climate patterns are rendering the information we know about monsoons, onset, duration and severity slowly outdated. For several years scientists have observed that monsoons are shorter in duration but often heavier, sometimes releasing two or three times the water within a shorter timeframe This invariably leads to disruptions, destruction, and death. Despite decades of research and warnings by the scientific community, cities remain woefully unprepared.

Rains don't cause waterlogging. Hot summers don’t cause electricity outages and city power cuts. It is shoddy infrastructure, poor design, and inadequate urban planning that lead to these crises. Drainage systems are outdated and poorly maintained. New construction projects often proceed without adequate consideration for water or energy management, leading to blocked drains and increased flooding. Emergency response mechanisms are reactive rather than proactive, kicking into gear only after disaster strikes.

In the last 14 years India has annually lost on an average 4-6% of its GDP from infrastructure related disasters arising out of some form of natural hazard or occurrence, be it a cyclone, rain, earthquake or landslide. Often the loss of life, destruction of business and infra is connected to the natural hazard, and while this might be true in certain cases, this correlation is usually misleading. An earthquake will only lead to the kind of harm we see in a seismic zone if construction is not thought through; currents will only sweep away bridges if the foundations are shoddy; rains will flood our homes only if the water has nowhere else to go. Can India afford this kind of loss if it is to become the world power and super economy it aims to be?

City administrators, politicians and urban planners must be held accountable and shoulder a significant portion of the blame. The monsoon is not an unpredictable event. It is a seasonal phenomenon that arrives with regularity, though the nature of it is changing. Promises of improved infrastructure and better preparedness are made, only to be forgotten once the waters recede. The levels of rain that Indian cities have been seeing in recent years are not new. Our cities should be ready for it. The electorate’s frustration peaks during these times, but the political will to effect lasting change appears to wane once the immediate crisis passes as do the citizens demands.

Annually, officials display a remarkable ability to shift the narrative by flooding social media with images of their rescue efforts during disasters. However, these efforts are often a smokescreen, diverting attention from the real issue: their failure to implement and maintain adequate urban infrastructure. The state of climate reporting in India is rudimentary at best. The fourth estate rarely understands the climate crisis at a fundamental level and media houses and editors often do not see the value of ensuring that climate reporting is nuanced and detailed.

Beyond everything, a remarkable sense of citizen apathy exists. Citizens frequently dispose of garbage and plastic waste indiscriminately, clogging drainage systems and exacerbating flooding. The celebration of a consumption-driven economy leads to the generation of waste by the tonnes daily, with little thought given to its environmental impact. Coupled with a lack of civic sense, highlights a profound disconnect from ecological responsibilities. Two days later, after consuming memes online and WhatsApp forwards, people move on.

Historically, cities were designed with natural water bodies like lakes, ponds, and wetlands that acted as reservoirs, absorbing and managing rainwater. These green spaces played a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance. However, rapid urbanisation has led to the encroachment and destruction of these vital areas. Lakes are filled in for construction, wetlands are drained for real estate and green spaces are paved over for roads and buildings. Environmental experts point out that urbanisation has often come at the cost of natural water bodies and green spaces, which traditionally absorbed excess rainwater. This degradation of natural ecosystems is a critical factor contributing to the recurrent flooding and waterlogging in Indian cities. Additionally, the reduction in permeable surfaces increases the speed and volume of runoff, overwhelming drainage systems that are often outdated and poorly maintained. The situation is further aggravated by drains clogged with plastic waste and debris, a consequence of poor waste management practices.

To address these issues, long-term solutions must include the preservation and restoration of natural features alongside the development of modern, efficient drainage systems. Revitalising existing water bodies can significantly enhance the city’s capacity to manage excess rainwater. These natural features should be protected and integrated into urban planning as essential components. Moreover, creating more green spaces, such as parks, green roofs, and urban forests, can help absorb rainwater and reduce runoff. Beyond ecological benefits, they also enhance the quality of life by improving air quality, reducing heat islands, and offering recreational spaces. India needs to prioritise quality in its infrastructure planning and construction. The prevailing practice of awarding contracts based solely on the lowest bid (L1) often results in substandard work that fails quickly. On the technological front, cities need to invest in advanced drainage systems that can handle the increasing volume of rainwater. These are not new or expensive solutions but they do require governments and governance of a different nature, where cities are seen in a different way. Assuming for regular maintenance, why will it take for us to build city infrastructure that won’t need repairing or upgrade for next 20 years?

Cities will behave the way they are built and financed, and in India today neither is working well. Instead of investing in sustainable urban planning and robust infrastructure, the focus remains on short-term fixes and public relations manoeuvres. The perennial floods and civic apathy are not just natural phenomena but reflections of our systemic indifference. True societal well-being and progress is measured by proactive governance, not by reactive responses to predictable crises.

Dr Srinath Sridharan is a policy researcher and corporate adviser. X: @ssmumbai. Ambika Vishwanath is co-founder, Kubernein Policy Advisory. X: @theidlethinker

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