Our grey, grim future

A slew of new scientific data reveals how rapidly India’s urban areas are deteriorating without planning or control


Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Over the past couple of weeks, a string of scientific studies from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, have laid out the effects of India’s chaotic urbanization and how cities are headed on a rapid, downward spiral—yes, worse than today.

Notwithstanding the talk of smart cities, it is hard to stall this sense of doom. Those who can, secede from crumbling urban public services. This secession could not be more comical—or tragic—in Delhi, where they secede from the air itself. I have been a fly on the wall to many thoughtful debates on the intricacies of indoor air purifiers.

Hope is a fantasy because there is no elected representative who offers it—or can. No one person is responsible for the Indian city. In Turkey and Indonesia, the mayors of Istanbul and Jakarta went on to run their countries. In India, mayors are glorified office managers seeking extra perks—in Bengaluru, the mayor is fighting to install a red beacon atop his car, to compensate for powerlessness. Real power lies with chief ministers—in some cases, even the prime minister—politicians with other priorities and mostly rural constituencies. The new data reveal the myriad effects of this political drift.

One study, published in the Journal of Hydrology, provided a scientific backdrop to heat and flood, such as those caused by epochal rainfall in Mumbai, Chennai and Srinagar. While global warming is commonly blamed, extreme rainfall in India is more a consequence of “local conditions”, said the study by Arpita Mondal, now an assistant professor at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and Pradeep Mujumdar, an IISc professor.

After analysing meteorological data from nearly 2,000 locations over 35 years, Mondal and Mujumdar found that global factors, such as the Pacific Ocean current called the El Nino—which was the strongest on record last year—have weaker influences on rainfall than expected. Local temperature, for instance, “significantly affects extreme rainfall intensity and frequency”. Another factor was urbanization, which, in the Indian context, drives up temperatures, although, they emphasized, further research is required to conclusively prove these links.

What is clear is that India’s great urban explosion is proceeding with an unplanned frenzy rarely—or never—seen before in the world. That means random concretization—about half the toxic particles in Delhi’s air, the world’s worst, come from construction dust—and destruction of vegetation. A new study by T.V. Ramachandra and his colleagues at IISc’s Centre for Ecological Sciences provides statistical evidence to the process of creating India’s concrete jungles. Examples:

l Kolkata’s tree cover, a third of its area in 1980, is likely to fall to 3.37% by 2030.

l Ahmedabad’s tree cover, from 45% of its area in 1970, will likely fall to 3% by 2030.

l Bhopal’s tree cover: From 67% in 1992 (let’s just ignore 92% in 1977) to a likely 11% by 2030.

No city’s decline is as bad as Bengaluru’s. In 2012—the latest data available—Ramachandra and his team reported that, over four decades, Bengaluru’s vegetation declined 66%, its once-extensive lakes 74%. Construction grew 584% over this period.

This trend will only gather pace, according to United Nations (UN) projections, quoted recently by IndiaSpend. The UN predicts an urban growth rate of 62% between 2010 and 2020; 108% between 2020 and 2030. In contrast, the population increase between 2000 and 2010—the decade that saw the biggest urbanization spurt in Indian history—was a piffling 26%.

Since India’s cities are growing without planning or control, the effects are evident in commuting and pollution patterns, according to another recent study, a collaborative effort between the IISc’s Ramachandra, researchers in Chang’an University in X’ian, China, and the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Comparing the cities of X’ian and Bengaluru—both have roughly 9 million people and are educational and research centres—the study found that the average commute in Xi’an was less than half the commute in Bengaluru, which meant the Chinese city was better planned. Although both have a similar number of private vehicles, Xi’an had 3,000 more buses than Bengaluru, which has the most buses of any Indian city. Moreover, each of Xi’an’s buses (the city also has two metro lines, covering about 50km), running on CNG and in dedicated bus lanes, produces four times less carbon emissions than its Bengaluru counterpart. In short, Xi’an has cleaner air.

“The lower emissions in Xi’an are due to the higher density and more compact urban pattern, shorter commuting distances, higher transit shares and more clean-energy vehicles,” the study said.

The solutions that the reseachers suggest—urban development planned around extensive public transit, powered by clean transport—are not rocket science, but they do require powerful, motivated and directly elected urban authorities. Everything else is tinkering, which will, if at all, only slow our grim, grey future.

Samar Halarnkar is editor of Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism, non-profit organization. He also writes the column Our Daily Bread in Mint Lounge.

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