Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Chennai floods: A tragedy foretold

The tragedy of the recent Chennai floods, which, mercifully, as of Saturday has begun to abate, is that it could have been avoided (another matter that the city displayed tremendous character in dealing with the crisis, just as social media once again showed us that it is a key tool in assisting rescuers and, in some cases, saving the trapped.) In the case of Chennai, there was one key cause: the Adyar river basin has been taken over for the new airport, just as other stretches have been used to develop residential spaces. Denied its natural path, excess water flooded the neighbourhood. Till nature unleashed its excess, planners ignored the risks; and, look what we got.

We have seen this pattern play out earlier in Mumbai and more recently in the devastating floods that gutted Srinagar. And almost in every instance, the central cause is easy to ascertain: unplanned urbanization inspired by an utter disregard for basic norms. Yet, every time the import of the tragedy fades along with public memory. Like in Chennai, a disaster is waiting to happen in Delhi, with authorities, in their wisdom, allowing some of the flood plains to accommodate the swanky Commonwealth Games village.

It is this business-as-usual approach that is worrying. This struck home with the passing of another dubious milestone last week: The 31st anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy—India’s worst industrial disaster. It passed by almost unnoticed (unlike its 30th anniversary). The tragedy, as in the case of Chennai, is that there is no evidence that any lessons have been learnt, leave alone the fact that the inadequately compensated people affected by the tragedy are still dealing with the deadly consequences of the methyl isocyanate gas leak.

It is not just the frequency of disasters—which is alarmingly on the rise—it is that the country is particularly risk-prone. Due to a combination of topography and high population density, India is particularly vulnerable to disasters, and the authorities are well aware of it. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the apex body for disaster management, provides us a risk profile on its website:

* More than 58.6% of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity

* More than 40 million hectares (12%) of its land is prone to floods and river erosion

* Close to 5,700km, out of the 7,516km long coastline, is prone to cyclones and tsunamis

* 68% of its cultivable area is vulnerable to droughts (several states, particularly in central and north India, are suffering the ravages of back-to-back droughts in the past two years)

* Its hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches (as the flash floods in Leh and Ladakh underlined in 2010).

The NDMA’s website has this humbling homily to add: “Disaster risks in India are further compounded by increasing vulnerabilities related to changing demographics and socioeconomic conditions, unplanned urbanization, development within high-risk zones, environmental degradation, climate change, geological hazards, epidemics and pandemics."

And what it says next is what should serve as a wake-up call to all—governments as well as citizens. Clearly, all these “contribute to a situation where disasters seriously threaten India’s economy, its population and sustainable development". If this is not enough to drive home the point, then check out a recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), which says that India tops the list of 163 nations affected by river floods in terms of the number of people. According to it, every year, the lives of 4.85 million Indians are disrupted by floods, risking $14.3 billion of gross domestic product.

It is apparent then that India is at risk from disasters. It is also obvious that urbanization and high-density population pockets are emerging as the new way of life. Take the two together and there is only one conclusion: without sustainability, India’s urbanization is a recipe for disaster.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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