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We all know about Noah and his ark, most vividly thanks to film director Darren Aronofsky and movie star Russell Crowe, but almost all ancient civilizations across the globe have a ‘great flood’ myth with common elements, starting with the world’s oldest story, Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia. In Indian myths too, Manu built a boat to store all kinds of grain (some versions also include all animal species) and was pulled to safety by Matsya (a Vishnu incarnation) when floods destroyed the world. This monsoon, the flooded streets of several major cities in India reminded us of these tales. Such was the extent of urban inundation. Rainy-season flooding has been routine in Mumbai for decades, but Chennai has also begun to host recurring floods. This year, 11 September saw Delhi’s international airport waterlogged after its heaviest rainfall in 46 years, barely three weeks after a similar episode. Kolkata logged a 13-year peak in precipitation, with canals for roads and even areas that had always stayed relatively dry getting soaked. Bengaluru reported arterial roads and junctions flooded on 25 July. The floods in Hyderabad after a torrential downpour on 2 September had a lethal quality: gushing waters swept away vehicles and hand-carts. Several other state capitals have been submerged in recent years, Lucknow, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Bhopal and Ahmedabad among them.

Repeated floods in our cities, towns and parts of rural India could soon invoke a dystopian nightmare. They appear to be more frequent, caused primarily by cloudbursts in urban zones and overflowing rivers in the hinterland. In a proximate sense, that is. The effects of climate change are undoubtedly at work here, represented by images of sunken vehicles on streets and army choppers rescuing stranded people from rooftops. Apart from potholes, floods leave a worse trail of wreckage. They destroy lives and property, impede routine engagements and undermine the finances of governments, businesses and financial institutions.

This raises two important issues that go to the heart of India’s urban design. The first is the woeful state of our urban infrastructure, with city planning and design lagging population and income growth. In most cities, that bedrock of support is out of sync with the demands of the user population and therefore under severe stress. Mumbai administrators often use heavy monsoons as an excuse to throw up their hands, but are loath to look at the urban areas of Southeast Asia that receive no less rain. Given the rapid pace of urbanization in India—which planners often flog as a panacea for economic growth—the strain will only worsen in the years ahead unless apt investments are made in urban physical and social infrastructure. The second big issue is that ongoing public projects to plug gaps may not be building adequate headroom for future contingencies. It might be instructive to test the resilience of current infra projects against likely future scenarios of climate change. For example, if mean sea levels rise, as expected, are Mumbai or Chennai prepared for the consequences? A related worry is our lack of emphasis on institutionalizing green investments and systems, whether it is buildings or roads. Among the contributors to recurrent floods in many cities, we have sewage systems choked with the debris of construction material. The country can’t afford to be so careless. It is still not too late for course correction.

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