How to kill cities: A primer on unsmart policies

The rationalisation of what is essentially systemic neglect, leans on the alibi that the city can cope with only X amount of rain.

Published: 03rd September 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2017 09:02 AM   |  A+A-

Stranded commuters on a water-logged road in Mumbai

Shankkar aiyAr Author of Aadhaar:  A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit  Revolution, and 
Accidental India

Yet again, this week, man-made disaster was presented as a natural calamity. It is true that on August 29, Mumbai received roughly 315 mm of rain. However, this was less than half of what Mumbai received on July 26, 2005. The effect was just as crippling—the city was flooded, transport came to a halt, millions were stranded, leading to loss of life and damage to property. It was as if little had been learnt from the July 2005 tragedy.When the official narrative shifts to the theme song of how it could have been worse, it tells you the state of collapse—or if you please, the collapse of the state. All the committees and recommendations could not keep the financial capital up and running. The causes are well-documented since the 1980s. Every committee essentially is a postmortem of intent and failure of implementation. Maximum city is a victim of maximisation of rhetoric and minimal real change.

Theoretically, the cause was inadequacy of drainage. In reality, it is inadequacy of politics and policy. Mumbai got its storm water drainage and sewage infrastructure when it was Bombay. The British who ran Mumbai—and Chennai—knew the need to create room for run-off. Thereafter, there has been little upgradation—worse disaster has been invited by destruction of natural channels, of mangroves, silting of rivers and by reckless construction. In reality, the system is woefully inadequate and claims of improvement and upgradation are laid bare by events and challenged by ever-increasing pressure. 

The rationalisation of what is essentially systemic neglect, leans on the alibi that the city can cope with only X amount of rain. That high tide precludes drainage, has been rendered an evergreen explanation. Surely, there must be solutions to overcome geographic constraints. And if there isn’t one, the question that begs to be asked is if the system has a Plan-B in place in case of eventualities? What is the protocol? What does the blue book—if there is one—on eventualities say? 

Consider the facts in the run-up to Tuesday. As forecasted, it poured proverbial cats and dogs from the morning. By noon, vast areas of the city were flooded, transport had come to a halt. What did the government recommend and do? It ‘allowed’ people working in offices to leave for home at 2.30 pm. The result: a deluge of people were left battling the elements on the road at around 4 pm—at a time when the tide was highest, water levels were rising and the transport network had already collapsed. 

A moot  point is whether it  occurred to  the  officials that  people would  have  been  safer  in  their offices,  that  staying/postponing  the exit  till  waters  receded  or  staggering,  the  outward  movement would have  been  a  better  response? Were the authorities unaware of the quantum of floating population—just the A ward of Mumbai, the business district, has over 4 million persons coming to work. Those who promise to transform Mumbai into Shanghai need to do better! 

What happened in Mumbai is by no means unique—the elements of disaster vary from city to city. What is a constant is the systemic collapse. The flooding of Mumbai—and Bengaluru and Gurgaon—or of Chennai earlier, symbolises the collapse of urbanisation. By definition, urbanisation policies are necessarily about planning for the future. India’s city-dwellers are left battling blunders of the past.

Great cities of the world are built not just with brick and mortar, but on conceptual clarity. Critical to  success is focus on building the grid first—to accommodate access roads,  water lines,  sewage drains and utilities. Take the case of New York. Founded in 1811, on the back of the recommendations of a commission, the city was set up on an unbroken grid to accommodate infrastructure, services and usage. It is an idea that has been tried with success by Architect and Urban Planner Bimal Patel in Gujarat. The crux of the concept is enabling infrastructure or what planners call the ‘dense undergarment’ for systematic development of urbania.

India’s  urbanisation functions on default mode. It is a textbook on how to kill cities, a primer for unsmart policies. Cities are expanding in an amoebic fashion. Most urbanisation in India is ratification or retrofitting of unplanned expansion —where opportunity meets capital to fund construction with scant regard to past tragedies or vulnerabilities of the future. India has 53 urban agglomerations with a million plus population. Even by official estimates, which are grossly understated thanks to conveniently archaic definitions, over 377 million persons live in urban India. The reality is that India is far more urbanised—a fact studies by the IDFC Institute have underlined, and which has been emphasised by the Economic Survey. The fact is over half of India is urbanised—by design and by default. 

And a  large part, over 65 million, lives in  ‘informal housing’—a politically correct euphemism for slums without basic water or sewage connections. And, typically, the infrastructure is yet catching up. Despite annual episodes of flooding barely a fifth of the road network of cities has storm water drain facilities. Cities are held hostage by tanker mafia —in smart city Pune, a local MLA Amol Balwadkar approached the High Court to stop new construction till the city authorities fixed the water supply network. 

The government informed members of Parliament in  August that urban areas generate  61,948  million litres of sewage, of which just 37 per cent is treated—and untreated  sewage is flowing  into rivers  and seeping into ground water resources. Waste management is conspicuous by its absence and chaotic where present—the existence of the dump at Deonar in Mumbai, and the death of workers in Delhi’s landfill illustrates it well.

The state of urban decay affords an economic opportunity. This Thursday, the Central Statistical Office revealed India’s GDP was sliding rather secularly from 9-plus per cent to 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of this financial year. The need for investments to create jobs, fuel consumption and spur growth is real. Investing in urbanisation, in the idea of creating new cities, can and will deliver returns.

The context calls for real empowerment of urban bodies—this calls for a shift from management of optics to management of policy, resolution of real problems.

shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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