All stand to lose unless development is made equitable and sustainable
With bullet trains, rockets to space, express highways to race our cars and lots of WhatsApp forwards, India is undoubtedly booming for some of us.
Once again, a major Indian city faced apocalypse-level flooding for a few days. Usually, it is our country’s financial capital that sinks in drainage water after a few days of rain, but this year, the rains have been deficient in Mumbai, so it is waiting for monsoon to strengthen and sink the city to celebrate its annual festival of resilience of the people and their never-ending spirit of working hard. Delhi’s turn to uphold ‘the Indian spirit’ has come first this year. Other Indian cities will also get their chance to prove their resilience to live and continue working their back off to pay taxes to their cities’ corrupt and inept municipal corporations.
It is a shame to see the national capital of the world’s fifth-largest economy change to a slush pool, but for Indians, it is just another monsoon season. Who gives two paise for the hours-long traffic snarls, overflowing drains or the outbreak of water-borne diseases? How does it matter if half the population lives submerged, slushy for many weeks every monsoon, sleeping and defecating in the open when we have window-dressed a few roads with fancy lawns and fountains? The Central and state governments can keep blaming each other, but the ordinary people suffer. Except for the occasional mishaps of some luxury car drowning with its occupants in flooded under-passes, the poor and working-class bear the brunt of our annual city floods.
This time the flood water entered elite areas. Maybe that is why I am writing this article. Slums under flood are so routine that no one writes about it, and even if someone does, no one reading an English newspaper bothers about it. We have started believing that slums exist to provide people like us with cheap domestic helps, drivers and delivery boys; how they live is not our concern.
This time, the Yamuna decided to break its barrier and give us a taste of what most of the urban poor experience every year. Apocalyptic images of iconic areas of our capital like Rajghat, Red Fort, ITO and Ring Road in waist-deep swirling drainage water should have filled any self-respecting Indian with rage. But we reserve our outrage to be directed against some actor for wearing a certain costume in a Bollywood movie. The media is raising some noise reluctantly.
Soon, we may get another committee to study the flood, and they will prepare a report that no one will read. More funds will be allocated to tame the Yamuna, and some may actually be spent too. But come next rain, the tamasha will start again. The poor will lose their tarpaulin homes, the rich may miss a few flights, and the middle class will spend countless hours on the road, honking and cursing, and Delhi being Delhi, occasionally pulling out their revolvers to settle road rage. And on the next election day, half the population will sit at home and watch TV soaps or viral videos on their mobile, and the other half will march to the polling booth and vote based on caste and religion.
The encroachments on the banks of our rivers and canals will carry on. We will fill up more wetlands and lakes, and convert their beds into posh residential and official complexes, as we did in Bengaluru and Chennai, or build an international airport in the flood plain of a major river as we did in Kochi. We will continue to flatten the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, stone quarries will flourish, and illegal sand mining will continue as if there is no tomorrow. So every monsoon, disastrous floods will occur. A few years ago, it was Mumbai, then Kerala, Assam, Bihar, Chennai, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. Everyone’s turn is coming.
This will go on until the day we understand that big-ticket projects should come after, and not before, fixing the fundamental issues of our cities, which lack basic civil administration. Our garbage disposal is creating plastic landfills on the outskirts. Our drainage systems are primitive. For a moment, forget all the propaganda about how fast we are progressing and how we will overtake the US and China in a few years, and look around. Do we see well-administered cities with decent sidewalks, zero garbage, good public transport and people living under a roof with running water and electricity?
Or are we seeing urban hellholes with perhaps a swanky airport and some malls and a few islands of well-guarded residential and office complexes in a sea of slums connected by roads with no side-walks and filled with snarling, angry, honking, haphazard traffic? Why are half the people living under tarps or flyovers? Why do hungry faces at traffic lights surround our cars? Whose are those gnarled fingers that scratch the windows of our air-conditioned bubble and break the rhythm of the car speakers to beg for food?
With bullet trains, rockets to space, express highways to race our cars and lots of WhatsApp forwards, India is undoubtedly booming for some of us. But unless we find a way to develop more equitably, sustainably and in a planned fashion, all it requires is the swirling, dark currents of the Yamuna to breach the shores one day and level it all.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy