It is a familiar story of our times: Like Chennai in December 2015, Kochi in August 2018 and, perhaps most notably, Mumbai in July 2005, Hyderabad was lashed by the most rain in a century for the month of October in just a day (20 cm on October 13), resulting in the death of over 20 people and a property loss of an estimated ₹6,000 crore and counting. It is not possible for any city or region anywhere in the world to absorb this order of precipitation in such a short period. Sydney in December 2018, New York in October 2019 and, tragically New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina in October 2005, bear this out. As climate experts have observed, extreme weather events have become the norm. The question is how India should adapt to it. While there is evidence that cities such as New York, Paris and Copenhagen in the developed world have drawn up contingency plans such as constructing ‘sponges’ or ‘sinks’ to deal with sudden bursts of rain, there is little evidence to suggest that cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Gurugram, Vadodara and Hyderabad (which underwent a similar ordeal in 2000) have learnt from earlier harsh experiences.
These cities have made similar mistakes. Construction along river beds, wetlands and drainage pathways has blocked the flow of water to the sea in Mumbai and Chennai. Hyderabad’s major city bus station is situated on the Musi riverbed, while its hundreds of lake beds, as in Bengaluru, have been converted into high rises. Besides, the drains and rivers are not cleaned or adequately de-silted before the monsoon. Hyderabad’s Hi-Tec city had not planned for underground drainage — a telling commentary on skewed priorities in urban planning. India’s cities must have a contingency plan that goes beyond using weather warning technologies to reviewing urban planning and administration.
The Smart City concept and the National Infrastructure Pipeline focus on making roads, affordable houses and revamping drainage systems for cities, but do not recognise these as inter-connected objectives. Waste recycling should be accorded priority. It is a serious problem that municipal and urban infrastructure bodies do not function in tandem. Above all, the nexus between the politicians, bureaucracy and real estate interests, which leads to violation of zoning laws, needs to be checked. The Real Estate (Development and Regulation) Act can be re-examined to hold local bodies accountable for losses arising out of inappropriate location of properties. The insurance regulator can be consulted in this context. To improve urban governance, greater civic participation, envisaged under the 74th Constitutional Amendment, is a must.