Monday, December 14, 2015

Our greed brings Pralaya upon our cities. But we refuse to learn our lessons. So, what next?

According to many religious traditions, the end of the world will come through pralaya, the great flood. Bhagavatham talks about different kinds of floods -- Nithya pralaya or everyday death of life forms, Maimithika pralaya which destroys three worlds but leaves out the Sun and Prakruta pralaya or the ultimate one that wipes out all the worlds.

But we as a nation have advanced beyond the divine scheme of floods. We have repeatedly demonstrated our ability to bring on something close to Prakruta pralaya entirely on our own. There was nothing scriptural in the floods that devastated Mumbai in 2005, UP-Bihar-Orissa in 2011, Rishikesh in 2013 and now Chennai. It was all our own work.

Remember how, only two years ago, Uttarkhand virtually collapsed before unstoppable flood waters that triggered landslides? All of India rushed to its aid. But remember, too, how it happened. The Environment Ministry in Delhi had declared 135 km along the river as an eco-sensitive zone. The State Government immediately passed a resolution against it. The result was that hotels, resorts, residential blocks as well as hydropower projects came up along the river banks that were too weak to support them. The rains came, the earth crumbled and death and destruction swept the state into the record books.

All states in our country have a history of ignoring warning signals. All states have a record of promoting the real estate mafia which is in collusion with the political-bureaucratic mafia. That's why all states are in danger of falling victim to nature's fury. When greed is the principal motivator, concepts like planned development lose all meaning.

The capital city of Delhi itself is the prime example of how we hurt ourselves through unplanned development. When the World Health Organisation said that Delhi was the world's most polluted city, the Government found an easy solution to the problem: It just rejected the WHO report. Now locals have started complaining of lung diseases and alarming levels of pollutants in the air. So what's being done? Nothing other than the Aam Aadmi Government's odd-even day restrictions on cars.

It's no consolation that Beijing is just as notorious for its smog. Two factors put China in a superior position. First, they ruined the air but gained enormously in the bargain, becoming the world's second leading economy and acquiring military power even the US was forced to recognise. Secondly, they have shown that they can take remedial measures at the flick of a switch as it were. Last week they issued a Red Alert on pollution, forcing government agencies to keep 30 percent of their vehicles off the streets, other cars to follow odd-even days restrictions, schools to close on certain days and putting limits on factory works and constructions sites; even fireworks and outdoor barbecuing were banned. Officials declared that these measures reduced the pollutants by as much as a third.

The question is whether India has the will and the system to enforce such restrictions and to stop activities that force Nature to explode. So far there has been no hint of a new resolve either in Delhi or in the state capitals. Migration from rural to urban areas is a basic problem across India. It has become a problem because we neglect the agricultural sector and leave the rural population with little scope for improving their conditions while we invest urban living with both the economic advantages and the glitz that attract people.

In the process the urban centres grow wildly, violating not only nature's laws but also the rules and regulations set down by our governments. Marshlands are turned into construction sites while lakes are filled up for apartment complexes and office towers. Even the drainage system in inner cities are encroached by builders. The result is that the natural outlets for water to flow away are blocked. The Chennai airport and the Koyembedu bus terminal were built on former lake beds just as Bangalore's sprawling Kempe Gowda bus terminal. Nearly 30,000 acres of forest land in Karnataka disappeared in the last two years alone.

Four times in the last three decades Chennai was ravaged by floods. What lessons did we learn? What would be the consequences if a similar flood engulfs, say, Kochi or Mumbai? Even as Chennai recovers from its devastation, similar catastrophes stare us in the face, making all our talk of development meaningless. There will be no salvation unless we realise that life is not made up of only todays. There are also tomorrows.