India’s urban development model is collapsing

Unplanned development will cause more damage to human lives and the country’s economy.
Last Updated : 04 July 2024, 07:52 IST

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Last year, after a rain-deficient June, many parts of the country were flooded by incessant rains in July — remember the devastating Himachal Pradesh floods — with 13 per cent above normal in that month. But then we saw the driest August in 123 years followed by a September with an above normal rain. This erratic rain pattern is increasing, and often attributed to the rising impacts of climate change. The number and intensity of extreme weather events are indeed rising due to global warming which makes weather forecasting difficult. Last year (2023 was an El Nino year) was a testimony of this stark reality.

Floods damaging crops and human habitations is not a new development, but its increasing severity should be a cause for concern. According to a report by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP), India suffered a loss of $3.2 billion (Rs 272 billion) during the 2021 monsoon season. To put it in context, this amount is equal to 30 per cent of India’s current health budget or 45 per cent of funds allocated for the MGNREGS.

However, the number of floods affecting urban India is also on the rise, and this is a completely different phenomenon from what we see in rural areas. Cities are hubs of economic activities which are clusters of offices, markets, roads, residential areas, etc. In the absence of proper planning, such clusters are more vulnerable to floods as rainwater quickly inundates these tight clusters.

After the 2005 deluge that brought Mumbai to a standstill, urban floods became a common and recurring sight in many urban centres across India. In the last five years, we have seen Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Ahmedabad facing devastating floods. The plight of Delhi and its adjacent ‘millennium city’ of Gurugram is no secret. Even cities like Patna, Bhopal, and Nagpur have been affected by floods.

To coverup their unpreparedness, municipal bodies often hide behind the excuse of extreme weather and unexpected rains triggered by climate change. However, the loss of life and public property we see every year in our cities is mainly due to the bad or no drainage systems, or clogged drainage systems. Poor quality infrastructure is also a reason behind these mishaps.

Much has been discussed about the leaking roofs of airport terminals, collapsing bridges, and broken roads, raising valid questions about the failure of planning in these projects. Corruption, negligence, and lack of accountability are certainly among the prime reasons for caving in and falling apart of newly built structures. If prestige projects are facing quality concerns and are threatened by a few hours of rains, how can we think of developing an India where more than 800 million people are expected to live in cities 2050? My experience while covering these issues has been that our policymakers care little about proper planning and ecological concerns while erecting any infrastructure project.

The vertical growth of cities where sprawling multi-storeyed, multitower apartments occupy hundreds of acres entails unrestricted extraction of groundwater which is leading to an alarming fall in the water table. To build these townships, roads, and other infrastructure we encroach water bodies, destroy natural stormwater drain systems (which transport water to natural water bodies and, thus, prevent flooding) and cement almost every inch of land preventing the possibility of any groundwater recharge. In the absence of an efficient solid waste management system, we see landfills and garbage dumps all over the cities.

The commercial buildings in business centres across our cities are covered with glass which traps heat, thereby increasing power consumption through centralised air conditioning. Despite the hype surrounding India’s enhanced green energy capacity, the bitter truth is that still most of the power generation happens through fossil fuel (mainly coal) and that leads to more warming, consumption of water (to run the thermal plants), and results in air pollution. Urban housing apartments and offices do not have enough rooftop solar which was mandated in the government’s green housing norms.

Clearly, while developing cities and towns, policymakers cannot turn a blind eye to hard social and ecological realities. If this is not addressed, unplanned development will cause more damage to human lives and the country’s economy. The answer lies in having a sustainable model where planning and municipal bodies, construction companies, and contractors are held accountable.

(Hridayesh Josh is a senior journalist. X: @hridayeshjoshi.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 04 July 2024, 07:52 IST

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