The unpredicted spell of staggering rain over Chennai on December 30, 2021 capped a season of repeated monsoon inundation and urban paralysis, coming as a stark reminder to political leaders that they are underestimating the risk of urban collapse due to extreme weather events.
Tamil Nadu’s capital, with an international airport and a major seaport, was gridlocked after heavy rain at the tail end of the northeast monsoon, presenting a dystopian picture of ambulance sirens wailing in still traffic, people deserting vehicles to walk to rail terminals in blinding rain and workers unable to return home until late in the night. The nightmare revived memories of the great deluge of 2015 , although the death toll was not comparable. Suburban gated communities on the city’s IT corridor and inner city residents alike were affected, and COVID-19 was momentarily forgotten, as rail and Metro lines were quickly overwhelmed.
The catastrophic 2015 flood , an unprecedented event, raised expectations of a major shift in priorities for urban development. That deluge was akin to the great flood of 2005 in Mumbai , which too raised hopes that policies would be redrawn. In spite of immense community support and active mobilisation for change, both cities witnessed a regression, as informality remained dominant, laws were just on paper, and unsustainable changes were made to the urban environment. Permanent, elite constructions were favoured at the cost of ecology.
The monsoon of 2021 in Chennai, with its black swan evening of 24 cm rain, raises a question: would urban development be more sustainable and equitable if the guiding principle is climate change? This new approach would prioritise ecological and sustainability concerns over aesthetics, and reject market-oriented ‘fantasy plans’, as some scholars describe an increasingly flashy vision of urbanisation. While green roofs, electric vehicles and solar power would be welcome, they would not replace conservation of natural flood plains, rivers, mangroves, marshes and gardens. It would be the future-proofing that India’s cities need, to avert sudden dysfunction caused by climate events.
In its report on Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India (September 2021), NITI Aayog cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a revelatory moment that underscores the dire need for all cities to become healthy cities by 2030. Climate impacts are certain to affect cities even more fundamentally and permanently.
Consistent with the approach of the present Central government, NITI Aayog recommends 500 priority cities to be included in a competitive framework, adopting participatory planning tools, surveys and focus group discussions to assess the needs and aspirations of citizens. There is considerable importance given to technological tools, private sector talent and mapping strategies to identify a city’s assets and to plan spatially. What is needed is a central role for democratically-elected local governments, to ensure greater inclusion and a sense of community. In Tamil Nadu, urban local bodies have not had elections for a decade, while the long coastline of the State has been hit by cyclones that have crippled Chennai and other towns.
It is multidimensional
All dimensions of a city’s growth, starting with affordable housing, play a central role in adapting to future climate change. They can lower carbon emissions growth even during infrastructure creation if biophilic design and green materials are used. A large volume of new housing stock is being created in the 7,933 urban settlements in the country today, of which the bulk is in a small number of million-plus cities.
Less than half of all cities have master plans, and even these are ruled by informality, since both influential elites and the poor encroach upon commons such as wetlands and river banks, as Chennai and Mumbai have witnessed. After a catastrophic flood, the emphasis is on encroachment removal directed almost entirely at the less affluent.
A top-level department for climate change adaptation is best suited to serve as a unifier, bringing all relevant departments in a State, such as housing and urban development, transport, water supply, energy, land use, public works and irrigation to work with elected local governments that set priorities and become accountable. Neglect of municipal councils, lack of empowerment and failure to build capacity among municipal authorities have produced frequent urban paralysis in extreme weather. In Chennai, the focus after every flood has been on the storm water drain network, while commercial encroachment of the vast marshland in Pallikaranai , a natural sponge for the city, gets insufficient attention. This experience echoes the fate of encroachments along Mumbai’s Mithi river, where the Mithi River Development and Protection Authority, after the 2005 flood, favoured removal of dwellings, while sparing ‘permanent structures’ that were too big to touch.
Leaning on market forces
The encroachment of important commons reflects the extreme dependence on market forces to supply affordable urban houses. In Chennai, speculative values have outpriced the middle class and young workers aspiring for their first home, sending them out of the city to relatively cheaper suburbs. Most of these suburban investments do not reflect their true value, even if they are layouts ‘approved’ by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, because outlying town panchayats have little capacity or funds to create even basic infrastructure such as water supply, sanitation and roads.
For many residents, monsoon 2021 was no different from others before it. They may live in gated towers along the IT corridor but they struggled to stay afloat, using boats or trucks to get supplies and to travel. Such images rarely get media play, as they represent the unflattering reality of high house prices. Suburban home buyers would gladly transfer some part of the price for infrastructure building, rather than let it be cornered solely by speculators. Now that Chennai is working on a new master plan and a climate action plan, with planned investments in infrastructure including Metro rail links to the western and southern suburbs, it should introduce regulation to ensure value capture.
A familiar story
Loose metropolitan boundaries with little control over neighbouring local governments produce amorphous building regulations. In Chennai’s case, unplanned densification is occurring in three neighbouring districts which are linked to the core city by local transport and are hence part of a larger metropolitan area. Here, traditional natural assets such as wetlands, reservoirs and watercourses are being lost rapidly. This is typical of other major Indian cities as well, where population growth at the peripheries has been accelerated by anomalous land and housing price increases at the core and absence of adequate good rental housing.
India’s cities will continue to be drivers of economic growth with significant production and consumption, but that sunrise story is threatened by unsustainable urban development in the era of climate change. The experiences of Mumbai earlier and Chennai recently are storm warnings, and greater centralisation of governance can do little to address this. The need today is not for flashy retrofitted ‘smart’ urban enclaves but sound, functional metropolitan cities that can handle floods, heat waves, pollution and mass mobility to keep the engines of the economy running. Urban India would otherwise turn into a subprime investment.
G. Ananthakrishnan is a Chennai-based journalist