OPINION

Planning for the next flood

Cyclonic storms on Tamil Nadu’s 1,076-km coastline are not unusual, and at least once in two years there is some disaster or the other. The common thread running through every such instance is that all claims of preparedness are invariably exposed as either hollow or woefully inadequate. The focus, as well as any claim to administrative efficiency, is solely on rescue and relief operations. What the government is able to demonstrate is only some good mobilising of human and material resources after the event. Rarely is there a reconsideration of the policy of civic planning, especially the tendency to place real estate and commercial interests above those of nature and ecology. The latest disaster to hit Tamil Nadu was not a cyclone, yet it highlighted the inadequate level of preparedness. The inundation in Chennai and its neighbouring districts exposed all the flaws in its urban planning, housing and real estate policy and water management. Scenes of large sheets of water spread across hundreds of localities, cutting off tens of thousands of people from the rest of the city, provided grim testimony to the appalling mistakes of the past. As rain battered the city, it was clear that the drainage system was either too weak or non-existent. Compounding the problem of urban waste clogging drains was widespread encroachments that have whittled down the carrying capacity of many water channels.

A big factor behind the flooding is the rampant construction of buildings on water bodies, wetlands and areas that were originally floodplains. Large tracts of land in the suburbs have seen a real estate boom. None should have been surprised by water flowing into such areas, creating islands out of apartment complexes and making whole colonies resemble fields under irrigation. There is a good deal of official patronage for the establishment of habitations on lakes and ponds. Even the Housing Board implements such projects, and planning authorities approve them routinely. Such disasters could have been prevented through planning, curbs on occupation of water bodies, and pre-monsoon desilting of drains and water channels. A key factor that ought to be taken into account is that the city needs an intricate drainage system to match its burgeoning development. With the city’s municipal limits expanded in recent years to take in dozens of smaller villages and townships, the only remedial step can be significantly enhancing civic infrastructure in the added areas. But it is a daunting task for the government to implement the real solution – keeping water bodies free of construction and habitation. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has sanctioned Rs.500 crore for immediate relief, and sought further Central assistance. The government must also look for sound hydrological solutions to address the shortcomings in the city’s water storage and drainage system, and revisit present policy priorities. There can be no smart city without intelligent planning.



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