It was like a sauna, without the health benefits. We sweltered and complained of the heat, while the humidity sapped up energy and killed productivity. And then as I was on my way to Gurugram via Rohtak, the sky grew dark and it started raining. The first few minutes were of sheer joy. It was exhilarating to watch the dust settle, the filth wash away in one giant sweep. As it rained some more my relief changed to concern. The newly built highway was filling up as were the neighbouring fields which have sunk lower as farmers sell inches of soil off their land for short term gains. By the time I reached Gurugram, our swanky metropolis, I was greeted with the familiar picture of unplanned urbanisation : overflowing sewers, submerged roads and traffic snarls.
A friend had once remarked that the true test of a ‘sarkari bangla’ is the first rain that washes off the whitewash, exposing the shabby jugaad underneath. The premise of this analogy can be expanded to conclude that monsoons reveal the real state of our country. Rains rudely remove the mask of modernisation to show gaping holes in our claim of sustainable development.
Economic growth that is reflected by a rising GDP has done little to improve the condition of the average Indian. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had proposed HDI, Human Development Index as a more accurate marker of quality of life. Scandinavian countries where healthcare and education are given precedence, score better here. While the world debates the worth of these two, RSI, the Rain Strain Index could be an apt indicator of progress in India. A way to quantify how rains throw our system into a tizzy, it can be used to unmask unplanned development and state shortsightedness. The truth is, we can change names and bestow lofty titles but a city which comes to a grinding halt with a downpour can’t be called too smart.
The Indian monsoon has always been unpredictable and somewhat capricious. Every year we are caught between months of crippling drought and devastating floods. The situation has worsened as extreme rain events have increased in intensity and frequency. So much so that floods in the time of drought are now a reality. Even a ‘normal’ monsoon may cause more grief than relief by not bringing rain on time or chucking it down in a single massive deluge.
Scientists blame increased human emissions for this variability. While we can’t immediately control human emissions and the resulting climate change, we can greatly reduce its impact. The devastation that follows these catastrophic events is a result of mismanagement and poor planning. We have destroyed drainage in floodplains and allowed them to be inhabited. Embankments built to control rivers have closed nature’s safety valves. Lakes and ponds have been eaten away by real estate. Storm water drains are either clogged or non existent. Thus cities drown when extreme rainfall events happen.
It is time to accept that we are bearing the brunt of climate change and change ourselves. There is no time to debate, dither or dawdle. The only way out is by obsessively creating millions of connected living water structures that will sponge up floods and store water for droughts. These then need to be guarded as though our life depended on them, because it does.
( published as a part of my column in the Tribune on 21/7/2018)