Monsoon and our cities sinking

On May 20, 2020, in what is emerging as a semi-annual environmental ritual, a super cyclone swept through the Bengal Delta, shattering the dikes of the Sundarbans and submerging large swathes of Calcutta. The winds and tides that accompany these super cyclones have a curious way of highlighting how deeply embedded the concrete city is in the deltaic ecology and hydrology of the region.

The waters that bubbled and gushed through the streets of Calcutta blurred the man-made administrative boundaries that separate the urban municipality of Calcutta from the mangrove forests of the estuarine Sundarbans.

Our disciplinary silos – town planning, forestry and oceanography – correspond to these administrative demarcations of municipal, river, irrigation and forestry services. Yet as Kolkata stretches through concrete gated communities of luxury apartments on its eastern fringes, the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal more intimately connect the urban hydrosphere with the coves and forests of this silty coastline.

After Cyclone Amphan, some of us woke up to images of half-submerged planes in the hangars of a flooded Kolkata airport, a facility atop former wetlands. We saw water gushing through the streets, some swollen with books at Asia’s second largest book market, on College Street in North Kolkata.

For a brief moment, the delta reminded the city of its forgotten aquatic origins. Meanwhile, rising pollution and carbon emissions are destabilizing the monsoon, forcing the Indian meteorological department in January 2020 to finally revise its monsoon start date.

It is therefore imperative to study the past and future of Indian cities from the perspective of warming Indian Ocean waters and tropical monsoon system.

It’s not just the story of Kolkata. Heavy rains in the drier parts of northwest India in recent weeks have resulted in heavy flooding in cities like Jaipur, while the streets of Gurugram have remained submerged in water.

Meanwhile, the encroachment of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai is the new normal. In Chennai, the water crisis manifested its Janus face. The 2015 floods revealed the consequences of filling water bodies to make way for real estate. If the city was submerged by too much water in 2015, Chennai had reached day zero in 2019, when the city’s water reservoirs dried up.

An avalanche of problems

Addressing the root of the water crisis in Chennai, activist and scholar Nityanand Jayaraman pointed out that it stems from the city’s broken relationship with its water. The same can be said for Kolkata and Mumbai, where the crisis of the rising waters of rivers, seas, swamps and sewage seeping into streets and homes is the product of legal decisions taken and rulings. planning left unimplemented over the past century and a half.

Looking to the history of urbanization in Calcutta can provide cautious answers on how to make water – not just the pipeline infrastructure, but what lies in the clouds above, in the subsoil, in lakes, small bodies of water and bogs that surround our cities – central to understanding the urban condition.

Much attention has been paid to water supply infrastructure in Indian cities, especially as access to drinking water remains both difficult and fractured along caste lines. However, other waters found in bogs, marshes, ditches and clouds have moved away from the mainstream discussions. Yet historically these waters have played a central role in the imagination of a particular future for colonial towns in the 19th century in the form of miasma and plague.

For example, in the case of the colonial colony of Calcutta, an epidemiological perspective that viewed “climate” as a source of disease spread the drainage of swamps, streams, canals and inlets in the city from the early 19th century. This resulted in Ranald Martin’s famous 1836 report, Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta, a document filled with fever maps and plans to drain the city.

Missing in action

This report ostensibly remains a piece of the bureaucratic imagination of what an ideal city should be, and hardly any of its recommendations have been implemented. However, like the fate of any bureaucratic document, parts of this report were quoted, paraphrased, referenced and plagiarized in the myriad colonial administrative writings debating the future of Kolkata, a city whose streets regularly turned into slabs of water during monsoons.

That’s not to say that large parts of the city haven’t been drained. The marshes have been transformed into profit-generating properties and infrastructure under the aegis of various land organizations, with extensive reclamation of the marshes in and around Calcutta since the early decades of the 20th century. The fear of miasmatic fevers was hardly the driving force here.

Amphibious spaces such as the long stretches of mudflats deposited by the meanders of the Hooghly River on the western shores of Calcutta in the first decades of the 19th century, or the salt marshes of the eastern fringes, have been transformed into solid properties in the service of the lucrative real estate. a growing city’s real estate market.

A particular form of profit-oriented land thinking led to the transformation of this muddy and muddy land-water landscape of Kolkata into disposable plots that could easily flow into the expanding land market.

The first legal experiments in acquiring private land for public purposes from the 1820s were carried out in salt marshes and alluvial plains deposited by the meanders of the Hooghly River. These legal takeovers of swamps and swamps for public road-building purposes, such as the Strand Road – a main connecting artery built over alluvial plains – were extended under new economic calculations of profit that saw the small canals (khals) and discharge channels (nalas) which crisscrossed the city under private or communal ownership initially passed to the East India Company and, at the end of the 19th century, to the Crown government in Kolkata.

In the 20th century, much of the multipurpose uses of ponds, marshes and canals were forgotten and swamps became a limit to urbanization in Kolkata, which, like Rangoon and Mumbai, was marked by an active policy of the working class and harsh housing. crisis.

The raging municipal debates in the 1920s confirmed that the right landlord was the one who converted the swamps into housing – thus giving birth to the real estate developer who became a key political figure in urban policy.

Toxic development

Indeed, pitting the profits from real estate development against “wasted” swamps gave impetus to the expansive drainage of the salt marshes in the 1950s to create the affluent district of Calcutta, Salt Lake.

Such development continues unabated as the wetlands of Kolkata’s eastern fringes are transformed into speculative real estate based on liquid land (literally jala-jami). Twentieth-century Bombay followed a similar path, where reclamation of land as a mode of urbanization transformed the sea into a housing estate reaping unimaginable benefits.

It’s no wonder that the regular flooding of contemporary Kolkata, or the projected submersion of parts of Mumbai by 2050, took a century. It would be easy to tell that these were just design failures, but they weren’t. Instead, they were peculiar modes of seeing swamps as economic wasteland that had to be turned into profitable housing, erasing streams and nooks and crannies through which water flowed.

To echo Jayaraman, every city has a broken relationship with water – whether it’s water falling from the sky, seeping from the ground, or seeping from the seas and bays that surround the city. .

The question is whether or not we will incorporate the hydrosphere into our discussions of the urban condition and study where the lines of water flow have been erased, stopped and forced to disappear.

Will we be able to see the water in our pipes, basement, reservoir, seas, clouds and in its viscous and amphibious states such as swamps and wetlands as an integral part of how we imagine it? future of India’s urban landscape?

The writer is an associate professor of history and urban studies at Drexel University. This article is the subject of a special agreement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

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