Calm after storm
Chennai braced for a tempest of sorts over the weekend as cyclone Mandous made its landfall at the Mamallapuram coast on Friday night. Mandous was the 13th cyclone to cross the coast between Chennai and Puducherry in 122 years. As many as five people were reported to have died in the aftermath of the cyclone, while over 400 trees were uprooted and 98 cattle killed. The monsoon season in Chennai arrives with a certain sense of foreboding. In 2015, a deluge brought the city down to its knees, after the sluice gates of the Chembarambakkam Lake were opened in the aftermath of heavy rain. The floods exposed chinks in our urban infrastructure – including the manner in which floodplains were encroached upon, in collusion with authorities to make way for real estate projects.
Other fault lines were also exposed — the shoddy manner in which storm water drains were constructed. A mix of official and public apathy contributed to the pains of this once in a century downpour. A year later, coastal Tamil Nadu was pounded by a severe cyclone Vardah, which led to the deaths of 10 people and necessitated the evacuation of over 20,000 individuals, of which 9,400 were evacuated to relief camps in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
Seeing how Chennai and cities across India are paying the price of climate change-led calamities, we must begin thinking about urban development in terms of future-proofing against such events. For starters, the push for this needs to come from the Centre. Earlier this year, citizens pinned their hopes on the Union Budget 2022-23 for enhanced compensation under the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) as well as State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF). Expectations ran high on a greater sum being allocated towards the states on this account. However, the allocation for relief operations as a response to natural calamities has been cut to Rs 1,511.93 cr in 2022-23 from Rs 1,538.03 cr the year before. This is a setback considering the World Meteorological Organization’s State of the Climate in Asia report which says India has lost over Rs 65 lakh crore in 2020 itself, due to phenomena like tropical cyclones, floods and droughts.
Such devastation has adversely affected more than 1 bn people and led to 83,000 deaths since the past 20 years in India, as per an SBI report from 2021. The report goes on to say that the quantum of losses, adjusted as per current prices, could be pegged at Rs 13 lakh cr, which boils down to 6% of the country’s GDP. During the period 1991-2021, just about 8% of the losses in the nation were covered, which implies a protection gap or shortage of 92%. Experts opine that a component of disaster risk reduction (DRR) must be built into rural housing initiatives henceforth.
Encouragingly, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been promised an allocation of Rs 3,030 crore for 2022-23, against Rs 2,520, which was earmarked in the prior budget. These sums can be used to protect the livelihood of fisherfolk as well as protecting mangroves, which are nature’s insurance against cyclones. Closer home, the government recently launched the Tamil Nadu Climate Change Mission. Under this, the State will be the first in India to conduct a climate change summit. Going forth, both TN and India will need to make substantial investments in climate-linked social security schemes, building climate resistant urban ecosystems as well as protecting ecologically-fragile coastal zones.