Pune floods not natural: Will environment consultants own up?

“There is nothing more threatening to the health of our economy than climate change, yet frequently there are those defending environmentally destructive activities by claiming they are doing so for the sake of the economy. The truth is actually that the action they are defending would most likely be good for the economy in the short term but in the long term would also contribute to future economic hardship and the risk of massive global recession, not to mention the incalculable costs of human suffering. Perhaps it is time for … the world, to start looking at the long term implications of a damaged environment when mapping out current economic strategies.” Ian Carey wrote in Huffington Post, back in 2012.¹

Cut to August 2019. The Pune suburbs of Baner and Aundh are witnessing extensive destruction of property, damage to the well-being, and also the sporadic loss of lives of citizens, as water is having to be discharged, at one hundred thousand cusecs, across the many dams around. But mistake this not as a natural calamity. It has been a slow and certain turn of events, entirely committed by a collective of motivated interests. Entirely man-made, completely avoidable. The culture-capital of Maharashtra must answer, if it is the culture of reckless debris-dumping, river-raping and hill-hacking that brings her this title.

The extensive and rapid cutting of Tukai hill in Pashan is still hot, where concerned, environment-aware locals exposed the Pune Smart City misadventure and brought apparent violations of BDP (bio-diversity park) lines in the limelight. The HCMTR (High Capacity Mass Transit Route) is another demon of an urban development project set to ruin much of Pune’s hills, murder large old trees, cull biodiversity, destroy recharge zones of the aquifers that quench the city’s thirst. Indian urban development has been more about building apartment blocks over inaccessible tracts of suburban land and getting around the system to acquire connectivity, bought over at all costs, than about building a well-provided urban space which citizens could then occupy. The direct costs are borne out of taxpayer’s money and the indirect and less visible environmental costs are invariably externalised to the future populations of citizens yet unborn.

As with Pashan hill-cutting, road widening is taken up to serve a locality that has severe water supply shortage. A wider road only enables builders to add pricey FSI (floor-space index), build more floors and compress more humanity in under-served neighbourhoods. The truth about urban housing screams of 30% unsold inventory, with Pune shouldering 120,000 unsold apartments, but the planning authorities show no qualms in allowing further construction in a resource-strapped city. Viewed against this backdrop, it is not advisable at all to provide any more new infrastructure, in whole or in piecemeal. It is desirable, on the contrary, that the incomplete water-supply and sewage-treatment projects be commissioned with utmost urgency. The more you try to provide for the city, the worse it gets.

Development activities shooting out of over-eager political manifestos, should move out of city limits instead, and attractive small towns could be built as healthy clusters of a thoughtfully civilised life. Cities that cannot breathe or wash for themselves can offer little by way of meaningful new employment. Instead of repeatedly failing in the attempts to build livable cities and making a mess of the environment in the process, it is worth addressing the real needs of the rural populations desperately seeking to move out, deserting villages, orphaning farms and abandoning traditional occupations.

A prominent union minister is quoted as recently asking citizens to choose between economy and environment. This is an acknowledgement that only one of the two could be served at a time. If the minister was in his right to unilaterally execute urban transport, or any other project, there would have been no need to call for Environment Impact Assessments at all. In reality, since damage to the Environment is a foregone conclusion, consultants are summoned and paid to deliver an EIA. The firms so appointed, are supposed to studiously, objectively and impartially put together their assessments.

But here they exceed their brief and go on to pass judgments. In the over-enthusiasm to proclaim support to their political and financial masters, they go overboard and label environment activists as having ‘misplaced ideological perspectives’. It is argued that “Governments need to invest and people need to support this infrastructure-building spree in the country, till the last person gets access to a basic, decent life.” Really? With the pace of human reproduction far overtaking that of all other departments, the last person will actually never be born, go figure that! The metaphorical last person here, is not a single living soul. It is actually the multitudes of unborn foetuses doomed to perish before their first breath is inhaled. Pollution manifests in all forms and has reached astronomically high levels. Pune’s indices of air-pollution, garbage-disposal, dirt, water-pollution and noise & light pollution are all very high. When they ought to be brought down, each month the indices climb.

This is immensely alarming. Agencies backing environment-crushing projects must not forget that it is the future of the common public that they owe to, not their immediate sponsors, for it is with public money that their bills are actually paid. It is the duty of the consultants to understand long-term, irreversible implications of their advice. In as much as their assessments form the basis of development, they must also stand guarantee against the certain eventual loss of every citizen’s common assets. The most important question then is, whether those waving green flags, have the heart to own up all unfortunate eventuality.

Carbon Dioxide Levels

Vital signs of global warming are irrefutable. [Image: climate.nasa.gov]

As nations moved in time across the age of industrialisation and the consequent rising production of all things material, governments and allied vested interests pitched in to create false demand, driven by advertisements and concerted tweaking of the paper-currency-based economy. They have not only pushed global carbon emissions out of hand, but also in the process, managed to render much of the humanity insensitive to the call of the Environment. Admit it or not, we are now the most gluttonous single species set to destroy all other, and eventually cannibalise ourselves in this mindless glut. The theory of environmental damage arising as adverse impact of economic growth recovering over time, is a spent hypothesis and now utterly useless. Oblique postulates such as these, are invariably rooted in the first world that manages to literally export their pollution over to developing economies by shiploads, even today.

The economy versus environment arguments based thereupon, are therefore downright clichéd. They are out of date, out of time and place. Only the blind, the greedy or the foolish can still cling to them. Every ticking second is dragging seven billion of us to the brink and here are ‘experts’ telling us a tale of how economics prevail over the Environment. If today, an environment consultancy brought in for the purpose, advocates the creation of any large civil infrastructure project, it can only be a reluctant acceptance out of an extreme political compulsion. Nothing in its honest assessment, can make anyone proud. As such, the firms issuing acceptable EIA reports should be extremely cautious, necessarily apologetic and, must consciously refrain from going to town belittling the tribe of well-meaning environment activists.

Extreme weather events are proving what scientists predicted via mathematical models. Warmer atmosphere contains more moisture. As global average temperatures are on the rise, rainfall extremes are becoming more frequent and intense. Common-sense models could explain the phenomena, but such is the viciousness of the impacts of climate change, that one does not have to be an environment scientist to figure out that all is not well. The genesis of all problems lies in planning economic activities with scant regard to the Environment. Without man chasing the mirage of economic prosperity, there would not have been any global warming in the first place. Yet, the perpetual urban contest between economy and environment tends to side with the former. Good sense lies in taking on the challenge responsibly, which effectively means, no browbeating the voices of preservation, and working alongside genuine concerns.

Terrorised with guns, invaded by economy and inundated with floods, the Mumbaikar has been systematically taught over the years, to sing praises of the spirit of Mumbai. But the aware Punekar will not fall into this trap. As long as myopic planners, their self-obsessed consultants and greedy contractors keep gushing over the need for development at all costs, genuine environmentalists will keep raising the flags of concern and do all they can to help skirt disasters; if and until their beloved city lives, that is!

Ashutosh Pradhan

¹ Ref: https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_1398439

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