In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!
Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!
My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.
Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.
Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!
A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!
This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!
Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?
These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.