With sprawling beaches just a bus ride away, lush pockets of greenery and a plethora of cafes and condos peppering the East Coast Road all along the route leading to Pondicherry, Chennai was a city that I, like many others, was proud to call home. Having lived the last four years out of three suitcases in four different cities, one of the most endearing aspects of this place, for me, much after I've moved on, is the sense of safety and comfort that it imparts, something that even the capital hasn't been able to match up to.
Policy violations have led to these disasters or amplified their impact.
But last December, a devastating flood catapulted Chennai into the national limelight. The media coverage was frenzied, given that the catastrophe occurred, at India's largest port in the Bay of Bengal. India was shocked. Yet, we don't get to read or see much about how the states of Assam and Bihar are also reeling under the wrath of the rivers Brahmaputra and Kosi respectively. The tepid reactions to these disasters, especially when contrasted with Chennai, may have something to do with how common such occurrences are in these regions. We seem to have somehow accepted our incapacity to mitigate the effects of climate change in these areas, stubbornly refusing to admit that our countervailing efforts are simply insufficient.
In Assam, a lot has been blamed on the explosive sprouting of residences much closer to the river banks than they should be and supposedly more than they have historically ever been. Illegal residential and industrial structures over marshlands and waterbodies appeared at an alarming rate in Chennai too in the last decade. It would take nothing more than a prima facie analysis of some of the hardest hit complexes of the city to see how a lot of these projects have sprung up in catchment areas and in close proximity to other waterbodies where they have no business of being built.
Another river-related controversy that has been bubbling for the past few months is the allegation by the National Green Tribunal that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation has caused massive damage to the Yamuna floodplain, during the World Culture Festival that took place in March this year. An environmental compensation of ₹5 crore has been levied against the foundation towards "restoration, restitution and rejuvenation of the flood plains to its original status." While Art of Living has been fighting back, claiming that the purported damage is not backed by scientific data, how the event itself was allowed to happen in the first place is questionable.
For those of us who haven't had to brave such calamities yet, the test of our gallantry lies in cementing the breaches between policy and implementation.
All of these events are interlinked not just by the fact that there exist robust policy directives to prevent or otherwise minimize the impact that they may have caused, but equally by the policy violations that can be said to have led to them, or amplified their impact.
A recent study by Oxford University has estimated that about 1.3 lakh climate change-related deaths will occur in India alone, in the coming decades. After 195 nations at the COP-21 adopted a new international agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, India will have to go to significant lengths to ensure that these targets are met. Fact is these targets are more challenging for developing nations and the potential cost of failure to human life, for us, is enormous.
The heroism of the rescue efforts in Chennai captivated and inspired the country to combat natural disasters due to climate change head on. With the flood relief efforts in Assam and Bihar, heroism, though not always extolled, is seasoned and consistent. For those of us who haven't had to brave such calamities yet, the test of our gallantry lies in cementing the breaches between policy and implementation. Our climate change adaptation strategy, then, need only look where policy is overlooked.