Now is a good time to talk about Basai, a village in Haryana just ahead of Gurgaon. Barring local farmers, residents and builders, nobody really notices nondescript Basai. For birdwatchers though, it’s heaven.

Just last year, a day-long bird race in the Delhi region underscored the richness of the Basai wetland, estimated to be stretch over 300 acres. Of the excellent 245 varieties of birds seen in the race, 104 were from Basai. That apart, several birds reported in the area are seen only here, such as the Moustached Warbler and the Water Rail. Sometimes, the odd tern flies over. In its marshy fields, you can see Stints, Sandpipers, Redshanks, Ruffs and Plovers, all winter visitors from Central Asia and Europe. Go deeper, and you can see in Basai’s ponds pied avocets, their thin beaks curling upwards. Richly hued Cinnamon Bitterns fly by, slowly and awkwardly. Frightening all of them are Marsh Harriers, who sometimes swoop down on the many ducks. The sheer range of avian life the Basai wetland supports makes it one of the most spectacular birding spots in the National Capital Region of Delhi.

But this is not only why we should talk about Basai. It should be discussed because it’s as important for non-birders as it is for birders. Basai should be discussed in the aftermath of Chennai.

Among the many reasons why the grand old city of Chennai became an island for a few days last December was its ghastly urban planning which ignored climate change. It is accepted that one of the features of climate change is freak, intense weather events. The endless rainfall in Chennai and coastal Tamil Nadu was just such an event. Perhaps, in a well-planned city, the downpour may have caused less damage and misery. The water may have flowed away, destroying for sure, but much less. But in Chennai, it couldn’t. The city’s wetlands – fields, ponds, marshes – had long been built upon to enable it to grow and to increase its business potential.

Learning from Chennai

In urban areas, wetlands provide a unique service, which includes soaking in excess water and carbon. That is why Indian cities need wetlands today more than ever before. If wetlands can handle the glut of water, then schools, houses and hospitals won’t have to. What if the wetlands had still existed on the outskirts of Chennai? Would the impact of the floods have been less? It seems plausible, although with the lack of data on the wetlands, we will never know.

The story of Basai points to how little we learn from disasters, and why they might be repeated many times over. As I write this, we have entered the second year of construction in Basai. The land has been long been sold to builders to develop. Every season, some part of the wetland is turned into a hard, impermeable surface, and the birds pushed away. Initially, the birds shifted to other parts of Basai, but now we know they have moved to other wetlands nearby, till these too are taken over.

But this is exactly the point. If we still allow Basai to be built over, then what have we learnt from the disaster of Chennai? Will this build-up not push Gurgaon and its residents into greater danger? It is no longer a matter of if but when – in a freak climate event, when torrential rain falls on Gurgaon, flooding it over, will the end of these wetlands not endanger Delhi too?

A popular argument against reversing projects that ruin the environment is that the investors cannot back out since they have already put in hard cash. We saw the use of this line of reasoning for the Southern Ridge in Delhi, an ancient forest trampled today by glitzy commercial buildings. In the last couple of years, there has also been an argument about the need to push for development in tangible ways, rather than considering environmental protection, which is often qualitative.

But Chennai shows that these investments are negligible compared to the losses from climate change. From central relief funds alone, the prime minister has given nearly Rs 2,000 crore to Chennai, which is a drop in the ocean that would barely offer relief to all those who have lost savings and possessions. A report by Aon Benfield, a British reinsurance broker, puts the losses in Chennai at Rs 20,000 crore, according to DNA newspaper.

Drastic measures

Whatever the number, it is huge. And for thousands of people, the damage is irreversible.

Bearing this in mind, what shall we do about Basai? Option 1 is to let it be built upon, because it has already been half built. Option 2 is to stop this dead in its tracks, take back the land and preserve it as a protected wetland, however small now. Option 3 is to bring down the buildings and restore the wetland.

The best interests of the residents of Gurgaon are served by the drastic Option 3. But if not that, Option 2 should be implemented, with immediate effect. The Haryana government should pay back the builders the cost of the land and take over the wetland, in the interest of public safety. Too extreme? The time for moderate is over. The losses in Chennai have shown that.

Indeed, all cities and towns in India should go ahead and reconsider their master plans which recommend converting agricultural land to residential or commercial land to build upon. Based on public input, and the city’s own observations, all wetlands should be protected as an O Zone, or inviolate zone. And unlike Delhi, which shamelessly built the Commonwealth Games Village on an O Zone, the area must actually be fiercely protected. Doing this doesn’t imply foregoing growth opportunities. Just look at India’s much worse-off neighbour, Pakistan, which is now fighting intense flooding with a plan that includes restoring wetlands.

Basai exists across India, with different names, possibly with different birdlife. How these Basais are treated – as allies in climate change adaptation or real estate waiting to be developed – will reveal what India has learned from the tragedy of Chennai.