The Big Story: Caught off guard

The Indian Meteorological Department this week announced that the south-west monsoon, which provides close to 80% of the country’s annual rainfall, had set in on May 29, three days ahead of schedule.

Almost immediately, it took its toll. Since Tuesday, heavy rains have pounded Mangaluru in Karnataka, leading to severe flooding and at least two deaths. The city’s storm-water drains have been unable to cope with the deluge. City administrators say that the flooding is due to the fact that the rains have been unusually intense and that high tides have prevented the water from flowing out into the sea. But poor urban planning is as much to blame. As Mangaluru continues to expand rapidly, activists have accused the administration of turning a blind eye to the frequent violations of planning norms. More buildings are added every year, but civic infrastructure has not expanded to keep pace. Natural drainage channels and sinks such as wetlands have been blocked by encroachments, exacerbating the waterlogging.

The same story is playing out across the country. Mumbai experiences flooding almost every year. In 2015, Chennai was under water for a week as the administration suddenly opened dam gates without any warning to the public. Bengaluru faces the twin problems of flooding and water scarcity at the same time, a telling commentary of the carelessness of urban planners. The city has lost hundreds of ponds and lakes to urbanisation in the last few decades.

Much of the problem lies in the changing patterns of the monsoon. While the Met department says the monsoon will be normal this year, this fails to reveal the basic fact that “normal” is only a representation of the aggregate rainfall across the country. This does not mean that the rainfall will be spread consistently in space or time. In fact, research on the monsoon shows that the number of days with extreme rainfall is increasing gradually, heightening the chances of flooding. Adding to all this is the looming danger of climate change, which many cities are failing to anticipate as they plan for the future.

City administrators should realise that monsoon preparedness goes well beyond de-silting drains and unclogging pipes. As long as urban planning fails to prioritise flood mitigation, the problem will only get worse.

The Big Scroll

  • Six Chennai maps spanning over a century explain why the city faces flood danger each year.  
  • Can India’s poorly planned cities, with their faulty storm water drains, withstand extreme weather?  


  1.   Deep questions of equity are raging in India and the US and hyper-nationalism is blurring the debate, writes Varghese K George in The Hindu. 
  2. India will have to update its data protection regime to safeguard services trade with the European Union, says Aaditya Mattoo in the Indian Express. 
  3. One should thoroughly deny any political relevance to identity politics that asserts the unique experience of a particular group identity as the ultimate fact which cannot be dissolved in any universality, argues Slavoj Zizek in The Philosophical Salon. 


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