When large parts of Chennai were submerged in unprecedented rains recently, Kolkata residents had a common query: Can the West Bengal capital withstand a calamity of similar severity?
According to experts, the Chennai floods were largely man-made, due to the destruction of greenery and mindless construction. Kolkata seems to be staring at a similar threat. Take a walk along the VIP Road which connects the city with the airport, and one can see the canals on either side taken up by real estate firms for building highrises. These canals, thought to be an invaluable drainage system, especially in the low-lying areas, are fast disappearing. At many places, these have been converted into parking spaces and extensions of the road. As a result, large stretches of the city are already getting inundated during monsoon. If the city were to witness Chennai-like rains, the result would be disastrous.
These old 'khal' or canal systems have acted as an effective drainage system for Kolkata for centuries. Many wastewater conduits - storm-water drains, sewers and canals - are silted. Besides, gully pits have been blocked and there is a time lag for water to reach the pumping stations. This leads to flooding on the surface. Poor solid waste management, along with an overburden of plastic, is the culprit here, according to experts.
Saurabh Chakraborty, a member of the Paschim Banga Vigyan Manch, a rationalist organisation which recently filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for saving the water bodies, says: "If the authorities fail to save the canal system, which has been there for years, a bigger disaster than Chennai awaits this city."
According to Chakraborty, the tribunal's eastern bench has asked the state government to restore canals and waterbodies on either side of the road from Ultadanga to Lake Town. Last Thursday, the bench of Pratap Kumar Roy and P C Mishra urged the state government to act on the order. After receiving the order, chief secretary Sanjay Mitra convened a meeting on how to implement it. Local residents have questioned the political will to do so, as the land-fill is part of the region's syndicate business.
Mohit Ray, author of Five Thousand Mirrors: The Water Bodies of Kolkata, says there were 8,700 water bodies and most are now lost. "The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is abysmal in their record of water bodies. Their record of 1996 and 2006 shows the number at 1,634 and 2,240, respectively. This is abnormal when water bodies are disappearing in the face of frantic construction."
According to a senior official at KMC, the organisation does renovate waterbodies from time to time but these are mostly unplanned. "We don't have a fixed budget for this."
186 sq km: Total area under Kolkata Municipal Corporation|
4.45 million: Population
32%: Percentage staying in slums
4: Number of sewerage treatment plants
8: Number of major drainage systems
5.5%: Percentage of area under lakes/canals
19: Number of current sewerage and drainage projects at a cost of Rs 1,374 crore
Source: Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Economic Review 2014-15