Why we are the way we are?

So many of us give and receive inane advice.

Things usually are the way they are for good reasons.

It helps to understand why.

A three part series on why India is the way it is – and how we can change it?

The first part appeared in Firstpost on August 6th:


Want to stem the floods? Hint: you are looking in the wrong places.

It appears to be the year of breaking records.

The frequency of Extreme Events is increasing


Photo: Assam Floods, courtesy Firstpost

Mt Abu, in Rajasthan, has had record rainfall – the highest in over 100 years. The runoff from here, unusually heavy rain in Banaskantha and a canal breach have flooded parts of northern Gujarat. Ahmedabad may break a 100-year record for heaviest rainfall in July, receiving three times the normal amount. The pattern of rainfall was very very unusual – several places in Gujarat received a large fraction of an entire season’s rainfall in 24 hours.

In another part of the country, Assam is flooded. 40% of the state’s area is flood prone – making this an annual tragedy. This year has been particularly potent: resulting in 15 times the usual economic damage. Potential solutions, including building storage to contain the rain received by the Northeast that causes the Brahmaputra to swell, are complicated by concerns of water politics with China, the dangers of dams and climate change.

As always, the rescue machinery – including the Army, Navy, the National Disaster Relief Force, the Police, Private citizens – swung into prompt action rescuing tens of thousands and providing succour.

But still, over 300 people have died until now. Tens of thousands have been evacuated. Thousands of crores lost. There are the predictable canal breaches, deaths, the crop damage, the spike in infection, and the visits of politicians.

There is also the destroyed lives, the splintered education, and the threat of human trafficking – more lasting scars of a fleeting tragedy.

It has become customary to blame climate change for such an event. It is often comforting to do so. Moreover, there is more than an element of truth in it.

But it is unhelpful.

A warmer climate is set to increase both the average rainfall India receives during its Southwest monsoon and the likelihood of extreme events such as the one Gujarat has experienced over the past month.

Moreover, in a vulnerability assessment by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, July rainfall for Gujarat is expected to go up, while the number of rainy days is expected to fall  in the coming decades. This means more rain will fall on the same or fewer days. This sets the stage for the next prediction: The number of events with >100mm rainfall for three consecutive days is also expected to increase over most of the country. Translated: Last month’s floods will become more likely going forward.

Floods 1901-2016 data India

Figure 2: Decadal Incidence of Floods and Storms in India, 2011-2020 figure projected from 2011-2016 data.

In a twist of cruel irony, a warmer climate will also make drier parts of the country drier still. In a record of a different hue, South India experienced its worst drought in over a hundred years this past year. Which means flooding and drought co-existing simultaneously albeit in different parts of the country.

But why am I saying it is unhelpful to blame only climate change?


We are looking in the wrong place for answers

Because if you, the reader, were to believe that a warming climate were the only thing to blame for our problems, then you, very reasonably, would say let’s cut greenhouse gas emissions of India. Shutter the coal plants. Increase subsidies for electric cars. But when India’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions is only about 6%, and our entire electricity sector (coal, gas, wind, nuclear, everything) contributes only 2% of global emissions, shuttering our coal plants will achieve little…if your goal is to stop these tragedies from happening. Especially as other countries, such as the US, who contribute a lot more are either playing hardball or making insufficient progress.

There is a scope for misunderstanding here, so let me be very clear: Yes, human-caused climate change will result in tremendous hardship, and we, as a world do need to slow and eventually stop our net carbon emissions. This needs to be a joint effort with all countries involved, especially the more developed countries who have contributed to the bulk of historical emissions and who have the deeper pockets to act.

But India, who faces the sharp end of climate change, and whose emissions are relatively small, needs to focus on setting its house in order. Because of the societal disarray, for the lack of a better phrase, the “impact” of climate change is mostly more acute than it needs to be. You see, the link between “extreme rainfall” and “human tragedy” is not set in stone. Extreme events need not translate into human tragedies. That part of the link has a lot to do with societal choices we make.

Take the Chennai floods that killed over 400 people in 2015. Yes, there was an unusual amount of rainfall in a very short time. But there was also disappearing water bodies, clogged drains and blocked rivers that played a huge role.

To give you a flavour of what I am talking about, let me pose three questions

Do we build over a water body or not?

Do we dump construction debris into our rains and canals or not?

Do we allow slums to creep up in flood plains or not?

What we should do is theory.

Reality, as always, is different.

In practise, the answer is of course, we build over water bodies. Of course, we dump our debris into water channels. Of course, we allow our slums to be built on flood plains, after all, where else could they afford to live.

Children sitting on a makeshift raft play in a river full of rubbish in a slum area of Jakarta

Figure 3: Debris dumped in a canal, picture courtesy Reuters

If we were to believe that this, our flouting of the “should”, is the root of the problem, our suggestions would then follow that we should preserve our water bodies, we should punish the builders for dumping the waste and we should find alternative housing for our slum dwellers.

Easy-peasy. Problem solved.

Only problem is that voices from across the social tableau have been saying precisely this, in differing levels of detail and shrillness, for decades. In the meantime, the problems have only gotten worse.

The next level of suggestions could be tightening regulation, tightening monitoring, and evict the slum dweller.

Umm…OK. Sure. Good luck with that.

Politicians do what will get them re-elected – that’s the way their incentive works.

When disaster strikes, they make aerial surveys that are widely covered by the media – this shows empathy. If it hasn’t already happened, they ensure the might of the state – the Army etc. to provide succour. They offer solatiums to the next-of-kin. And then they wait for the public’s attention to shift. Which in this age of social media and ADHD television, they don’t have to wait long. Apparently, humans now have a shorter attention span than does a goldfish!

Some of you may be thinking. This is cynical. There are heroes amidst the politicians. I agree, there are. But when we talk about processes, especially scalable processes, we cannot talk in terms of the heroes, we must talk in terms of incentives. And the incentive for the overwhelming number of politicians is to get re-elected. And they will take the most effective actions to do just that. In this case, that is to appear sympathetic, appear to be acting and move on to the next problem (which is just going to happen tomorrow).

We really cannot blame them.

We need to look deeper

If we really want to solve the problem, we need to dig deeper, and go to the wounds rather than treat the pain. Because a warmer, more temperamental climate is going to be pressing hard on all these wounds – these fissures in our social contract, that until now, we could live with. By placing more demands on our society’s capacity – increased drought, increased flooding, increased farmer suicides, geopolitical unsettling, migration – the wounds could break open.

But first we need to identify the where and what the wounds are.

This involves answering the same three questions:

Why do we build over a water body?

Why do we dump construction debris into our rains and canals with impunity?

Why do we allow slums to creep up in flood plains?

These answers will help uncover our actual social contract as it exists today. And understanding is the first step to creating a solution. For we will never get a lasting solution if we only look for answers in the sky.


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