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Sinking Kolkata

August 08, 2018

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ON the eastern flank of India, off the Bay of Bengal, is a city that is sinking. Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now called, has long been notorious for representing some of the world’s most egregious problems, scalding poverty of a depth few can imagine, overcrowding on a scale few have considered, with want and need and desire all mangled into a single dwelling place for millions of souls.

Of late, however, the city has tried to evade all these negative legacies of the past, and has attempted, like so many other cities in India, to rise some more, to transform Cinderella-like into a gleaming metropolis of achievement and promise. Ironically, it is now the foundations of just that growth that are being threatened, the latest of threats to lurk around Kolkata.

Recent development in the city has happened as growth often does at its margins, turning over what were once rice paddies and farmland to the service of massive high-rises.

Some of these grandly named enclaves, which regularly feature words such as ‘elite’ and ‘Beverley’ and ‘field’, house luxury homes for the city’s burgeoning middle class. Others house hive-like offices, where the employees working on this or that outsourced project, billing or logistics or something else, sit in conglomerations, their faces focusing on screens for hours and hours each day.

It would be a win-win for all were it not for the intrusion of uncooperative and angry nature.

The job of creating high-rises from rice paddies has involved reclamation, the sucking out of groundwater that can render the earth less marshy and moist, and more conducive to heavy construction work. Here is ‘new’ land of the sort everyone can build on but that only the fortunate can purchase.

If the rice paddy used the existing marshy nature of the land to grow something from it, the high-rise does the opposite; it changes the land so that it can be put to its most lucrative use. And the most lucrative use in the swarming city today is the construction of large vertical buildings that add to the skyline and the developers’ pocket, and that grease the palms of the many city officials who must inevitably be conscripted in the process of squeezing permission from the vast bureaucracy of the Indian state.

It would be a win-win for all, save the rice paddies, were it not for the annoying intrusion of uncooperative nature, more specifically the wrath and retort of nature in the form of climate change.

As the seas in the Bay of Bengal have risen, and research shows that they have done so at an inordinately fast rate, the groundwater that has been sucked out of the land to provide for the building of these luxury towers and office complexes is rising again. When the groundwater rises, the land can become soggy and waterlogged, which is not the sort of territory on which one wishes to lay the foundation of any building, let alone a high-rise.

Nor is this the sum of the cataclysm to come. The elimination of the rice paddies and the shrinking of the mangrove-laden coastal plain mean that the buffer zone between the sea and its storms and the city has shrunk also. The threat to the city lies not only underneath it, but in the winds and gales and cyclones that can blow their way into this home of many millions, potentially taking the lives of many thousands.

Karachi, which does not have a buffer zone between itself and the Arabian Sea, faces many of the same challenges. For a number of years now, development on the coast has centred on the reclamation of land where the elimination of groundwater is the magic recipe for the production of more real estate to be sold at high prices.

As in the case of Kolkata, the same actors, a cabal of developers and bureaucrats and investors are known to collude to make the deals happen. Within months, a new construction can be seen pushing the sea further out, while piling floor after floor on unsteady ground. The recently constructed malls and high-rises that house many of Karachi’s favourite shopping and eating and living places are all in this zone, their aspirational names nearly identical to those in the country next door.

As in the Bay of Bengal, the waters of the Arabian Sea are also rising. As this water rises, the land reclaimed by the elimination of groundwater is likely to experience new seepage as the water table under the ground rises and the sea comes closer. There is no large-scale cyclone or catastrophic storm that has to happen to set the winds of this kind of change in motion. It is happening, every day, underneath the feet of unsuspecting Karachiites.

At the moment, those who live closest to the sea in Pakistan’s city by the sea are believed to be the luckiest, the most fortunate, the ones with enough lucre to pad a seaside existence. Even while many of these fortunate ones are educated, even highly educated, they exhibit a sort of wilful ignorance of the threat to which they are most vulnerable. This sort of denial is also not new to the human race. After all, the ruins of Pompeii are full of those who just kept doing what they were doing as the skies darkened, the ash fell and ultimately the eruption happened, engulfing all and destroying all.

One wonders, then, which of the inhabitants of the subcontinent’s sinking cities, Kolkata and Karachi and Mumbai and many more, will be the ones whose deaths will be the anathemas of the next age. ‘Why didn’t they know they were sinking? Why did they build such tall castles on such sinking earth?’ Perhaps those future generations will also have the answers to this riddle.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2018