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Chennai can learn from Gandhi

Twenty-first century town-planning must put nature at its heart.

Written by S.N. Sahu |
Updated: December 14, 2015 12:05:27 am
People wait for food at a relief camp in Chennai,Thursday. (Source: PTI) People wait for food at a relief camp in Chennai, Thursday. (Source: PTI)

Jawaharlal Nehru, in his famous “tryst with destiny” speech, referred to disasters and said, “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments”. The recent Chennai floods and the resultant destruction relate to a common theme in the 21st century world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his radio broadcast, linked the mayhem faced by Chennai and Tamil Nadu to the spiralling problem of climate change and global warming. At the climate change summit in Paris, the Chennai floods were cited as a reminder about the need to take urgent steps to address the problem and save the world from such recurring and impending disasters that arise out of excessive human activity and an unsustainable lifestyle.

It’s fascinating to note that the city of Paris faced flood-related devastation in 1910 and Mahatma Gandhi, spearheading the first satyagraha in South Africa, wrote an article called “Paris Havoc” on February 5, 1910 in Indian Opinion. Referring to the flooding of the river that washed away buildings and roads, Gandhiji wrote, “The people of Paris had built the city to last forever,” and sounded the cautionary note, “Nature has given a warning that even the whole of Paris may be destroyed.” Gandhiji then observed that Parisians would not realise the futility of rebuilding palatial structures and said, “Engineers, in their conceit, will have more grandiose plans now and pour out money like water, forgetting and making others forget the deluge; such is the obsession of present-day civilisation.”

Gandhiji’s thoughts, articulated 105 years ago, are now being considered central to the remodelling of our lifestyle to ensure sustainable development. His prophetic words, “Understand Nature’s purposes and ponder over them; all your ostentatious ways will lead you nowhere,” sound like the well-thought-out propositions at the heart of a new world order based on a modest lifestyle, eschewing excessive consumption of energy and resources.

It’s heartening to note that PM Modi, in his Paris speech, stated that “Ultimately, for success, moderating our lifestyle is necessary, and possible, for a low carbon future”. The “Paris Havoc” of 1910, the Chennai havoc of 2015, and the Paris climate change summit, resoundingly teach the world that there’s no alternative to a simplification of lifestyle.

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In the Chennai context, it can be said that our ambitious plan for smart cities needs to embrace the issue of reviving water bodies and the channels that used to act as passages for the excess flow beyond city limits. The predatory commercial instincts of real-estate ventures have converted water bodies and water passages to residential plots. The precedence given to commercial greed would obviously cause havoc.

It’s extremely important to have an architecture of town-planning in which nature’s scheme would be the central plank for growth and development. The alarming occurrence of natural disasters across the world is a warning that our modern civilisation is unsustainable.

Thus, there’s an urgency to remodelling life. It was Gandhiji who wrote, “Multiplication of wants and desires is such a sin that I make bold to say that if Europeans do not remodel their life they would die of their own comforts”. Gandhiji, in his thought-provoking article, provides a remedy for not only saving human civilisation but also the planet. The idea of smart cities — with pedestrian walking space, cycling tracks, robust public transport systems and facilities for rainwater harvesting — sounds good. Such smart cities need to have schemes for addressing disasters we are bound to face recurrently. As early as August 1957, Nehru, in a letter to the chief ministers, wrote, “There is a certain interdependence between man and his environment and any upsetting factor may bring about harmful consequences”.


We need to be mindful of such thoughts and translate them into action.

The writer is joint secretary, Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.

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First published on: 14-12-2015 at 12:05:25 am
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