Why is India nurturing dengue?

Why is India nurturing dengue?
Patralekha Chatterjee
Mahatma Gandhi’s dismissal of Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India, as a “report of a drain inspector” reflected the squeamishness most Indians feel when it comes to drains. We don’t discuss drains at the dinner table, nor, unfortunately, in political or policy circles unless a crisis erupts. The price of that disdain is now being felt across much of urban India.
With the monsoon in full swing in many parts of the country, choked drains have become headline-grabbers. Delhi, as it undergoes a makeover for the Commonwealth Games (CWG), is the Aedes Aegypti mosquito’s dream site — puddles all around, uncollected garbage, bits and pieces from construction sites piling up along roadsides, waterlogged streets, clogged stormwater drains, and the unsightly spectacle of various local government agencies blaming each other for the mess. At the time of writing, Delhi has already had two dengue deaths, more than 750 dengue cases and a warning from public health experts — the city could be facing its worst dengue attack ever. The poor and the posh are equally at risk since overflowing drains and debris are now all-pervasive.
Dengue, as we know, is a viral disease transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes which like breeding inside stagnant pools of water, typically in small spaces. The Delhi of today provides the best conditions for the Aedes mosquito to thrive. Though the debris from the construction work is indeed choking Delhi’s main stormwater drains, which carry excess rainwater into the Yamuna river, the problem is not entirely new. The haphazardly timed activities in preparation for the CWG merely made it worse. Nor is Delhi alone in neglecting its drainage system. Mumbai, Bengaluru and most other Indian cities have pretty much the same story with some variations.
“There has been an increase in the number of dengue outbreaks in recent years in cities and towns due to mosquitogenic conditions, resulting from rapid urbanisation, development activities and lifestyle changes. The disease is now spreading to peri-urban areas also and lately, there has also been some spread to rural areas. Sewage drains do not play much of a role in fuelling dengue. However, stormwater drains do, when they get choked and overflow, leading to pools of water which create a fertile breeding ground for many species of mosquitoes, including the Aedes”, a spokesperson of the World Health Organisation pointed out.
Constantly changing climate brought about by global warming is also said to be one of the reasons in the increase in the number of dengue cases worldwide. But while climate change is now an acceptable topic of conversation among policy wonks and in polite society, malfunctioning drains get the royal ignore till a disaster strikes.
But the sheer magnitude of the problem is triggering action.
“Stormwater drains is among the most neglected municipal issues. There is a lot of interest in widening roads, building parks, beautification drives and so on. But drains, no... But why blame politicians alone... Citizens and citizens’ bodies are equally callous — throwing plastic bags and refuse into drains...” says Dr Marri Shashidhar Reddy, Congress legislator from Sanathnagar (a residential and industrial suburb of Hyderabad) and a member of the high-powered National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Dr Reddy is among the few people who have been stressing the importance of paying attention to drains for some 20 years.
Why drains get such short shrift is obvious — the visibility quotient of parks, roads, the big-ticket beautification drive is higher than a good drainage system. But all it takes is a good rain storm to lift the veil of pretence, as we have seen in Delhi in recent days.
Absence of a properly designed and maintained stormwater drainage system is one of the causes for urban flooding but till recently this link did not get the policy attention it deserved. Now with increasing urban floods, the issue is coming under the scanner of policymakers.
“Our drains were designed on the basis of rainfall in places like London. They did not factor in the intensity of rainfall in many Indian cities like Mumbai. Because of encroachment and other factors, we are not able to maintain even the original capacity of the drains... Indian cities are not fully covered by a sewerage system. Parts of the city where the poor live are often not connected to the drainage system. But this has to change”, says Dr Reddy who is leading NDMA’s efforts to deal with urban flooding and upgradation of storm water drains in the country.
“All these years, there was no manual at national level for stormwater drains. Now, the Government of India, through NDMA, is preparing a manual for stormwater drains. I do not think any political leader will have the courage to stop remodelling of drains”, Dr Reddy adds. In the pipeline is the National Guidelines for Management of Urban Flooding which will address critical issues like the optimal design of stormwater drainage systems, adaptation strategies, management of water bodies, regulation and enforcement, guidelines for new developments, public awareness and preparedness, medical preparedness and epidemic control and several other things.
An exciting development is the raingauge station which will tell us exactly how much it has rained and where. Another recommendation is to ensure that the annual desilting of drains is completed by March 31, well before the monsoon sets in, so that there is no excuse for delay or incomplete work.
Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic Lung Ying-tai, once proposed a simple test to determine whether a country is a developed or a developing one: “When there is a rainstorm that lasts for three hours or so, take a walk. If you find the legs of your trousers are wet but not muddy, the traffic is slow but not jammed, the streets are slippery but not waterlogged, this is probably a developed country; on the other hand if you find that standing water is everywhere, that children are net fishing over the crossroad, you are probably looking at a developing country.” When will India pass the test?

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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