Municipalities need to be empowered: Urban planning expert

- July 21, 2023
| By : Mohd Shehwaaz Khan |

Devashish Dhar, an urban planner and ex-public policy specialist at Niti aayog, says failure to preserve natural water bodies, concretisation, as well as poor drainage system are causing massive flooding in major cities like Delhi

<strong>UNDER WATER:</strong> Submerged flood-plains near Yamuna Bank

Delving into the underlying causes of the recent flooding and waterlogging in Delhi, urban planner Devashish Dhar says that neglect of natural ecosystems and water bodies in urban planning has led to reduced drainage capacity and vulnerability to floods.

The former public policy specialist at Niti Aayog has also written a book “India’s Blind Spot: Understanding and Managing Our Cities, in which he sheds light on the broader issue of urban water management in India.

In an interview with Patriot, he also explains how excessive concretisation exacerbates the problem by hindering rainwater infiltration and groundwater recharge. Dhar emphasises the crucial role of rainwater harvesting and the need for empowered municipal bodies equipped to handle frequent floods effectively calling for shift in urban planning, with more attention and resources directed towards managing cities.

Excerpts from the interview:

After extreme rainfall and increased water level of Yamuna recently, we saw frequent flooding and water-logging in Delhi. What are the reasons behind such water-logging?

So let us zoom out of Delhi for a minute. I want to draw your attention to the idea that the fate of civilisation and cities is very closely tied to the water resources whether it is a drought or a flood. It has happened since Harappan time to until now as we are seeing in Delhi and elsewhere. It’s not a new phenomenon. Also, Delhi is not the only city that is suffering. Other cities like Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai in India are suffering from flooding pretty much every other year. Most Indian cities are prone to flooding.

Flooded: Devashish Dhar says neglect of natural ecosystems and water bodies in urban planning has led to floods

First of all, you know our master plans or other plans focus largely on the built-up area like the residential area and so on. They do not really focus on the natural ecosystem, particularly rivers and urban water bodies. 

Secondly, even if we have planned for it, we are still not able to follow that because of the encroachment that happens around the floodplains, wetlands and other water bodies. 

Natural water bodies, which are in a way the first line of defence, are decreasing continuously. These natural water bodies are basins where the excess rainwater could go.

The third problem is that Delhi and other big cities provide massive opportunities. People from all over India come in and start living even in slums and areas near floodplains. 

The problem with this is that that there is not enough supporting infrastructure.

The last reason is the lack of strong drainage system. It is one of the least talked about urban infrastructure projects in India. We’ll talk about big roads among other things. We’ll even talk about toilets. We even talk about housing but we do not talk about two things: one about frequent flood management and the other of strong water drainage because people do not see this infrastructure. There is not a lot of pressure from bureaucracy and elected officials to focus on these things. This is what makes a city function, right? 

How has excessive concretisation impacted the drainage system?

Excessive concretisation is a big issue. The building materials are not permeable. We do not allow the rain water to permeate into the ground. Because of this, it does not reach underground and gets wasted and then the groundwater resources are also depleting and they area also not getting recharged.

What is the role of municipal bodies in this?

Even if we have a strong drainage system, it needs to be desilted every year. There’s a lot of solid waste that blocks the storm-water drainage. This year, 15% of the [total] monsoon rainfall took place in just 12 hours. It is because of climate change that we have received much more rainfall in a short span of time. If we have such an enormous amount of rainfall, our infrastructure is not even ready to handle it and the flooding happens further even if we have strong water drainage [due to solid waste acting as obstruction].

How can rainwater harvesting be used to prevent such severe water-logging? 

Illegal: Encroachment on the Yamuna flood-plain in Yamuna Khadar

When excessive rainfall happens, one of the things that we should do is rainwater harvesting. Having such a structure and system is necessary in Delhi and a lot of other states but it is barely followed anywhere in India. Having such infrastructure would prevent flooding even when it rains excessively, like it happened recently in Delhi. 

Who is responsible for such frequent floods and water logging events during monsoons?

The responsible parties are essentially urban local bodies but before you blame them, we should know that we have not really empowered them. They should have been empowered under the 12th schedule of the 74th Amendment. We cannot really expect them to be able to handle this without much power.

How prepared are we (municipal bodies) to manage such frequent floods?

The capacity at the urban body level is extremely poor because they are understaffed and under-resourced. They’re not prepared. They are still not up to date. So, what happens is there’s a very sub-optimal workforce which cannot manage this. And second is that they are not empowered to manage frequent floods. 

Also, we can’t monitor it like we do for different kinds of cyclones. We have a whole disaster management plan that gets activated, but a successful monitoring plan similar to that is missing.

Because of the waterlogging and floods, Delhi almost came to a standstill. People’s life, productivity was affected because of it.  What could be some of the impacts of bad urban planning?

What is the purpose of cities? Is it to provide jobs? To provide better wages, to increase national economic growth?  But what happens is that there are congestion and other transaction costs like standing in traffic, queues or even living without electricity. All of this is due to poor urban planning which has become like blindspots.

Lost Plants: Submerged nursery at the Yamuna floodplain

I think flooding is one of the many reasons and everyone is party to that poor decision-making. We know that the workforce of municipal bodies is not empowered and they can’t handle these issues. There are a bunch of things that are going wrong and the effects of all the transaction costs coming out of it is increasing manifold.

What could be some of the next steps for preventing such a situation in the distant future?

The problem is that in India we continue to romanticise villages. Around 80% of the budget goes to rural areas. Just to give you some context, the budget of National Rural Health Mission is enormously large as compared to the National Urban Health Mission There are a variety of reasons but I believe [panning] cities should be the next logical step for India We really need to manage the cities.