Disasters Beyond the City: Urban Development and Environmental Risks in the Eastern Himalayas

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Abhinav Alakshendra and Arjun Kumar

India is urbanizing and currently a large share of its population resides in small and medium towns. Therefore, in 2011, 312 million people were living in urban settlements with the population between 5000 and 1 lakh. Whereas, on the other hand only 265 million were in large cities. In India, cities are considered to be the engines of economic growth. Therefore, small and medium towns suffer in various ways due to the same. Thus, a major cause of concern in India is that the coverage of basic urban services in such small and medium towns has been way lower in comparison to any large cities. It is essential to note that such deprivation is more prominent in least developed states of India.

In a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global on Disasters Beyond the City: Urban Development and Environmental Risks in the Eastern Himalayas, Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay explains that the percentage of people living below the poverty line increases as one moves down in the size of towns both nationally and regionally. He further adds that, poor quality of infrastructure in these towns further leads to economic stagnation and disturbs their potential to grow. Unfortunately, in India, development, research and action has often overlooked the social, political and economic dynamics of these smaller cities. Therefore, it is imperative to focus on the range of institutions, individuals and governance of small cities. It is vital to understand how such specificities and social, cultural and historical context of such cities mutually interact with one another.


Dr. Andrew Rumbach, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University discusses findings of a four-year long study in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. He initially comments – India has a lower urban population and it will only grow in the coming years which will be concentrated in smaller cities. With respect to rural urbanization in India, he explains that he referred to medium and large villages that were home to almost 460 million people in 2011. He further explained the concept of census towns which are towns that are considered urban with respect to the size of the population but are rural in terms of their governance. Lately, he showed that contemporary villages have characteristics similar to the cities.

He explains that urbanization is a major driver of disaster risk in Asia. This happens in two ways:

  1. Exposure: As cities grow spatially, more and more land which was exposed to hazards gets occupied. For example, a city that has grown from a very stable ridge top, started to become more exposed to hazards as it expanded.
  2. Vulnerability:  It is a complex idea, where certain people, group or assets become more susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. 

Thus, Dr, Rumbach explains that disasters are not just about the earthquake or landslides but also about the people and how they experience the same. Therefore, literature shows that urbanization that has increased both exposure and vulnerability. Dr. Rumbach, focuses on answering the following: “How is India’s urban transformation beyond the city shaping disaster risk?”  He explains that fast urbanizing rural places lack research. Due to lack of research, there is a need to first build a fundamental base.

While discussing his research study on beautiful but challenging landscape of Darjeeling district in terms of the urban development perspective, he explains that in this district, natural hazards are of two types: Landslides and earthquakes.

His research uses the MOVE framework, a holistic approach which incorporates hazards, issues of vulnerability, how governance intercedes in risk creating process and it reduce risks. It is a conceptual framework and flexible to use multiple variables. The five study areas were: Pulbazar, Lebong, Lower Chibbo, Dungra and Pedong and 139 households were covered in the study. These were selected in order to cover all different types fast urbanizing rural places.

Built Environment Change 2006-2017

Study Area2016/17 Buildings% increase in 10 years2016/17 Roads% increase in 10 years
Dungra4499+38%15.9 km+29%
Lebong1471+40%18.0 km+14%
Lower Chibbo2531+42%27.8 km+39%
Pedong5825+55%63.1 km+67%
Pulbazar814+43%11.1 km+82%

There are 43% of the buildings built in last decade in Dungra on steep slopes which increase the risk of destruction from disasters from landslides. As per the research, all areas observed a high growth over the past couple of years pertaining to higher investment and thus enhancing prosperity.

Dr. Rumbach, discusses two variables such as: exposure element (economic dimension of vulnerability and what kind of resources are used during the hazards) and risk governance.

With respect to economic dimension of vulnerability, income inequalities have been observed. Still 25% of the populous survive on monthly income of less than Rs 2000. Since income is a seasonable variable, that is, it depends not only on agriculture but also on tourism which make them vulnerable to shocks as a sudden shock in high season will wipe out the annual income. The study also found out that the government schemes and programs have made available the bank facilities to the people and they have access to financial institutions which can transfer huge resources at once in times of disasters. Due to changing occupation structure in these hilly regions from agriculture to other sectors such as construction, tourism and education at both higher and lower levels making them more vulnerable to disasters since these occupations are seasonal. People won’t be able to send their kids to schools and tourism will halt if landslide persists. If district suffers earthquake, it may take 20 years to rebuild. Compared to agriculture, these industries are more vulnerable to shocks

Risk governance is the kind of decisions and actions taken by the formal stakeholders in order to handle, mitigate, transfer, accept and avoid risk. Thus, it is imperative to note, one cannot completely get away with all risks and planners can always have an acceptable amount of risks in the region. The research showed, that development regulation in these areas was piecemeal and not sensitive to natural hazards due to lack of expertise in the planning department. The building codes and regulations are the vestiges of colonial period which have not been modifies over time.

The survey showed that the households understand these risks and worry about their livelihood and assets. There is very low penetration of insurance products in the regions where only 3% is having health insurance and 1% have access to property insurance. Thus, it makes them dependent upon the state to save them from disasters.   

Dr. Rumbach, quotes a planner: “No building plan was ever rejected in the last municipal government. There is no town planning, no long-term thinking. You give them 10,000 bucks (permit fee) and that’s it.” He further discusses, how lenient this entire process has been and has been lacking urban development schemes such as health insurance and property insurance. These areas have response plans which are not of much help and limited resources for the NGO sector.

Furthermore, Dr. Rumbach, concluded with some key takeaways and they are as follows:

  • Urbanization has transformed towns and villages, definitely brought about changes in employment.  
  • A mismatch of pace and scale of urbanization, he further argues that urbanization could be force for vulnerability reduction but is instead largely unmanaged. This is also because urbanizing places are still governed as rural.
  • Urbanization is largely invisible to urban scholars and policymakers.
  • Urbanization has reduced some of the key factors of vulnerability in these areas, particularly in the case of everyday hazards and disasters but it has also produced some new landscapes of risks.

Acknowledgements: Kashika Chadha is a research intern at IMPRI and is currently doing her master’s in public policy from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai

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