‘Development’ and floods in Delhi

Arun Kumar

Development has come to be equated only with growing production and higher GDP growth. This is sought to be achieved via hugely expensive and environmentally damaging urbanisation, the effect of which Delhi is reeling from.

Over the past few weeks, many parts of North India have faced severe flooding, landslides and deaths. The unprecedented floods in Delhi have brought this crisis to national and international attention. The water level in the river Yamuna reached a record high of 208.66 metres, much above the last great flood in Delhi in 1978 – when it had reached 207.49 metres. Yamuna, before it changed its course, used to flow by the ramparts of the Red Fort and once again has arrived there. It has led to the flooding of several projects of ‘development’ – water treatment plants, the arterial ring road, rich and poor residential areas, drainage, etc.

Delhi got flooded after the heavy rains stopped in the NCR because of the release of flood waters from the Hathnikund barrage in Haryana, 250 km from Delhi. The waters took three days to reach Delhi. The barrage regulates the flow from the catchment areas in the mountains that have witnessed intense rains and destruction due to landslides. The Delhi government has blamed the Haryana government for the Delhi floods. But two facts make clear that the blame cannot be easily apportioned.

First, the peak water release from Hathnikund, of about 3.5 lakh cusecs, is half of what was sometimes released in the past but did not result in extreme flooding like at present. Second, extreme flooding has not occurred anywhere between the barrage and Delhi. In other words, the record flood in Delhi is not due to unusually high discharge from Hathnikund.

Flow through Delhi impeded

If the problem is not the water coming to Delhi, then it must be the state of Yamuna during its course through Delhi. The water flow must be slowing down and the level of the river bed has risen due to the high rate of sedimentation. These factors would cause water to rise vertically and enter the city. So, what are the ongoing processes affecting the river flow?

Faster the flow of water in the river, less would be the flooding. The flow is being impeded by excessive and unplanned construction in and around the river. The pillars of the many bridges impede water flow. Bunds have been constructed to channel the flow of the river. Large-scale encroachments on the floodplains have come up, like for the Commonwealth Games and the construction of the Akshardham temple. Colonies have sprung up on the floodplains and they were the first to be flooded. Fortunately, the programme to beautify the riverfront has not yet taken off but if it does materialise, it will further aggravate any future crisis.

Discharging polluted water into the river through the various drains/rivers passing through Delhi and its neighbourhood has caused havoc. It not only pollutes the water, causing environmental damage, but also leads to siltation and rise in the level of the river bed. Water hyacinth grows in the polluted water and that further impedes the water flow.

During the dry season, most of the river water is drawn for irrigation, industrial use, etc. Every drop of water flowing through the river is sought to be utilised. This almost completely stops the flow of the river as it crosses Delhi during the dry season, leading to sedimentation and growth of vegetation.

Impact of ‘development’

Yamuna and its tributaries originate in the great and unstable Himalayas. The riparian states, Uttarakhand and Himachal, have seen massive unplanned construction for tourism and defence needs. Roads, hotels and other establishments have sprung up all over. Cutting of trees, hydel power projects and mining have led to the denudation of the steep hill slopes resulting in increased frequency of landslides and land subsidence. The result is sudden floods and a greater amount of sediment in the river water. Haryana and Uttar Pradesh need massive amounts of water for promoting modern agriculture.

The NCR itself is the primary example of ‘rogue’ development. There is huge infrastructure development leading to severe environmental degradation. Any vacant land is sought to be taken over and ‘developed’ – whether it be the flood plains, forests or the ridge. Every inch is sought to be paved for roads, etc. Drains are being covered up for parking and making roads or roads are being constructed over them. With little space for water to go into the soil, even small amounts of rain lead to flooding of roads and colonies.

The well-off sections consume and generate huge amounts of trash which not only goes to overflowing landfills but also into the drains and rivers.

Renovation of homes and offices has become a status symbol. The resulting waste, called malba, is indiscriminately disposed of, causing further environmental problems, including for the overstretched rivers.

Development is equated with growing production and higher GDP growth. This is sought to be achieved via hugely expensive and environmentally damaging urbanisation. This starves the non-urban areas of resources, leaving them with poor infrastructure and weak job creation. The result is massive migration from rural to urban areas and a vicious cycle of increasing cost of urbanisation. Most of the migrants are forced to lead a precarious and uncivilised existence and are the worst sufferers during any calamity, like the flood or the pandemic.

This skewed pattern of development is fuelled by the growing consumerism of the well-off – their luxury consumption, like the purchase of private automobiles. More vehicles on roads lead to air pollution, traffic jams and waste of fuel. This necessitates the building of wide roads, flyovers and metros. Broad highways and bullet trains, etc. are a corollary. Not only do all these add to the pollution, but the paving of the ground also prevents the quick percolation of water into the ground. Often, the natural flow of water is also impeded, leading to flooding.

Short-termism

The unbridled growth of consumerism is at the root of the problem of flooding. First, globally it causes climate change and extreme weather phenomena. Second, it is destabilising the Himalayas leading to more silt in the rivers that raises the river bed and reduces its carrying capacity. Third, discharging effluents in the river. Fourth, attempt to utilise the entire flow of the river water leaving little flow during the dry season. Finally, in the name of ‘development’, construction on any vacant land, like the flood plains.

Climate change is a global phenomenon. India alone cannot check it. Today, every country, including the richest, is facing problems. Currently, record heat is plaguing Africa, Europe, North America, China, Antarctica and the Arctic. Does this mean that India is helpless?

We can follow more rational policies. I wrote an article similar to this one after the 2005 Mumbai floods. But we are not willing to give up rogue development. Mumbai routinely gets flooded and so do other cities like Bangalore and Chennai. Consumerism and environmental degradation were Gandhi’s major concerns.

Indian policymakers have not seen Gandhi as an ideal to emulate. They cater to narrow and short-term vested interests. Misgovernance, cronyism and corruption further compound the problems. Further, any problem is quickly overtaken by other problems, of which there is no dearth, till the next big episode. Finally, in the absence of a will to adopt a holistic approach, the piecemeal solutions turn into new problems, adding to the pre-existing ones.

The current floods are not just due to local issues emanating from either Delhi or Haryana but due to the much bigger problem confronting society, namely, of development promoting consumerism and concentrated urbanisation with its rising congestion costs. Development that has gone rogue pushes India into the growth mania. It needs to be discarded to prevent future catastrophic events and reduce the nation’s vulnerability, especially that of its poor.

This article was first published in The Wire as Development Gone ‘Rogue’ and the High Flood in Delhi on July 20, 2023.

Read more by the author: A Comparative Analysis of India’s Economic Progress Under Nehru and Modi.