Torrential rains, urban flooding and the saga of poor infra planning

Tikender Singh Panwar

Submerged Bengaluru roads, flooded rivers in Kerala and rains wreaking havoc in Himachal Pradesh – are the abiding images of this year’s monsoon. In Himachal, an estimated 200 people have died in two months since the onset of the monsoon. The rains affected everyday life in several parts of the country, and neighbouring Pakistan experienced one of its worst floods. Pakistan contributes less than 1 per cent of the global carbon emissions but is facing the severe wrath of climate change.

Predominantly in South Asia, where the impact of climate change is severe, there are significant losses to lives and assets. The development strategies adopted in the region for hard infrastructure without credence to the overall ecosystem have increased the vulnerability of people and the lands. Hence, the loss is increasing with every passing year due to inadequate attention or not prioritising the question of adaptability issues. Let us take two examples.

The Himalayas need a different development paradigm: The first one is from Himachal Pradesh, a state in the lap of the Himalayas, one of the youngest ranges of mountains in the world. Many geologists and climate experts, including the IPCC report, state that proper attention must be paid to this region. As the Himalayas are a source of one of the major river systems in the world, from the Ganges to Satluj, Beas, Ravi, etc., there are ecosystems linked to these river systems. These river systems are also a source of tremendous hydropower potential. Just in Himachal Pradesh, the hydropower potential is around 30,000 MW, nearly 10,000 MW already harnessed.

The hydropower plants pose significant challenges in the Himalayas, particularly in Himachal Pradesh, where both the large dam and the ‘run of the river dam’ technologies have been used. In the large dam technology – Bhakra, Pong, and Koldam dams are examples – a large land mass was submerged, and people lost lands they had cultivated for ages. It is estimated that more than 1 lakh hectares of fertile land in Himachal got submerged in the hydropower projects. 

The ‘run of the river dam’ technology is different. Here a potential difference to generate energy is created through a surge shaft by conduiting the river in the head race tunnel through the mountains and thus, throwing water on the turbines, generating energy. This may sound good. But this is equally bad as conduiting the river through the mountains is like burrowing the mountain and affecting the entire ecosystem. It affects the water system, the layers of rocks, agriculture and horticulture in the mountains.

The drilling of the mountains is one of the primary reasons for triggering the massive landslides taking place in the Himalayan region of the state, particularly in the Kullu and Kinnaur districts. Many people died because of these landslides, which get accentuated during the monsoon season, as witnessed recently. The Nathpa village in Kinnaur has lost its identity and had to be displaced to another place owing to continuous landslides.

Hence, the large dam construction and the latest technologies have adversely impacted the Himachal state. The peoples’ response has reached such a level where a movement of the tribals has taken a new turn with the slogan “No Means NO”. The tribals have given this slogan of no more hydropower projects in the Kinnaur district and are vociferously opposing them. The movement may soon seek even decommissioning of some of the hydropower projects. Likewise, the construction of national highways and the widening of existing roads in the state from two to four lanes is triggering massive landslides, thus, impacting people’s lives.

Under the aegis of multilateral institutions funding these projects in the state, respect for the mountain ecology is a thought of the past. In order to maximise profits from such construction activities, the land is cut vertically, ensuring more space, instead of cutting it into terraces. This is one of the principal reasons for triggering massive landslides, particularly in the four-lane widening of Bilaspur to Manali highway and Parwanoo to Shimla highway.

Besides, this method also increases the vulnerability of the mountains, particularly the towns, which see a gush of people but not for a long period, rather just for a few days or hours, further spoiling the ecological footprint. What should be the mobility pattern in the mountains is not a sought-after discussion engaging with the people. Instead, it is thrust upon them under the push from the multilateral agencies who pump in lots of credit money to the highway authorities or even state government ensuring that the widening of the roads brings in large guzzlers to the mountains.

The people have been opposing such moves, and under the banner of ‘Bhoomi Adhigrahan Prabhavit Manch’, this group has been fighting the forceful occupation of land.

In fact, the impact of climate change and the development growth trajectory is linked. The state disaster mitigation and adaptation plans must consider such development strategies. And above all, the people’s voices must be heard and incorporated into such projects. Else, there are two parallels going on simultaneously, the development plan and the disaster mitigation and adaptation plan. Both do not speak to each other, but both emanate from each other.

The second example is from the national capital, Delhi. Recent events prove that the development pace and its impact on lives, particularly of recent rains, is widespread. Still, the particular case of the felling of trees for the GPRA (general pool residential accommodation) in Sarojini Nagar is quite interesting.

The Case

This is a redevelopment project which the government itself is allegedly violating, although the Union environment minister stated in Parliament that there were conditions stipulated in the environmental clearances issued to these projects. However, as is evident from a recent study, these conditions have been violated mercilessly.

For example, the contractor’s note under the title “Impacts During Construction Phase – Impact on Topography and Land Use”. It states, “There will not be any change in the land use, land cover or topography as the site is categorised as residential areas as per the development control rules of DDA….hence, it will not alter the topography….” Interestingly, the MoU with the NBCC says explicitly that there will be large-scale commercial and office areas and that the MoU will facilitate changes in the Delhi Master Plan 2021. There is no mention of 8.07 lakh square metres of commercial area anywhere in the EIA report.

The funniest part is that the EIA reports prepared with no ground reality show a “list of villages around the site”. And guess which are these villages – “Parliament Street” and “Connaught Place”. So, both these places now become villages in the EIA report.

Then there are anomalies and anomalies. These run into volumes. The point is that once such a vast open space is taken over for commercial projects, not even documenting its impact on the ecological footprint, it will only worsen the situation. And perhaps one of the principal reasons I have been quoting time and again for urban flooding is the push for such redevelopment projects in the cities. They come under various guises, like the smart city project, central vista, etc.

As it is evident, the rainfall pattern is changing dramatically. There is a trend in the increase in rainfall, but the precipitation occurs in a shorter time period. If it continues, this pattern requires resilient infrastructure, and the core of such infrastructure is creating more open spaces rather than usurping them across the country. This will only increase the vulnerability and endanger people’s lives and assets for no fault of theirs.

This article was first published in Deccan Herald as Increased rainfall, urban flooding and the travesty of our infra planning on August 22, 2022.

Read more by Tikender S. Panwar at IMPRI Insights

Shimla’s Water Crisis- A Man-made Disaster | July 15, 2022

Amendments in The Land Preservation Act | July 15, 2022

Adaptability is Vital to tackle Ecological Disasters | July 9, 2022

The State of Urban Mobility in Hilly Regions | July 1, 2022

Youtube: Watch Tikender Panwar on 3-Days’ Online Training Programme on “Understanding Recurring Heatwaves: Risk, Impact and the Way Forward for Resilience.”

About the Author


Tikender Singh Panwar, former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.