"Urban management in India is poor"

Every year during monsoons, many towns in India experience heavy flooding. These floods - some natural, others human-induced - result in a heavy loss of lives and property. ASESH K MAITRA, environmental planner and director, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, discusses the reasons for the floods in interview with VINEET KATARIYA

Published: Sunday 15 November 1998

On why Indian towns cannot take the pressure of heavy rainfall:
Town planning is always based on certain probabilities. If the flood level is higher or the rainfall is much heavier than what is anticipated, it may be difficult to protect the town.

As far as flood management is concerned, no town is planned on an area which is not well drained. Towns are always located on places that are well protected. Also, towns must have access to water resources. But if a town is close to its water source which, at the same time, is its drainage basin, it becomes flood-prone.

On why many towns experience floods during the monsoons:
A certain part of land in a town is normally well protected. If you look at Gorakhpur, you'll find that certain parts of the city are not affected by floods at all. But then our towns have expanded vastly. And while that happens, many surrounding areas which are not adequately protected, also get urbanised.

Secondly, as the process of urbanisation goes on in an area, the rate of run-off increases because more soft area is converted into hard area. Once this happens the run-off rate is also much higher. Drainage system in some areas may not be able to cope with a higher runoff. New built-in areas crop up but infrastructure is not adequately provided for them.

On who is to blame:
The administration in our towns neglect the essential services, especially the drainage system. Most towns do not have drains because they have not been provided in the planning stage. However, in many cases, even the existing drains do not serve the purpose, because they have been allowed to degenerate. The municipalities do not pay adequate attention to these essential services.

On whether floods could be attributed to poor drainage system and not to poor planning:
Floods have caused havoc because of inadequate town planning. The drainage systems have not been able to withstand the unprecedented rains this year.

Above all, basic infrastructure, such as water supply, solid waste disposal and drainage, has been given the last priority. This has nothing to do with planning. There is water logging even in places where proper planning has taken place. Therefore, it is not only because of design, but also poor management that has led to a great deal of suffering.

On Delhi, which is a planned town but is under constant threat from floods:
Delhi is water-logged only in pockets. That is because the drainage system is not maintained properly. Moreover, the areas, which were to be kept under the green belt, have been encroached upon or taken up for development. The drainage basin of the city has been eaten away by unauthorised construction.

In most cases, a city is surrounded by ecologically fragile areas like a flood plain or a lake. In Delhi, we have the Ridge and the Yamuna flood plains. The pressure of population in the towns is so much that these fragile areas tend to get urbanised - both unauthorised and by planned methods as in the case of East Delhi (Trans-Yamuna Belt). These areas at one time were left outside the preview of development. But today, due to population pressure, the expansion is cutting into the fragile areas. This is happening in Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai. Other cities like Ahemedabad and Bangalore are also facing a similar situation.

On the policies that have led to this situation:
Our policy makers have encouraged investment and growth in few mega-cities despite contrary advice. In 1961, the authorities in Delhi were told to stop new offices and relocate existing ones. But no one listened. On the other hand, enormous amount of investments have been made in subsidises to infrastructure.

People come from such a long distance for treatment Just because there are no hospitals in their areas. If money is pumped only into Delhi, there will be no hospitals in other regions. Therefore, people will come to the cities. The same applies to employment opportunities. Majority of immigrants are poor and they come in search of jobs.

The direction of development and financial planning have not responded to these issues adequately. That is one of the reasons why cities are expanding physically, and physical expansion invariably results in this kind of problem.

On the role of urban management:
Urban management in India is shockingly poor. The government is allocating more and more money to megacity projects. The beneficiaries will be only 10 per cent. But the real beneficiaries will be only two per cent, who are rich, due to which other regions are neglected.

This kind of financial mismanagement results in poor urban management. The criteria for allocating funds needs to be re-examined. Money is going into the larger towns while other areas are suffering.

On who is responsible for planning:
The Town and Country Planning Act takes into consideration the environmental factors such as conservation of groundwater, flood plains, ecologically-fragile areas.

However, it requires proper implementation and sustained adherence to the precepts of the plan. But planning in India is not undertaken by the planners, but by the government. We are just the advisers. Planning, like all other sectors, has been usurped by the bureaucracy. There is no participation by the people.

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