Urbanisation in India: We must reimagine how our cities are planned

The recent floods in North India serve as a stark reminder to prioritise sustainable urban planning and drainage infrastructure

By Harsh Vats
Published: Wednesday 19 July 2023
Encroachment over the floodplains, both by people and government agencies, is a major contributing factor to the Delhi deluge, according to experts. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Many parts of north and northwestern India, including the national capital Delhi and the upper catchment areas in Himalayan states, experienced a deluge that began in the second week of July 2023. The Yamuna River overflowed, causing the city to experience floods not seen since 1978.

The river reached its highest water level after almost 50 years, leading to evacuation of hundreds of residents living in low-lying areas due to waterlogging. 

Read more: Bengaluru, Lucknow flooding: What do we mean by water-sensitive cities?

While the city was inundated, I shared an image of a Mughal-era painting of the Red Fort on the microblogging site Twitter. The images showed the same area centuries ago, when the Yamuna flowed there naturally. 

The post went viral and accumulated a whopping million views, sparking a discussion on faulty urban planning over Yamuna floodplains. Encroachment over the floodplains, both by people and government agencies, is a major contributing factor to the Delhi deluge, according to experts.

However, this is not unique to Delhi; floods in Bengaluru last year, Chennai in 2015 and Kerala in 2018 were all caused by the same factors. It is a recurring phenomenon in all major Indian cities

It usually only takes one spell of heavy rain in our cities to bring back the usual sights of waterlogged streets, crawling traffic, broken-down automobiles and residents wading in knee-deep water on their two-wheelers. 

Small encroachments over the past few decades are destroying our cities. This harrowing situation is an indication of the lack of urban planning across all major cities.

India has gone through numerous cycles of urbanisation and deurbanisation since the Harappan era. We are currently witnessing a new phase of rapid urbanisation.  

My impression is that within a decade or two, we will have a majority urban population. As a result, a focus on ground realities becomes more than just an idiom for anyone involved in urban policies and environmental challenges.

Read more: How cities can cope with climate change-induced floods

However, it is worth considering what this ground represents, whether literally or metaphorically. The actual foundations of the city are not the physical topography, as most people believe, but rather the water system in which it is embedded. 

Our cities’ current drainage systems are incapable of handling the volume of water during heavy rainfall. India experienced a dramatic transformation as cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad grew into centres of commerce and rapid urbanisation. 

River floodplains, lakes, ponds and other natural waterbodies, as well as wetlands, have been encroached upon as a result of haphazard urbanisation and construction activities. 

Over time, the drainage system has succumbed to encroachment and poor planning. Our cities frequently disregard important aspects of urban planning, such as the sanctity of lakes and waterbodies, or drains! These natural stormwater reservoirs help to store and drain rainwater runoff, reducing the risk of flooding in urban areas. 

Stormwater drains becomes clogged and flooding occurs when such sinks are filled or converted to other land uses. As a result of poor urban planning and climate change-induced extreme weather events, many Indian cities could face devastating floods.

India would need to invest heavily in urban growth to achieve its goal of a $5 trillion gross domestic product by 2030, which can only be accomplished through well-planned urbanisation and the creation of necessary infrastructure. 

Amitabh Kant, India’s Sherpa for Group of 20 or G20, emphasised the importance of a master plan, a strategic urban planning document, at a recent gathering of Urban-20 City Sherpas. Similar requests have been made in the past too. 

Read more: What Chennai (and India) must do to prevent urban flooding

Master plans have recently received a lot of attention in national policy discussions and rightly so. The plan would specify how a city should develop across zones, both vertically and horizontally, while maintaining a high quality of life in a sustainable manner. 

Urban flooding needs to be fixed with a comprehensive plan that includes better urban planning, better infrastructure, sustainable drainage systems, good maintenance practices and community involvement. 

Flood-proofing Indian cities would necessitate a number of steps, including a shift away from filling up waterbodies and towards improving sewage and stormwater drainage networks. 

Overflowing rivers must be desilted on a regular basis. More investment is needed in flood-resistant infrastructure and simulation capabilities to identify flooding hotspots and flood risk maps as rainfall patterns and intensity change.

Data-driven policy formulation and implementation is unquestionably the way to go. Over the last few years, the volume of data created, processed and evaluated in the planning and infrastructure sectors has increased rapidly around the world, including India. 

Insights into urban planning have evolved as a result of the growing availability of data. Engineers, surveyors and urban planners can use Geographic Information System (GIS) to create and map their cities and neighbourhoods. 

Read more: Urban flooding around the world: Where is India placed?

GIS can help with the storage, manipulation and analysis of a city’s physical, social and economic data. Visualisation, geographic analysis and spatial modelling are the most commonly used GIS functions in planning. 

Planners can use GIS’s spatial query and mapping functions to assess the current state of the city. GIS can help identify areas where land development conflicts with the environment through map overlay analysis. 

Given that India’s urban population is expected to double in the next 25 years, it is critical to use urban planning to meet both sustainable development goals and the demands of this urbanisation wave. 

The recent floods in North India serve as a stark reminder to policymakers to prioritise sustainable urban planning and drainage infrastructure. Cities must have effective urban policy, governance and use of technology in order to become growth engines.

Harsh Vats works with the Department of Geophysics, Kurukshetra University and Geosciences Department, Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Indian Space Research Organization.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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