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A policy capping human density is what India needs for its flood-prone cities

Close to 1,700 people died in 14 states and more than 20 lakh were evacuated to shelter camps by September this year due to floods.

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During this year’s Indian monsoon, several Indian states, one after the other, have been battered by nature’s unrestrained fury in the form of torrential rains and floods. By the end of September, more than 1,600 deaths in 14 states were reported. A staggering 2.2 million people were evacuated and transferred to shelter camps. Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, West Bengal and Assam in the east, Kerala and Karnataka in the south, Orissa and Bihar in the east — have all faced the fury of floods.

Indian cities have not escaped this fate. Mega cities, state capitals, metropolitan cities and smaller cities have all been hit by extremely heavy downpours, in many cases in an unprecedented manner. Invariably, they have exceeded the capacity of cities and towns to drain this water out, culminating in huge waterlogging. The results at the city level have been loss of economy, employment and infrastructure. At the individual level people have suffered loss of lives, property and days of untold misery.

The latest in this annual flood series was Bihar. Its capital city Patna, received focused attention precisely on account of being the state capital. But while Patna has received disproportionate attention, the fate of other cities and towns in Bihar has not been different. Many of them went under water and stayed in that condition for several days.

This article does not wish to get into any kind of political discourse. What we are concerned with are the reasons for the deluge in Bihar and in Indian cities and what should be done about it. Typically, Bihar’s annual tryst with floods is largely owing to the state’s geography. Bihar is located at the end point of many mighty rivers that flow down from Nepal into India and assume fearsome shape by the time they reach Bihar. This is an issue that is partly international and needs to be tackled by the triumvirate of Governments of India, Nepal and Bihar. Thirdly, the chief minister of Bihar is on record alleging that the Ganges has been subjected to heavy silting due to the Farakka Barrage. This has reduced the dimensions of the river leading to its reduced carrying capacity and increased flooding in the state. The allegation is undeniable, but its resolution is beset with serious sets of national and inter-state interests.

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Patna is itself situated in a rather odd position, surrounded as it is by the three rivers of the Ganga, Sone and Punpun. Therefore, it runs serious risk of inundation if the rivers are in spate. If they happen to overflow simultaneously, the situation may become proportionately more horrific. As a consequence, the city has faced deluge several times in the past.

While the above reasons are at a macro level and cannot be laid on the doors of the state or city administration, cities around the country must face their own fair share of blame. These urban causes relate both to urban planning and urban governance. On the planning side, cities are guilty of undermining at least four vital elements – neglecting storm water drains, filling up water-carrying nullahs, reducing and concretising open space and piling up both built and demographic density. On the governance side, cities are guilty of ignoring unauthorised construction, failing to prevent encroachments especially on water bodies and overlooking the maintenance and upkeep of the city’s overall drainage infrastructure.

Storm water drains, generally built at the edge of roads, are designed to drain excess water from impermeable surfaces such as footpaths, streets and roofs and empty this water into a larger water system. Most cities in India do not have storm water drains, some have them in select localities and still others have poor inter-connection. Above all, almost all the urban storm water drains over time get clogged with mud and material. Their utility rate, as a consequence, gets reduced to near zero.

A further recent practice in cities is to cover the water-draining nullahs by inserting concrete drain pipes and building roads over them. Mounting city traffic congestion is sought to be relieved by this dodgy short-cut; but this seriously hampers the capacity of nullahs as well as their maintenance. Furthermore, open spaces are unnecessarily concretised, leaving less permeable land in the city. All this happens primarily on account of demographic pressure that on the one hand generates need for more living space and on the other, mounting traffic snarls create demand for more traffic space. More open spaces of the cities thereby get converted into built space.

Cities have also been guilty of papering over governance issues that keep surfacing from time to time. There is no city in the country that could claim that unauthorised constructions have not proliferated despite anti-encroachment drives. Developers especially look for public land and water bodies as they are the easiest victims. Rivers, lakes, nullahs and ponds have either disappeared or have been made to dry up in the process of being readied for construction. Unfortunately, not much thought is still being given to these facets of a city and the results are there for all to see.

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Two prominent conclusions can be drawn from the analysis above. One of them is the proactive engagement of cities with fresh infrastructure and utter neglect of the role of maintaining what has been already constructed. Non-maintenance or poor maintenance over time results in infrastructure dystrophy and at a point such infrastructure ceases to perform its function.

The second is an overload of human density beyond the carrying capacity of cities. Population addition demands space for every incoming individual, and many of these demands require construction. These comprise, inter alia, housing, work place, road space, school, hospital and recreation. Furthermore, the city must make arrangements for more water, sanitation, disposal of more waste and such other activities that each individual generates. But the environment, apart from several other things, also demands openness and open lands. These adversarial demands can be satisfied only if the two are balanced. And this balance requires a cap on the human footprint in the city. All the hue and cry about everything would be for nothing if the root problem of rampant human footprint expansion in cities is a question that continues to be brushed under the carpet.

Nationally, therefore, we need to closely look at this aspect of city bariatrics and articulate a policy that would disincentivise demographic density beyond an accepted limit based on the tripod of economic, environmental and social sustainability. A sizeable programme would have to be initiated at the same time, such that it invests in encourage the growth of other cities that possess the potential of standing up as countermagnets of sustainable urbanisation to the larger and denser cities.

The author is is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views are personal.

This article was first published on ORF.

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  1. Impractical. Half of Bombay’s population resides in slums. If this is the extent of unauthorised construction – recall the recent regularisation of unauthorised colonies in Delhi – one cannot expect enforcement of density norms in our cities. Consider the case of Assam, where the floodplains see so much havoc, year after year. 2. Instead, cities need to invest more in better drainage systems, not allow what happened in Patna recently to first occur and then linger on for so long. We are a very long way from enforcing town and city planning norms that might work in England.

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