During winter 2015, in the months of November and December southern parts of India witnessed widespread floods. The event was most severe in Chennai city located in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. My memo analyses the linkages between the environmental reasons and failure in urban planning that caused this flood and provides corrective recommendations so that such severe floods may be averted in the future. I have chosen Chennai as a case study. But, this urban policy issue is faced by governments across various states in India and has become a national issue, more particularly since the last decade. Hence, few of my recommendations (recommendation no. 3 and 4) seek to address the concern at the national level.
Climate Patterns and Geographical background of Chennai & the Southern Peninsula
Chennai is a coastal city that lies in the south-eastern part of the Indian Peninsula and gets most of its annual rainfall from the north-east monsoon between the months of September to December. During these months Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone runs roughly parallel above the equator. The southern peninsula (8°-18° N), situated close to the equator comes under the influence of this weather pattern. Erratic low-pressure weather systems develop during these months which intensifies to tropical cyclones causing floods and havoc to the entire stretch of South-East Asia and Indian Peninsula (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha). Also, the El-Nino event influences the cyclones and floods. Chennai’s soil and rock types suggest that the city is historically a floodplain. The city is dotted with wetlands and natural channels where excess water from the city can be drained off.
What went wrong in Dec 2015?
Disruption of natural wetlands due to rapid urbanization: There was a total disconnect between hydrology and urban planning in the city. The recharge structures like lakes, tanks, ponds and other wetlands in the city were disregarded and the natural course of water tampered. This is one of the main reasons for urban flooding in the urban and peri-urban areas. For eg., Pallikaranai marshland situated in the south of the city had been the flood sink area of the city since the 1980s and acts as a sponge to soak up the excess of rainwater. The state of Tamil Nadu only valued the land and not the water body which came to be treated as a wasteland. The city found this marsh most suitable place for urban development and unchecked permissions were given for housing, commercial and industrial constructions. The marshland that was around 5,000 hectares (ha) during independence in 1947, got reduced to almost 600 ha around 2010-11 (close to 90% decrease from its earlier size). The only reason for all this was rapid urbanization.
No Disaster Management Plan put in place: The flood caused great damages to properties and lives, yet there was no proper disaster management plan in the city. The failure was to map out the vulnerable areas of the city and carry out immediate relief work or put up a disaster plan for each area. Even the relief work was carried out independently. Some private agencies were distributing the relief on their own. There was no particular agency to oversee the relief activities.
I recommend the following reforms so that such events may not occur in the future:
1. Amendment of the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act to make land diversion stricter: The conversion of wetlands into lands for other purposes is very easy in the state of Tamil Nadu. Hence, I recommend that the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act may be amended with following provisions
o Projects on the wetlands should be carried over only as a last resort and no projects should be given permission on the Eco-sensitive areas of the wetlands.
o Even for last resort projects, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) under the Environment (Protection) Act (1986), has to be made compulsory.
o The permission of conversion of wetlands to other residential and commercial purposes is to be given by district collector and not by tehsildars, as before.
o Devolving more financial powers to the Corporation of Chennai.
2. Including smaller satellite wetlands under National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme (NWCMP)
o NWCMP is a conservation programme started by the Govt. of India, based on the guidelines of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Though Pallikaranai wetlands are included under this programme, many smaller satellite wetlands surrounding it are not included under the list and hence left uncared. By bringing these small wetlands under the ambit of NWCMP, funds from the federal government can be leveraged and conservation can be upped.
3. Making the City Disaster Management Plan in line with United Nation’s Sendai Framework
o Though the Govt. of India has prepared a City Disaster Management Plan on the aftermath of this incident, the plan has to incorporate several guidelines of Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) — the UN-sponsored global agreement on disaster — to make it more resilient. For eg., the plan is mute on societal resilience as prescribed by the Sendai Framework: a) dissemination of disaster risk information to general public and communities at risk of exposure to disaster; and b) to build the knowledge of government officials at all levels, civil society, communities and volunteers.
4. Creation of National Policy on Sustainable Urbanization:
o The Chennai floods have thrown up some fundamental flaws in India’s system of urban planning. Across India, city after city has experienced floods. In Mumbai, flooding was caused by wrong developments at the Bandra estuary, and in Uttarakhand, the disaster was caused by unplanned regional development. The Srinagar valley suffers from a geographical disadvantage of being the recipient of water from an enormous watershed above the valley. Hence, I recommend that the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs come up with an overarching National Policy for Sustainable Urbanization learning from our past experiences. Such a national policy should address issues listed below:
A. To evolve a spatial structure of human settlements which can integrate the urban and rural settlements on one hand and ecologically sensitive areas on the other.
B. In Medieval India, the Rajput Kingdom in the North, and similarly Chola Kings in the south created small, environment-friendly water bodies and tanks that acted as reservoir and channels of rainwater harvesting. Rani ki vav, in Gujarat that recently got a UNESCO world heritage tag and Veeranam Yeri in Tamil Nadu are few such examples. Hence, the new policy should revive India’s neglected indigenous tradition of water management by laying out a mechanism to protect such existing structures and create more such structures.
C. To put in place a mechanism to encourage people to settle in satellite towns of large metropolitan cities rather than overcrowding the metro cities.
The new policy should be in-line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No.11: better urban planning and management are needed to make the world’s urban spaces more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.