Seething at one’s Chief Minister (CM) is not hard. When you wade around your city, cellphone in hand, taking calls from slum-displaced women wondering if they will drown or die of thirst, anger at the CM is involuntary. It just happens.
But seething at one CM isn’t logical if you have Delhi on your mind this catastrophic year. Every one of the city-state’s previous CMs has actively contributed to the mega-floods we are experiencing right now.
Delhi didn't become this flood-prone in a day. Its CMs and planners have been violating the essentials of planning and ecology for over 65 years.
Rivers such as the Yamuna naturally flood every season, spreading the rich alluvial soil they bring from the glaciers into the floodplains. This makes the Indo-Gangetic belt so fertile. During intense rainfall, it is this zone that ought to turn into an unobstructed, roaring, brown force of nature. Some of the water will recharge the aquifers and most of it will move downstream. It is possible that some of the water will also fall outside these floodplains. If the floodplain is free of major human interventions, this event might be less ferocious than what we are currently experiencing.
The Worst Affected Areas of Delhi
When floodplains are obstructed, rainwater cannot be absorbed. There is simply too much concrete, and many structures function like small dams, blocking the flow. That forces the waters to rise rapidly and overflow.
The Yamuna activist, the late Manoj Misra once suggested that the river’s floodplain ought to be about a kilometer at least on both sides of the river. The ongoing flood suggests this is reasonable, for the flooded river has only marginally crossed this boundary. We are seeing knee-deep waters at Raj Ghat, ITO, and swathes of areas in east Delhi, apart from almost drowning Civil Lines and Wazirabad out.
The most iconic piece of infrastructure near the Yamuna is the Ring Road of 1956, built in the optimistic spirit of a brave new country. Nearby, the Pragati power plant, originally a coal-fired power plant that blackened the lungs of millions, is poorly cited. Decommissioned, its skeleton still stands.
The Commonwealth Games Village from the previous CM's regime, along with the Yamuna Velodrome and what is the Delhi Secretariat, are all squatters on the floodplains. East Delhi, now the densest part of the city is also low-lying, a natural topography to cradle water and absorb it in its shaky, sandy foundation. Developing this part of the city despite knowing its propensity to flood has also endangered the property, assets, and health of lakhs of inhabitants.
Obstruction has spilled over to several of Delhi’s stormwater drains too. Like the riverbed and its floodplains, they have also been blocked with plastics from smaller drains, illegally dumped construction and demolition waste, and other built structures. Consequently, micro-floods have terrified slum dwellers and others even in south Delhi.
Historically, this became possible because of three factors.
Topography, Planning, and Administration
First, contempt for Delhi’s natural boundaries and topography has only intensified over the decades. From ambivalence in the '70s to hostility in the 2000s, the CMs began thinking of land as sterile if not able to yield tangible infrastructural or monetary value. Seeking the kind of value from land that it is unable to continuously offer while rejecting what it is naturally designed to do, strips it of its inherent value. Denuding the water-conserving Southern Ridge forest at water-deficient Vasant Kunj to build malls is a case in point.
Second, the first Masterplan of Delhi of 1962 rapidly turned into a theoretical exercise from the '80s because it has been steadily reduced in subsequent avatars. Correcting the errors was never considered. Research by Sahja Manch, an organisation that supports the urban poor in Delhi, showed that from 1981 to 2001 the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was expected to construct 16 lakh houses. At least 70 percent of them were to be for the poor but only 5.5 lakh houses were ever built. Of these, 58 percent were eventually allotted to the urban poor. That might have reduced the numbers in slums, some of which are on the floodplains and many along nullahs in the city.
Third, the relationship between successive CMs and their teams and public environmentalists has often been tense, with no space to discuss.
Often, members of the public, such as NGOs or others, have been dismissed as publicity-hungry troublemakers. But the Delhi government has simultaneously remained systemically overwhelmed. With the chronic understaffing at the Delhi Pollution Control Board, frequent and dramatic pollution-related events, uneven talent acquisition, little power for scientists, and multiple charges for civil servants who lead the relevant departments, it has been unable to bat for the environment as a central issue. What Delhi needs is less mistrust and more difficult conversations to address life-altering challenges between the two sectors. That has rarely happened.
What is to Be Done?
We are in a climate emergency. We can’t dwell on the past alone. We know piecemeal ideas that nibble at the problem are no solution. Planting lakhs of native trees won't de-occupy the floodplain, which is key to blunting the impact of the next flood. An improved warning system doesn’t stop widespread loss and disease. So let’s attend to the core issue in Delhi’s floods today: How essential is the clearing of the floodplain for Delhi’s resilience?
In an ideal scenario, much of the existing infrastructure and buildings on the floodplains should be removed because we know with certainty that climate change and its extreme weather events are here to stay. Doing this is agile adaptation. The trick lies in what is brought down. A cluster-wide approach makes managing the project easier. A quick scan suggests the defunct power plant, the Yamuna Velodrome, and even the Delhi Secretariat. And dare I say this-the CWG flats, with robust compensation to those who have bought these.
The Yamuna rejuvenation should follow the total no-go logic for the floodplains. Moreover, all proposed projects should also be rapidly re-examined. A proposed food-and-walking plan at the Salimgarh Fort side of Red Fort (where the Yamuna once flowed and has currently flooded) may have to be relocated, for instance.
Many will worry about the air pollution involved in breaking buildings-and they are right. It will, even if done reasonably well. Mercifully, many of the buildings are some distance from residential areas. Yet, breaking these leaves everyone safer in the coming years. Delhi has been overhauled several times this century, from the Commonwealth Games to the Central Vista. All of these are controversial, bold, heavily criticised, ambitious projects. Freeing the floodplains can ride the appetite for bold urban shifts towards sustainability and lifestyles that are pro-environment.
Floodplain restoration is foresighted but likely to be ridiculed and opposed. It can only be led and completed by a gutsy CM who cares more about the future we offer Delhi’s children than their own career. Basically, someone who is truly a patriot.
Many might call this impractical -- where is the space to build anew, even if finances were available? Delhi certainly contains landbanks but they are not in the heart of the Capital, forcing us to think about relocating this urban body part. It is unforgivable not to make amends after the 2023 floods. Taking down that which enhanced floods and puts lives in danger is an act of service. Refusing to do this is foolhardy and callous.
(Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and writer, and the founder of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)