I begin by acknowledging that climate change is real, extreme weather events are more frequent than ever and megacities of India are facing unprecedented development pressures.
While currently, we are witnessing the flooding of regions across Northwest India, especially in the national capital, similar incidents of floods, earthquakes, air pollution, traffic congestion, etc are recurring each year, where we witness our systems come to a near collapse.
In effect, what we do when the situation is “normal” determines how well we are prepared when such extreme weather events occur. I will not dwell on the hydrological and infrastructure issues that exacerbated the flooding situation witnessed in Delhi-NCR recently. Instead, I will focus on another important issue underlying the core of the urban flooding conundrum: the challenge largely being a governance problem.
Not Another New Policy and Committee, Please!
Policies exist and responsible departments and committees on paper already exist. For instance, the National Disaster Management Guidelines for Management of Urban Flooding 2010, the Functional Plan on Drainage for NCR published in 2016, a revised Drainage Master Plan for Delhi - a study conducted by IIT Delhi for the I&FC Department in 2018 (previously Drainage Master Plan for Delhi was prepared in 1976) already exist in the public domain.
What lacks are action plans identifying specific projects based on these policies and inspection reports of on-field actions undertaken by these committees.
Therefore, implementing the basics first: protecting the greens, curbing new unauthorised concretisation, separating the stormwater drains from the sewer network, and ensuring waste segregation and treatment are keys to addressing this problem.
Don’t Keep Critical Government Posts Vacant!
In a case like Delhi-NCR, which is geographically spread across multiple states, not only inter-state but inter-departmental coordination is warranted. However, the power, and authority required for coordination and alignment between the various stakeholders is a ghastly challenge in itself.
At present, the departments and agencies involved in the urban flooding challenge do not have enough manpower in the right positions to tackle the problem. So the first real tangible step involves filling available sanctioned posts in the government machinery, be it in any department or division.
Every few years, there is a buzz that the top leadership or court is focussing on speeding up recruitment of vacant posts, however, the final implementation of these diktats rarely makes news or is often caught up in a web of litigation over recruitment or promotion rules. The administration needs people who can implement effectively, to begin with!
Government employees go through a rigorous selection process and have to clear highly competitive examinations, however, after recruitment, there are hardly any efforts to upskill and enhance their knowledge base. While additional recruitment might take time, the government must focus on building the capacities of their existing employees, especially those at the junior level.
A notable example of this was seen in Central Delhi areas in Spring 2023, where the gardeners transformed the streets and roundabouts into beautiful flower beds, based on their learnings from exposure visits to Singapore, China, and Belgium. Similarly, the Delhi government’s efforts at grooming teachers as leaders by sending them for leadership training and capacity building is a step in the right direction.
Ease of Conducting Business at Intra-Governmental Level
The conduct of business and procedures followed within the government set up needs a transformational revamp. Most of the actionable points emerging from the Drainage Plan or Urban Flood Mitigation Plan or Climate Resilience Plan which the government will put in place as the response will need to be implemented or procured through the rules and procedures such as the General Financial Rules, 2017 and Government e-Marketplace (GeM) portal, which is a government-owned public procurement portal for ensuring judicious and prudent use of the taxpayer's money.
However, the resultant action is that the procedures are so long drawn with multiple layers of hierarchy and administrative approvals, that even the most well-intended actions do not see the light of the day, and get caught in the web of administrative procedures and fear of audit objections.
Oftentimes, the materials, goods, and services procured through such processes are overpriced than market value (compared to the value of the same product purchased through online vending platforms such as Amazon or Flipkart), lacking in quality, and without proper after-sales service. There is a strong need for ease of procedural norms and procuring goods and services locally based on local conditions.
Implementation of Infrastructural Solutions
In the aftermath of every major extreme weather event, there is a strong pitch for blue-green infrastructure solutions, which simplistically put is a planned network of natural and semi-natural areas in the city for larger green and permeable open spaces for absorbing water.
When activists, academics, and administrators expect city regions to have blue-green infrastructure solutions, one must also look at what are the motivations of the implementing officers to implement these solutions.
The majority of officers in departments such as I & FC, PWD, water boards, etc, responsible for dealing deal with the urban flooding challenge, are filled with engineers, especially from civil engineering backgrounds. When the departmental year-end performance appraisal is based on outcomes such as the length of roads and drains constructed (obviously using hard material such as concrete) and kilometers of desilting done, then how can the city expect the officials to implement blue-green infra solutions? Targeted outcomes for climate-resilient actions in the city must be incorporated into the annual outcome budgeting of departments in the city.
It almost feels like we are not learning anything from previous events, even a force majeure event like the COVID 19 pandemic has hardly made the authorities sit up and make a course correction. While we all want sustainability, there is no real sense of urgency towards achieving it. Like everything, things came back to business as usual and the power structures continued their status. The urban flooding and climate resilience story will ultimately need to be tackled at the structural and governance level first.
(Aditya Ajith is an urban researcher and co-founder of Corurban Foundation, a social impact organisation based out of Delhi-NCR working with rural and urban low-income communities. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)