“Welcome to Smart City Guwahati,” says the home page of Guwahati Smart City Ltd, while attractive visuals provide the viewer with a sense of what the city will look like in the future.
Right now, however, as the first monsoon showers have just arrived in Assam, thousands of residents of Guwahati are suffering for flooding, caused mostly due to a poor network of clogged and unscientifically constructed drains. At least five persons have been killed due to the flooding of the city, among them a 12-year old schoolboy who was electrocuted when he had just gone out of his house on the upscale RG Barua Road Tuesday. The district magistrate has ordered an inquiry into the deaths, while Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has announced ex gratia of Rs 4 lakh each.
On May 3, minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose portfolios include Guwahati Development, had called a high-level meeting for launching “Mission Flood-Free Guwahati” aimed at relieving the city from artificial floods. Though things started moving to an extent, several flood-mitigation and drainage projects remain incomplete.
Guwahati East legislator Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, whose constituency covers about one-third of the city proper, blames it on delay in carrying out drainage improvement measures. “Work on the drainage system should have been completed much before the rains had arrived. Things would not have turned so bad as on Tuesday had there been a little bit of better planning. Moreover, settlement on the city’s hills has been another reason behind clogging of drains by silt,” Bhattacharyya said.
Guwahati’s topography, which gives it the shape of trough, makes it highly prone to waterlogging, and this is not a new problem. Back in the mid-19th century, when the British had consolidated their control over Assam, they preferred Shillong over Guwahati to set up the capital because of the unhealthy marsh that the latter was. “The lowness of the ground. in consequence of which a great portion of it is, during the rains, covered with water, and in the cold season converted into a series of swamps, offers a very great obstacle to the effecting of any thorough improvement,” A McLean, then medical in-charge of ‘Gowhatty’, had written to A J M Mills, judge, in a report in 1853.
“Flood is a natural disaster. But Guwahati’s artificial flood is the people’s own creation,” the Kamrup (Metro) administration stated Thursday, as deputy commissioner M Angamuthu spent the last three days inspecting every locality that has been badly affected. “Rapid urbanisation, encroachment, settlement and construction on natural water-bodies, destruction and encroachment of the cities hills are major reasons behind the artificial floods.”
The Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) has identified a number of reasons behind urban floods in Guwahati. These include lack of drainage, unmanaged solid waste, reclamation of low-lying lands and unchecked or unplanned urban growth, hill cutting etc. Another reason is the high intensity of rainfall occurring in a very short duration, it has stated.
“The city doesn’t have a planned drainage system to take care of sewage or waste water which is being generated, so the natural channels become all the more important. Guwahati’s drainage system depends heavily on the existing natural drains. The conditions of these channels are not very convincing as they are constantly covered with garbage, waste material and sewage,” ASDMA stated in a report in July 2014.
It suggested a dozen urgent measures to mitigate the problem. These included continuous desiltation and clearing of drains and rivers, strict penalty on those dumping garbage in drains and water-bodies, removing encroachment from the water-bodies, making rainwater harvesting mandatory in building permission bylaws, restriction on plastic/polythene use, prohibition on hill cutting, putting in place a scientific stormwater drainage network, and uniform road levels.
While major eviction drives have been carried out in Silsako Beel, the other beels (wetlands) are still under the grip of encroachers. One wetland, Bondajan, which functions as an outflow channel to the Brahmaputra, is on the verge of extinction despite a notification declaring it protected.
The most serious problem facing hilly regions is deforestation. Its effects, if unchecked, can bring about permanent ecological harm with dramatic increase in flash floods problem in Guwahati. The city has two important Acts — the Guwahati Waterbodies (Preservation & Conservation) Act of 2008 and the Assam Hill Land and Ecological Sites (Protection & Management) Act of 2006 that could be effectively used to tackle encroachment and settlement on wetlands and hills that are fast disappearing in Guwahati.
The Assam government has proposed expansion of Guwahati’s metropolitan area. This envisages inclusion of over 1,000 villages and 30 urban centres spread over 15 revenue circles in five adjoining districts – Kamrup, South Kamrup, Nalbari, Darrang and Morigaon – in addition to the entire Kamrup (Metro) district.
Even as Guwahati has found a place in the list of Smart Cities, the nine “set target areas” identified under the Smart City Mission does not include any dealing with Guwahati’s drainage problem, flood mitigation and protecting its water-bodies and hills.