In the wake of the 2005 Mumbai floods, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) began work on the first ever national guidelines on management of urban flooding. Its report, submitted in 2010, noted that the nature of urban flooding is different from rural flooding with flood volumes six times higher due to impervious surfaces and hence there is a need for a dedicated Urban Flooding unit to be set up under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MHUA).
In July 2012, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders designating the MHUA as the nodal ministry for urban flooding based on the NDMA report which deemed it necessary “to address urban flooding as a separate disaster, delinking it from floods”. However, several years and floods later — including the devastating floods that hit Srinagar (2014) and Chennai (2015), the Urban Flooding unit, that was to be headed by a joint secretary level officer, has still not been established. While the floods in Kerala are unprecedented in scale, the state being the second most urbanised major state in India, such a unit would have played a crucial role in centrally coordinating measures for prevention and mitigation as detailed in the NDMA guidelines. According to Census 2011 data, almost half of Kerala’s population live in urban areas with the state recording a decadal growth of urban population as high as 92 per cent.
Immediately after the Chennai floods of December 2015, The Indian Express had reported on the MHUA’s failure to set up such a unit. The ministry reacted by issuing a Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) for Urban Flooding fixing the roles on state and urban local body-level nodal officers and agencies in case of flooding in towns and cities. The SOP made no mention of the Union ministry’s responsibility as the nodal agency nor did it talk about the urban flooding unit that the country’s apex disaster management body deemed to be mandatory.
“No such unit is in place,” said a ministry spokesperson, adding that the matter would be a state subject. The NDMA report was prepared by a core committee headed by then NDMA vice-chairperson Shashidhar Reddy.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Reddy said that while Kerala is very different from any other urban flood scenario, with 13 of its 14 districts heavily flooded, such matters cannot be left to the state alone.
“The Central Water Commission has always been the nodal agency for flooding but they know nothing about urban hydraulics. Based on the NDMI report, the MHA designated the urban ministry as the nodal agency for urban flooding. But during the Kerala flood, there has been no report on the ministry playing any role as the nodal agency,” said Reddy. He added, “Ultimately it is the state and local administration that has a major role during such disasters. But a central level agency such as the urban ministry could have made disaster management compliance in the development of urban areas a funding precondition and reviewed such plans from time to time.”