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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Anatomy Of The Urban Flood

We must recentre urban planning to take our agrarian pasts into account.

Written by Anant Maringanti | Updated: October 4, 2016 11:25:14 am
India urban planning, urbanisation, agrarian settlement, Indian farmers, urban floods, Guwahati floods, india monsoon, poor drainage system, India news Lands are strategically exploited for production, left fallow to recover, left unoccupied to provide buffers against the cycles of excesses of nature. (Photo for representation)

A spectre, to misquote Karl Marx, it appears, is haunting India’s new urbanisation — the spectre of agrarian pasts. In the last 15 years, it has repeatedly stalked Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Guwahati, Srinagar in the form of urban floods. Again, to take liberties with Marx, all the powers of politics, business and technology have apparently entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre — recklessly code named as “nature”. The code serves to absolvea us of guilt. We just need to build smartphone apps to give us early warnings of nature’s mischief. In the worst case scenario, we have the favourite whipping boys — planners — to take all the blame. Neither is nature autonomous from human action, nor is there any masterplan which is free from politics and corporate interest. The fault lies in forgetting our agricultural past and ignoring climate change. It took us centuries to develop the complex systems of values assigned to lands in the agrarian settlement. These values are based on soil conditions, gradient, location relative to other geographic and geological features such as ground water, surface water, drainage patterns etc. Lands were strategically exploited for production, left fallow to recover, left unoccupied to provide buffers against the cycles of excesses of nature. Urbanisation alters this agrarian imprint with new logics of efficiency and economy of service delivery. This is why cadastral maps of an agrarian settlement show fluid zigzag boundaries of property. After land use conversion for urbanisation, the boundaries change into rigid geometric patterns. New logics of revenue categories, new processes of record maintenance, reservation of land parcels for new purposes and installation of new infrastructure erase the agrarian birthmarks of land. Urban policy has, till now, remained oblivious to this dynamic.

It took us centuries to develop the complex systems of values assigned to lands in the agrarian settlement. These values are based on soil conditions, gradient, location relative to other geographic and geological features such as ground water, surface water, drainage patterns etc. Lands were strategically exploited for production, left fallow to recover, left unoccupied to provide buffers against the cycles of excesses of nature. Urbanisation alters this agrarian imprint with new logics of efficiency and economy of service delivery. This is why cadastral maps of an agrarian settlement show fluid zigzag boundaries of property. After land use conversion for urbanisation, the boundaries change into rigid geometric patterns. New logics of revenue categories, new processes of record maintenance, reservation of land parcels for new purposes and installation of new infrastructure erase the agrarian birthmarks of land. Urban policy has, till now, remained oblivious to this dynamic.

In the 1970s, lands that served ecological functions were occupied by the poor who migrated into the city and found no housing. But in the last 20 years, many of these properties have entered the land market. With increasing pressure for land monetisation, governments and public utilities are all vying with each other to capture and convert land parcels to new uses. Ridge systems, stream paths, accumulation points in the valleys — all play critical roles in managing precipitation and drainage — have been flattened.

The untold story of urban floods is the story of lands that were until recently variously categorised as poramboke, gochar, gomala, gaonthan, bancharai, sikham. It is the story of our cities that transport water across hundreds of miles, turn it into grey water, mix it with stormwater and banish it from view. It is the story of how not a drop of water is allowed to seep into the ground. Nor is a drop allowed to flow without obstruction. It is the story of how people with customary rights to such lands have either been excluded or turned into brokers for the rise of urban transition. Urban property owners, managers and regulators must pretend that the earth is flat, at least within the boundaries of their property. But water must follow the law of gravity and go down the slope. Thus, the Guwahati floods wash away houses on hill slopes. The Hyderabad floods inundate houses on tank beds. The Delhi floods make the airport terminal unusable.

We must recentre our policy and retrain our engineers into acknowledging our agrarian past. Urbanisation is a profound geo-historic shift. We must manage it well by careful observation, data gathering over long periods of time, modelling the behaviour of nature in the altered context. We must review and revise revenue laws and rules that govern land categories and shape land use change. This requires homegrown multidisciplinary expertise and we have plenty of it.

We can import modelling tools and sensor technologies. But we cannot import historical data. It must be generated, captured and curated. We can hire international consultants but we cannot import native intelligence. It must be affirmed and nurtured in our cities. We can borrow money from international agencies, but we must build our own resilience. With climate change induced extreme events likely to occur with greater frequency, we have little time to lose.

The writer is director, Hyderabad Urban Lab

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