On May 3, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose portfolios include Guwahati Development, called a high-level meeting to launch Mission Flood Free Guwahati. The Assam government’s initiative was commendable, given that floods have rarely been a concern in urban planning endeavours in the country. But as the monsoons arrived in north-east India a month later, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries went into spate. The rains set off flash floods in Guwahati. By all accounts, the flood mitigation and drainage projects initiated under Mission Flood Free Guwahati have remained incomplete. Incessant rains have blocked the arterial roads in the city. At least five people have lost their lives due to the flooding. Guwahati’s district magistrate has ordered an enquiry and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal announced an ex gratia of Rs 4 lakh each. The story appears strikingly similar to the floods in the city in the past several years.
Guwahati’s topography, which gives it the shape of a bowl, makes the city prone to water-logging. But poor urban planning has compounded the city’s problems. The city has a number of wetlands which could have soaked up the rainwater or channelled them to the Brahmaputra. But these natural drains are choked with garbage; they get clogged during heavy rains and water spills onto the roads. A 2014 report of the Assam State Disaster Management had pointed to this problem. “The city does not have a planned drainage system to take care of sewage, so the natural channels become all the more important. The condition of these channels are not very convincing as they are constantly covered with garbage,” the report noted. The Bharalu, which flows through the city, too is a veritable garbage dump. The river is critical to Guwahati’s hydrology because the level of the Brahmaputra is about six metres below the city. Guwahati requires the Bharalu to carry the run-off to the mighty river. Bondajan beel (wetland), another major outflow channel to the Brahmaputra, is on the verge of extinction.
Guwahati is in the Centre’s list of smart cities. The Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority has proposed the expansion of Guwahati’s metropolitan area from the existing 328 sq km to about 3,471 sq km. More than 1,000 villages and 30 urban centres in six districts will be part of this expanded city. A metro railway has also been proposed. But the “target areas” under the Smart City programme does not include any plan to correct the city’s drainage problems or restore Guwahati’s wetlands.