Preventive measures should begin now if Hyderabad is to be saved from future disasters

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi

Famed mostly for its mosques, minarets, pearl bazaar and cuisine, Hyderabad is ‘fast emerging as a hot investment destination, especially for information technology (IT) companies’. Roads are being widened and fly-overs built. Land prices are spiraling. Everywhere, one sees new shopping complexes, apartment blocks, hotels and specialty hospitals.

The inauguration of the Hi-Tec City was the focus of international attention. And, today it is also receiving attention. It was dubbed as the most happening city. Politicians often promise to put it on the international map. Telangana government is very happy about the GDP, coming in from Hyderabad. For this reason, it guards the brand image of Hyderabad like a hen protecting its progeny. Meanwhile, lot of destruction that happens and happening is ignored, under discussed and is shielded from public gaze.

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In defence of this ‘destructive’ development, elected representatives blame the extreme rainfall. What we are seeing is one episode of extreme weather event in the form of rains. In 2016-17 we saw heat waves and in between cold conditions. We also saw 4 seasons within a day, not a year. Government and defenders of unplanned and haphazard city development should understand that what happens up there in the atmosphere is because of what we do here.

Floods in Hyderabad are entirely government made, if not human made.This disaster has been in the making for the past few years in the name of development and urban growth. It is the direct result of skewed government policies vis-a-vis urban development. Blame for this disaster lies squarely at the doorstep of Hyderabad Urban Development Authority, Hyderabad Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board, Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad, Hyderabad Metro Rail, District Collectorates of Hyderabad and Rangareddy, and the State government.

Governmental organisations and municipal institutions have failed to ensure a planned development process in Hyderabad. Even though HUDA, later HMDA, was created as a policy making body, it acts as a real estate broker selling government lands, and making money out of creating and managing ‘beautiful’ parks (albeit on the lake beds). Hyderabad does not have a comprehensive, environment-friendly Master Plan, which alone should have been the basis for development of the city. In general, urbanmaster plan is based on environmental and geographical principles of the city area. By ignoring the development of such a Master Plan, government has set the tone of the present and similar disasters in the future.

This disaster, as it is clear to everybody, is due to siltation of tanks, decrease in water storage capacities (impounding capacity) and other water channels, encroachment of nalas, lakes and other water bodies, and choking of streams, and storm water drains. Government has set the tone for encroachment of the water bodies all across the city – in River Musi (Nandanavanam and Imliban), Ameerpet (Maitrivanam) and Hussainsagar (Necklace road, Lumbini park). Hyderabad was once known for its lakes and parks. This number has gradually declined. There are less than 170 lakes listed as existing. Even these are under various stages of encroachment. Through changes in Floor Space Index, building regularisation schemes and haphazard development plans (flyovers, roads, parks, etc..), governmental bodies have played havoc with the urban watershed areas, thus destroying the natural channels of water flow and flood control infrastructure (created by Nizam and other rulers). Catchment area, lake bed and inlet and outlet streams of every water body, be it Hussainsagar, Himayatsagar, Miralam tank or Satham Cheruvu (Shah Hatim Talaab) are either being encroached upon by the government and the unscrupulous alike. The encroachment is still going on. The malignant role of real estate business in this process is clearly seen.

The disaster in October, 2020, is basically due to decrease in the storage capacities of the lakes upstream. It is not only the reduction in storage capacity in upstream areas, but also the destruction of chain link between tanks, and the decimation of transfer channels between catchment area of one tank and the catchment area of another tank. Concretisation of the earth decreased the chances of slowing down the water flow and also blocked if any seepage into the ground. As a result, water built up in the tanks and other water channels was rapid, even while copious amounts of water came from rainfall. This situation was compounded by the fact that storage capacity of the water had decreased.

The undulating terrain with high and low ground was advantageous for certain areas, while it was a curse for other colonies. Thus, a few colonies had to take the brunt of the disaster, even if they were not in the tank beds.

Hyderabad touted as a scientific city has been growing most unscientifically. This hapahazard growth has destroyed whatever planning was done 50 years back. Similar situation can be seen in Bangalore, though in that city attempts are afoot to correct the situation.

We have forewarned the government several times regarding this through various methods in the past ten years.

While the government was instrumental in creating this disaster, it has further failed in foreseeing and managing the disaster properly. Quick flow and exchange of information holds the key to the success of management system and more so in the management of natural disasters. Despite all the hype about Hyderabad being a Hitech city, government had not used modern information technology as a tool for effective early warning system and for the mitigation of the disaster. Despite the presence of National Remote Sensing Agency, cell phone systems, computers and expertise, Hyderabad was not able to stop this disaster. It is basically because there is no monitoring of the changes in geography by the government, planning agencies and the scientific and knowledge institutions.

Despite such a once-in-a-century phenomenal disaster, government seems to be brushing this aside as a rare phenomenon. However, each disaster is an indicator of the scale of the next disaster to come. Property loss, and cost of human life, is not yet assessed properly. If the rains continue, there would be greater enormous physical and property loss. Historians in the future would be left wondering how such floods were made possible in a plateau, which is 600 metres above sea level.

At least now we hope government would look at urban development in Hyderabad comprehensively. All current development plans and projects should be thoroughly reviewed in terms of their impact on environment, ecology and city space. Projects with adverse impacts have to be abandoned right away. Government should also take necessary steps to protect the water bodies.

As far as the present situation is concerned it is pertinent to note that similar disasters could be regular affair. Whenever there are ‘heavy rains’, caused either by low depression or cyclone in Bay of Bengal the city would face deluge like situation. Therefore, it is necessary to start preventive measures and planning for the future should become the most important aspect of Hyderabad’s safety and development.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a nationally known Public Policy Expert and Campaigner. He actively participates in numerous public causes.

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