India: Srinagar city plan puts residents at risk of floods - officials
Flood control department says the development plan will encourage more people to settle in disaster-prone areas.
By Athar Parvaiz
SRINAGAR, India - A plan for the development of Srinagar city to 2035, put together by the government of Indian-administered Kashmir, ignores lessons from the 2014 floods that hit Srinagar and southern Kashmir, disaster prevention officials have warned.
The large-scale destruction wrought by those floods was widely attributed to haphazard development in Srinagar, Kashmir's largest city, and other urban areas over decades.
Critics blamed housing and infrastructure construction in former flood basins in the mountainous north Indian state.
The Master Plan for development of the Srinagar Metropolitan Region, which was open for public consultation until mid-August, is due to be finalised by the end of October.
Kashmir's Chief Town Planner Fayaz Ahmad Khan said the draft plan does envisage some new infrastructure development in flood-prone areas where homes, shops and government offices have already been built, because of a "pathetic" lack of state-owned land.
The plan proposes solutions for all potential problems, including flooding, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In a letter dated July 27, 2017 and addressed to Khan, the Jammu and Kashmir Irrigation and Flood Control (IFC) department said it had analysed the plan from the perspective of its own recommendations based on flood scenarios.
Before the plan was drafted, Khan had asked the IFC department to categorise areas as "undevelopable", "vulnerable" or "suitable for development", the letter said.
In response, the department advised that some parts of the city should be classified as "undevelopable" and "vulnerable", said the letter seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
However, those zones have been designated as "low density residential" areas in the plan, which will "encourage and eventually attract more people in these areas" which cannot be protected "by any means" if floods occur, warned the letter.
Administration 'at risk'
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has also questioned a bid to move the secretariat of the Jammu and Kashmir government, which includes ministers' offices, to a location at risk of flooding.
"(The Master Plan) acknowledges many parts of Srinagar city as highly vulnerable to natural disasters, yet contradictorily gives proposals like shifting the Civil Secretariat to Railway Station Nowgam which, as per the plan, is a highly flood-prone area and a designated flood absorption basin," said Saleem Beg, INTACH's regional head.
The IFC letter also argued the plan would allow construction on an important 242-hectare (598-acre) wetland, Narkara, in southern Srinagar, as its 100-metre (328-ft) buffer zone is depicted deep inside the wetland.
The Chief Town Planner said the IFC assessment had categorised "more than half of the city", which has a population of about 1.3 million, as vulnerable and undevelopable.
"But people already live in these areas, and government and commercial infrastructure also exists there," he said, noting the lack of alternative space for new development.
The city faces a major land crunch, with as much as 57 percent of its total area of 766 sq km classed as unsuitable for development, including wetlands, water bodies, forests and areas used by the Indian army, said Khan.
"This is why we have proposed some development within the developed urban areas, and also the creation of new townships around the city," he added.
The Master Plan proposes - for the first time in over four decades of urban planning in Srinagar - a comprehensive disaster management strategy, he noted.
It also includes measures to protect water bodies, he said. "Most significant of these ... is to re-establish their connectivity with one another," Khan said.
To prevent recurring floods, the plan envisages afforestation and slope stabilisation, to retain rainwater in the upper reaches. It also recommends construction of mini-check dams, reservoirs, ponds and canals, and the preservation of natural flood basins, he said.
The plan also suggests that people already settled in flood basins should be relocated in developable areas, rather than backing a proposed multi-billion-dollar flood spill channel.
Experts have said the spill channel could have damaging consequences as it would require the acquisition of vast tracts of agricultural land, potentially harming food security, and could cause large silt deposits in Wular Lake downstream.
Mohammad Sultan Bhat, head of Kashmir University geography department, which carried out a flood hazard study of Srinagar, said the regional government should plan land use in a way that protects residents from disasters like floods and earthquakes, especially in overcrowded Srinagar city.
"The government's urbanisation policy is such that Srinagar city bears the brunt of all the population," he said. With the main government offices and health and education institutions located in Srinagar, people prefer to live there, he added.
Jammu and Kashmir state has 46 towns, but 65 percent of the urban population is concentrated in its summer capital Srinagar, he noted.
"This is what compels the government to allow construction, even in wetlands, which act as sponges during floods," he said. "This is unfortunate."