Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
By Sayanangshu Modak
India is a riverine country. Rivers have been an intrinsic part of our culture and identity. Supporting civilisations or decimating them, they continue to shape us, our beliefs, and our collective destiny as a nation. Therefore, if rivers are inseparable from our civilisational roots, so are floods.
Hydro-meteorologically speaking, floods in India is concurrent with the strengthening of monsoonal condition over the region. The South Asian Monsoon has been active over the subcontinent ever since the upliftment of the Tethyan geosyncline depositions to form a formidable orographic barrier – the Himalaya. Monsoonal rains have been a key agent contributing to the weathering of rocks in the mountain. The finer materials thus derived have been transported and deposited by the high flows to form the present-day breadbaskets beginning in Punjab and moving along the Himalayan arc to the states of Northeast India, all put together in the three river basins of Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra (Ref. Fig 1). Feeding a population of upwards of a billion humans, the sediments washed down by the rivers have contributed to the creation of thriving agriculture-based economies in the region. Therefore, it is quite a misnomer that our rivers must be labelled nasty – Kosi, Damodar, Brahmaputra, Ghaghara all becoming a ‘sorrow’ for their respective states.
This brings to attention a clear change in our perception of high flows in the river systems, assuming them to be a threat to our survival instead of regarding them for their act of benevolence. Floods became a pinprick on the balloon of human prosperity – the definition of which was coined by our colonial masters for whom this entire landscape with all its geographical specificities was a hostile beast that had to be tamed for enhancing the company’s profit. Thus, began a system of hard engineering and land-use change of a scale that had never been witnessed before. The indigenous knowledge systems that had been effective in harnessing the life-nourishing waters while protecting the community from its vagaries, was lost in the mindless and perverse pursuit of maximising profit.
The arrogance of scientists and engineers in replacing the dominant ‘flood-tolerance’ with ‘flood-control’ as a design principle, has created more problems than solving it. In his seminal work on floods in North Bihar, Dr Dinesh Mishra has narrated how the villagers would open the entry point of the drain that allowed the floodwater from the river to flow into a tank and get retained even after the floodwaters receded. In a much similar manner, Burdwan in Bengal Presidency became the ‘Granary of the East’ due to its sheer ingenuity of attuning the paddy cultivation with the monsoonal rains and allowing the river water to spread horizontally into the fields, bringing with it an abundant supply of fine silt, nutrient and fish eggs.
In the years that the floodwaters rose exceptionally high, villagers moved to safer heights while allowing the water to temporarily inundate their fields. There was abundant room for the seasonal floodwaters to spread laterally and recede again causing the least damage to life and property. This was to change significantly with the advent of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’ that sought to ‘train’ rivers to flow within defined channels while utilising every parcel of land in the floodplains for economic gains. This was done primarily through an expansion of irrigation works and the construction of large embankments along with devising the exploitative but politically salient Zamindari System.
In took more than 200 years for India to break away from the dominant paradigm of flood control. In a statement placed before the Parliament on 27th July 1956, it was formally acknowledged that absolute immunity from the damage inflicted by floods was not physically possible even in the distant future. Subsequently, a high-level committee on floods (1957) came up with a policy statement in 1958 explicated that non-structural measures like Floodplain zoning, flood forecasting and their likes, should be considered since they do not require large capital investment.
The Central Water Commission has also long asserted the need for states to adopt a Floodplain Zoning (FPZ) approach to mitigate damages caused by floods and to allow rivers to have their ‘right of way’. Land being a state subject under entry 18 of List II, the Central Government had circulated a Model Bill for Flood Plain Zoning (MBFPZ) in 1975 to encourage discussion and the enactment of state-specific laws.
As a policy, FPZ involves two major objectives – removing encroachment of floodplains and regulating the land use within specific zones. The rationale for FPZ is quite well laid out. The burgeoning losses incurred due to floods is because human settlements and human economic interests in the floodplains have increased over the years, thereby increasing their exposure to the annual cycle of floods, transforming a natural riverine process to resemble a deluge.
In recent years, floodplains have also been sites for urban development, further increasing the probability of damage as the geographical and demographic growth of a city means increased exposure to floods. As settlements develop in floodplain areas, the flood hydrology is altered, which in turn aggravates flooding in the immediate downstream, thereby requiring more protection in the form of embankments. Floodplain development and the construction of embankments also adversely impact the riparian and riverine ecosystems.
Therefore, If the human exposure to the high flows in the rivers can be managed scientifically, the losses incurred due to flooding can also be reduced significantly. To be able to do this, the MBFPZ, along with the National Disaster Management Authority, lays out an elaborate plan that may be undertaken (Ref. Fig 2). It also calls for the demarcation of zones based on flood frequency and rainfall frequency which would allow for a managed use of floodplains. For example, the zone that is located right next to the riverbank and experiences regular and most frequent inundation has been prescribed to be used as open spaces like gardens, playgrounds etc. Similarly, the zone that is located farthest from the river and experiences flooding seldomly should house the residential buildings and public utilities.
Despite the sound rationale and the concomitant benefits of undertaking floodplain zoning and regulation, the ruling dispensation in the states has chosen to remain oblivious to it. It has been more than four decades since the bill had been shared, and so far only three states—Manipur (1978), Rajasthan (1990), and Uttarakhand (2012)—have enacted legislation for floodplain zoning, while others, particularly the flood-affected Bihar and Assam, have shown varying degree of opposition. There are predominantly two reasons for this: the constraints arising from evacuating the people who occupy the floodplains and resettling these people elsewhere considering the paucity of land.
The sheer scale of relocation and rehabilitation that needs to be carried out by adhering to the guidelines for each floodplain zone, is a daunting task even at its very inception. Land acquisition remains an area of contestation and governments have often been accused of unfair compensation and inadequate rehabilitation efforts. Therefore, the political incentive to maintain the status quo while providing aid and compensation after every flood season far outweighs the other alternative that may disconcert constituencies. Moreover, it also has to be noted that urban agglomerations cannot be shifted and a certain degree of flood protection needs to be provided through embankments. But, at the same time, further development of urban infrastructure in the floodplains can surely be halted.
Contrary to the challenges, the move to create room for rivers also presents some unique possibilities apart from an undeniable reduction in flood losses. Owing to the propensity of the land to get flooded frequently, the land prices are the lowest in the most vulnerable areas. Consequently, it is the most disadvantageous who take refuge in such perilous parcels, surviving in extremely deplorable conditions with very limited access to government schemes and services. If rehabilitated, it will provide the flood-affected masses with a glorious opportunity to break free from the vicious cycle of the impoverishment caused by annual floods that constantly gnaw at their share of capital.
Moreover, another critical aspect to keep in mind is that the benefits of floodplain zoning will accrue over large spatial and temporal scales. For instance, if the state of Assam were to undertake measures to restore floodplains and make more room for the Brahmaputra, the benefit would also trickle to downstream Bangladesh which will experience an increased lag time (the period between the peak rainfall and peak discharge), significantly reduced riverbank erosion and a healthy state of the river over a considerably long period.
It must be realised that rivers are an intrinsic part of the landscape and human activities need to conform to the limits enforced by the natural conditions prevailing in these riverine landscapes. The ancient wisdom of attuning human activities to the fluxes of the natural system needs to be reconsidered and proactive steps need to be taken for operationalising this critical policy that has been gathering dust!
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