From 21st September onwards, a heavy downpour - 23 times the daily average rainfall in monsoon - caused by a depression over the Bay of Bengal led to Hyderabad coming to a standstill for four days. This scenario would have been one of déjà vu for Hyderabadis, who witnessed similar flooding in 2000.
As life was paralysed with waterlogged roads and housing colonies in the country’s much touted IT hub, the two-year-old Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) government squarely blamed the chaos on encroachments on nalas, or storm water drains. “There are 28,000 encroachments on nalas in Hyderabad and some of them even in government complexes and we need a huge Rs 11,000 crore and 3-4 years time to rectify and remove them,” said Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (referred to as KCR), speaking to the media on 24th September. “There has been no innovative reorientation of the drain system since it was first done by Sir M Visvesvaraya in 1930 and for the last 60 years, subsequent governments have only made additions but not overhauled or redesigned it,” he said.
The north east monsoon rains under the influence of the low pressure in the Bay of Bengal last week came as a double shock to residents of Telangana’s capital. Having gone through harrowing days in the first week of September with heavy rain and flooding shutting schools for five days, the second shock was worse than expected. “We were just returning to normalcy but these four days of thundershowers have been real mean,” said Alex Smith, an American consultant of an IT giant. Smith had come to Hyderabad to conduct a seminar for Java professionals last week.
KCR said that the illegal buildings on drains and tank beds needed to be cleared immediately to improve the brand image of Hyderabad as a global city. “We will relocate all the poor living in such encroached land free of cost with double bedroom flats, but every illegal construction on nalas, tank beds etc will be demolished, come what may, and whoever it belongs to, whether politician, Minister or MLA,” said KCR, urging the media to back this campaign. “Citizens who provide information on violations will be suitably rewarded upto Rs 10,000,” he added.
Four platoons of the army and over 200 National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel with boats and choppers have been deployed for rescue and relief operations. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) and police are now identifying old buildings - there are an estimated 2,200 or so of them - and vacating them anticipating their collapse after days of waterlogging.
Hard times for Hyderabad
Flooding has occurred both due to overflowing drains and encroachment of nalas. The unprecedented downpour has turned the spotlight on the need to unclog drains all over the city. TRS leader and former employee of the GHMC V Srinivas Goud confessed in a TV debate last week, “What else can happen when 80 feet nalas were reduced to 8-10 feet with encroachments and rain water has nowhere to go but flood the streets?”
It was a Black Wednesday of sorts last week for the residents of Bhandari Layout, a colony of 50-odd multi-storeyed apartments with a population of 10,000 in Hyderabad’s northwestern Nizampet area. With the breach of the bund in the nearby Turka Chevuru, rain water entered the colony, which is allegedly built on a nala.
The GHMC and the police have already put in action a task force to assess the damage caused in Bhandari Layout, and to detail how many of these buildings are illegal in the first place. Panic-struck residents are refusing to leave their homes, afraid that they will be demolished after the rains. “Why blame the flat owners now, what did the authorities do when they approved the layout and gave all permissions?” asks Rahul Kumar, an IT professional who bought a flat in Bhandari Layout in 2010.
As rain pounded the colony nonstop from Tuesday night until Friday, residents had to spend three nights without power, milk or drinking water as their roads, basements and in some cases, even the first floors of their buildings were flooded. Authorities shut down power supply to prevent electrocution. Irrigation Department officials said leakage and breach in the Turka Cheruvu bund had led to the submerging of areas downstream of Nizampet. “I have never seen such downpour or even water logging,” said Paladugu Parasuram, a builder and publisher who has lived in the area since 2007.
As many as 41 roads covering 120 km in the city were out of use due to waterlogging in Ameerpet, Banjara Hills, Panjagutta, Malakpet, Chadarghat, Musheerabad and Mytrivanam. “Unless water is drained out with heavy duty diesel motors and repaired, they cannot be used. But with the impending rains we cannot do anything right now,” said Disaster Management Assistant Commissioner K Badrinath. Water stagnating at many junctions for two days has made relief and rehabilitation a tough task. However, KCR dismisses media reports about damage to roads, claiming that only 10 percent of the city’s roads (which span 9,000 km), have been affected.
IT Hubs Hit
For the first time in two decades, the IT corridors of Madhapur and Gachibowli were also hit. Sixty-seventy percent of employees of IT companies were caught in traffic jams on Raidurgam-Gachibowli, Miyapur-Kondapur and other roads leading towards Hitech City and Gachibowli. IT and ITeS companies permitted their personnel to work from home on Friday as incessant rains and pothole-ridden roads deterred them from reaching their offices.
“We don’t have power at home and basic supplies to stay indoors, so we decided to go to office and got caught up in traffic jams. What can we do at home, we don’t have cable network or power, and it is better to sit in office where authorities will provide us something,” said Arpita Kulkarni, an IT employee.
As rains are expected to continue for a few more days, IT companies are on tenterhooks and already have arrangements in place for Business Continuity Planning (BCP) which involves seeking help from other centres such as Visakhapatnam, Chennai, Pune and Bangalore to back them up if more rain hits. “The writing on the wall is that a contingency strategy is essential for all Hyderabad-based 24x7 ITeS and IT units,” said the Society for Cyberabad Security Council (SCSC) in a statement.
The affecting of 4.5 lakh IT workers also hit eateries, shopping malls, multiplexes and recreational areas in Cyberabad and Hitech city as no one could venture out. At least 2,100 weddings have been cancelled as marriage halls were flooded. The GHMC and police have offered to help conduct weddings by opening a registrar’s office on a 24x7 basis.
It Has All Happened Before
To understand this year’s mess one needs to go back to the year 2000. Back then in August, rainfall was just 13 times the average in monsoon but caused flash floods in the Musheerabad nala as authorities released rainwater in the wee hours of the morning without prior notice from Hussein Sagar to avoid breaching of the tank bund. This led to waterlogging and rendered over 5000 people from poor families in 20 colonies of Gandhinagar and Ashok Nagar in Musheerabad homeless. “The damage to life is less this year in view of GHMC’s preparedness for rains,” argued Musheerabad MLA and Home Minister Nayani Narasimha Reddy, who had criticised the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government at that time.
It could well have been a scene out of a horror film in 2000 - computers, household goods, cars and motorbikes floated in the flooded nala. People living in multi-storeyed apartments along the nala had to vacate their homes as rainwater entered even first-floor flats and stagnated for two days, and hundreds of families were left homeless. Then-Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu blamed the mess on officials who allowed buildings on drains, washing his hands of any responsibility.
Sixteen years later, the extent of damage to private and public property is much larger this time, though it is yet to be assessed. Chief Minister KCR said the La Nina effect was on this year leading to cooling of the earth, delaying the withdrawal of the North East Monsoon, which would last till 20th October. “So brace up and be prepared for more rains and stop this blame game,” he warned Opposition parties and the media.
“The rains of the last four days were unprecedented in the last three decades. No infrastructure could handle such downpour. We received 16 cm of rain in a single day on 21st September, as against 32-40 cm throughout the year,” stated GHMC’s Deputy Commissioner P Saroja.
“The worst is not over yet,” warned YK Reddy, chief of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) at Hyderabad, who has issued a red alert warning that heavy to very heavy rains are likely to continue. “It is the low depression in the Bay of Bengal that has driven the rains down south causing heavy downpour,” he said, adding that the La Nina effect had also kicked in.
“It is common knowledge that Hyderabad has an aged drainage and sewerage system, with only 1,500 km of drain main canals and 2 lakh manholes, as against a requirement of 5,000 km of drain canals and 4 lakh manholes. Since the past six decades, nothing much has been done towards remodelling the drains,” said N Karthika Reddy, a retired GHMC engineer.
GHMC officials confess that successive governments failed to complete the remodelling and widening of storm water drains even 8 to 10 years after it was conceptualised, thanks to political instability and uncertainty in the state. Not even 50 percent of the required repairs of nalas have been done in the past five years due to “several obstacles in carrying out the works,” according to a source, who added that several contractors have just given up following threats from those with political influence opposing the demolishing of structures needed to carry out the repairs.
Though under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) a sum of Rs 260 crore had been sanctioned for widening of four primary and 11 secondary nalas, and the contracts were awarded seven years ago, the GHMC has completed only 40 percent of the widening work.
The TRS government is now gearing up for a massive campaign against encroachments on tank beds and illegal buildings on drains. Like Naidu before him, KCR has blamed the flooding on past governments, accusing them of neglecting nalas and water bodies.
“I assure you there will not be a single illegal building hereafter and I want the ministers, the GHMC and other agencies concerned to work in coordination and ensure that they do not permit any illegal building. If any one is permitted, it will be demolished mercilessly, however big its owner may be,” said the Chief Minister.
As early as 2015, KCR had launched a campaign against encroachments on irrigation tank beds, particularly in Hitech city. However, the exercise was dropped as it turned into a political campaign against Seemandhra industrialists and tycoons. Film actor Nagarjuna Akkineni had been caught in that web when his N-Convention centre in Hitech city, allegedly built on a tank bed, was issued show-cause notice, but a compromise was eventually reached.
KCR added that the Musi River, which at one point had an excellent drainage system, had been rendered ineffective due to the nearly 390 encroachments along its canals. The river was the artery of Hyderabad when the city was built four centuries ago, and its flooding in 1908 killed thousands, after which Visvesvaraya was sent by the British government to the Nizam of Hyderabad to remodel the system and build an effective bund. “We are still enjoying the labours of Sir Visvesvaraya,” said KCR.
At a review meeting on Friday, Municipal Administration Minister KT Rama Rao said a five-member expert committee has been set up to prepare an action plan by 5th October on how to go ahead with razing illegal constructions, and the infrastructure and legal opinion needed on how to clear them. This is the third committee on encroachments since 2008. The Kirloskar Committee report, and that of a cabinet sub-committee set up by KCR after the formation of Telangana, are gathering dust with the government even today.
Rao also indicated that he had the Chief Minister’s endorsement to launch an action programme similar to that done in Bengaluru in August this year, in coordination with the courts and the police department. “I have discussed the issue with the Advocate General S Ramachandra Rao who says legal hurdles, if any, will be resolved,” he said.
KCR has announced that an internal assessment of the GHMC and Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority has already been made to remodel the drain system in Hyderabad, covering the entire area at a cost of Rs 29,000 crore. “We will get loans and Government of India grants for the plan once it is ready,” he said. The government wants to launch this after the first phase of Metro Rail work is completed in the state capital by 2017, to avoid disruptions in road connectivity, he added. A sum of Rs 300-400 crore has been immediately made available to GHMC for repairs and other activities now, said the Chief Minister.
Following last week’s deluge, the GHMC is now claiming it has removed 775 encroachments out of 2,452 storm water drains in just one year. The GHMC mayor went on record stating that as many as 48 illegal constructions were demolished on Friday itself. This monsoon, 416 illegal buildings on nalas were demolished, and another 147 were demolished in September alone.
However, this is at best a drop in the ocean according to city-based environmentalist and campaigner for a better Hyderabad, Captain J Rama Rao. “We never doubt the good intentions of our politicians, but the only thing is whether they will do it and when,” he said. “Let us hope this government will not wait until another deluge and take last week’s situation as a wake-up call. Otherwise it will not take long for Hyderabad to lose its lustre and glitter.”
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)