Number Theory: Behind the systemic roots of urban flooding in India
The fact that such instances are spreading to more cities and happening with greater frequency, suggests that something is broken in our response to such events.
Parts of Bengaluru, India’s IT and startup capital, have been facing unprecedented floods for the last two days. This is not the first instance of urban flooding in India. In fact, urban flooding is becoming increasingly common in many parts of the country with this monsoon season itself seeing many such instances in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Kerala, another southern state, has seen multiple instances of urban flooding in the past few years, and so has Gurugram, Delhi’s 21st century satellite.
The fact that such instances are spreading to more cities and happening with greater frequency, suggests that something is broken in our response to such events. An HT analysis shows that repeated and growing problems of urban floods is a systemic problem and the root cause of this is prioritising economic gains over everything else. Here are three charts which explain this in detail.
We don’t even know what is urban in India
The official source of rural-urban data in India is the decadal Census. While this works well for administrative purposes, the Census classification is of little use when it comes to understanding risks such as flooding. A lot of urban flooding such as the recent one in Bengaluru is a result of unregulated construction in regions such as wetlands and floodplains. Such urban expansion, which is often carried on in collusion with urban authorities, can continue to happen long after an area has been classified as urban in the Census. A comparison with the satellite data from the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative (ESA-CCI) is a good way to explain this. While the Census shows a 31% increase in urban area in India between 2001 and 2011, satellite data shows a 94% increase in urban areas during this period. To be sure, urban areas classified under the census is still larger than what the satellite reads as urban, but the latter is a better indicator or takeover of cultivated land, forests, grasslands or other vegetation, and water bodies.
Urban drainage systems are lagging urbanisation
In 2019, Patna faced massive urban floods in late September. One of the reasons the municipal authorities were unable to deal with the problem was that they could not even locate the drainage map of the city, which has a population of 5.8 million according to the 2011 Census. While Patna seems like a basket case here, most Indian cities do not look very good when it comes to their drainage capabilities. According to a 2010-11 report by the ministry of urban development, storm water drain coverage – they are essential for draining away large discharge in a short time such as heavy rainfall – was below 50% in 56 of the 104 cities which sent responses. Bengaluru, the city which is facing floods at the moment, had just 10% of its roads covered by storm water drains.
The fact that municipal authorities do not even have a proper idea of built up spaces in the city – the 2016-17 Economic Survey used satellite data to argue that Bengaluru could increase its property tax collections by four to seven times if it were to do a proper mapping of built up area – adds to this problem from both sides. Municipal authorities do not have an idea about drainage requirements and they also lack funds to build such capacity.
Why does the state not take steps to plug these loopholes?
One can, of course, take recourse to lack of state capacity, regulatory capture, and other such terms. But there is another answer to this question. Any policy which prioritises environmental concerns over construction will have to deny permission for a lot of construction activity in India, especially in cities. This is bound to lead to economic losses for the those engaged in this sector, as well as increase the cost of housing for those who want to buy such houses.
This is not an easy decision to make, given the growing importance of the real estate sector in India. A comparison of Gross Value Added data from National Account Statistics (NAS) shows that the real estate, ownership of dwelling and professional services sub-sector has shown the highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) among all subsectors of the economy between 2011-12 and 2020-21. Its share in GVA has increased from 13% to 17% during this period. There is another side to this story as well. The share of housing credit in total bank credit was just over 2% in the beginning of the 1990s in India. This increased to 13% by 2020-21.
While the growing commercial importance of real estate explains why unregulated urbanisation continues to take place in India, repeated urban floods in more cities are a grim warning that this unmitigated quest for capital gains will ultimately bring loss of both capital and lives.