Delhi fights monsoon flooding with 44-year-old drainage plan

With a 1976 drainage master plan and multiple agencies managing them at loggerheads, Delhi shows how not to manage the yearly monsoon mayhem.

When temperatures soar, Delhiites pray for rain. But when it pours, even just for a few hours, tragedy strikes. As happened on July 19th. Severe waterlogging submerged many parts of the city creating huge traffic jams. One house collapsed when a drain near it collapsed, and four people died from the flooding in different parts of the city.

Among the major casualties on the same day was the central dome of Delhi’s iconic Mubarak Begum mosque — built in 1823 and a prominent visitor attraction — which collapsed in the torrential rain.

Such monsoon mayhem has become an annual feature of life in the capital. “One major reason is the multiplicity of authorities in Delhi,” said a former IAS officer associated with the capital’s development. “But this is no excuse for the Delhi government not to undertake public works or to pass the buck, with the central and state government blaming each other for lack of civic amenities.”

The last Drainage Master Plan was drafted by the Delhi Government way back in 1976. Since then, the city has grown exponentially in terms of size and population, but the drainage system remains the same archaic structure that it was 44 years ago.

In 2012, the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control of the Sheila Dixit-led government had tasked IIT Delhi with creating a new master plan, which was ready by June 2018, but the government is yet to give its go-ahead. As a result, the 1976 system is having to cope with conditions which it was never designed to handle.

Flawed design

The IIT Delhi report had pointed out major problems with the “dilapidated” design of the drains in the 1976 Master Plan. For example, the stormwater drains in all the three major drainage basins in the city—Trans Yamuna, Barapullah and Najafgarh basins—have the wrong slope, which takes the water away from its natural downstream flow, i.e. the excess rainwater doesn’t flow into the main sewage drains naturally. It has to be pumped back.

Pumps have been installed at most major water logging junctions. But it is common for them to fail when most needed. A 2019 PWD report admits that many pumps in areas prone to water logging, such as the Moolchand underpass, Nizamuddin subway and Badarpur, have been “defective” or “out of order.”

Also, back in 1976, Delhi’s population was around 41 lakh. Forty-four years later, it is 1.7 crore (2011 census), but the drainage plan remains the same with unplanned construction further encroaching on the drains.

The NGT had asked the Delhi government’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department to submit a status report on the status of the 201 major drains that were demarcated in the 1976 Plan. The response: 183 were functional while 18 drains have vanished.

Another major problem is that the capital’s sewerage infrastructure is grossly inadequate. Excess sewage flows into the stormwater drains, choking them and leading to water logging due to siltation.

Efforts this year

All the three municipal corporations covering North, East and South Delhi along with the PWD in mid-April started a mass desilting drive across the city in mid-April keeping in mind the arrival of monsoon.

The PWD which comes under the Delhi Government has jurisdiction over the largest length of drainage in the city, some 1,037 drains spread over 2064 km. According to a senior PWD official, 454 complaints of waterlogging have been received by the agency so far in July.

In addition to the desilting of the drains under its jurisdiction, the PWD is also responsible for pumping of excess water through drainage pumps installed at underpasses and low-lying areas as well as by utilisation of mobile super sucker machines, which can be dispatched and utilised at points witnessing heavy waterlogging.

“Leaves of all field staff engaged in maintenance work have been cancelled and the situation at vulnerable points across the city, including Minto Bridge, is being monitored on real-time basis,” said a PWD official.

More rains, more flooding

How well all this works after the “fresh spell of light to moderate showers expected,” according to senior IMD official Kuldeep Srivastava, remains to be seen. “We expect to record 20 mm of rainfall which will reduce the deficiency in rainfall so far to a certain extent.”

This time the situation is likely to be worse as authorities are struggling to fix potholes and unclog drains. Reason: most of the funds have been spent on fighting the coronavirus. And a severe lack of staff due to the lockdown.

“Our neighbourhood has turned into a breeding ground for mosquitoes,” said LR Garg, president, confederation of senior citizens’ association of Delhi and resident of Munirka. “Sanitation workers came once in the initial period of lockdown. Since then, no one has come.”

“We have never seen any sanitation worker here during the pandemic,” added Raman Mehta, resident of West Delhi’s Rajouri Garden. “We have no expectations of clean streets and desilted drains.”

  • As per figures given out by the state government Delhi has 2,846 drains spread over 3,692 km managed by 11 different agencies, PWD, three (East, North and South) municipal corporations, NDMC and Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
  • The North, East and South corporations manages 645 drains spread over 520 km, NDMC has 261 drains with a total length of 335 km, DDA has 124 drains with over 251 km and other departments, like the cantonment boards, have 441 drains spread across 522 km.

The corporations say they cannot do much because they do not have funds. North Delhi corporation officials said that it should have received Rs 556 crore from the Delhi government in the first quarter, but got only Rs 270 crore.

The waterlogging at Minto Bridge in Delhi on July 19 claimed one life

Political blame game

Newly elected Mayor Jai Prakash accused the Delhi government of stopping funds. “This is a special grant that the Delhi government has to give to the corporation,” said Jai Prakash. “In the second quarter, the Delhi government has yet to give the Rs 1,045 crore due to the corporation.” The corporation requires at least Rs 350 crore per month for employees’ salaries and maintenance, he said.

The situation is the same with the South corporation. “The PWD, Horticulture and Delhi Jal Board (DJB), which come under the Delhi government, have dug up roads and choked the drains,” said Raj Dutt Gahlot, deputy mayor, “Who will bear the cost of cleaning the drains now?”

This war of words over funding between the BJP-run corporations and the AAP-led Delhi government is a never-ending one. The Delhi government said that its urban development department had released the first instalment of funds, Rs 212.53 crore to the North corporation and Rs 112.62 to the South.

But this three way battle, between AAP, the BJP-led municipal corporations and the BJP-led union government has delayed decision making, with work being affected by the political pulls and pressures among the different political parties, who rarely agree on anything.

Tall claims

In a meeting in mid-June with PWD officials, Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain asked the PWD to accelerate their operations setting a deadline of July 22nd.

“All the major drains in the city have already been desilted,” Abhishek Raj, Executive Engineer, PWD later claimed, but had no explanation on why the July 19th tragedy happened despite this.

Delhi chief secretary Vijay Dev at an emergency meeting on the city’s monsoon preparedness plan, said that the head of the departments (HoDs) of the agencies responsible for tackling monsoon related problems will be held responsible for any lapses.

“A group of chief engineers of these agencies has been formed to jointly inspect all vulnerable points and take coordinated action. Directions have been issued that the 24×7 control room must be kept operational at all times without fail. Besides, relief for any loss of life or property must be expeditiously extended, preferably on the same day,” said the chief secretary.

All that, however, inspires little confidence among citizens and experts. “I don’t think either the municipal corporation or the Delhi government has done anything to solve waterlogging,” said C.R. Babu, professor emeritus at Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems of Delhi University.

The three municipal corporations claim they have completed the cleaning of most of the drains under them. The East Delhi Municipal Corporation says it has removed 117% of the estimated silt from 223 drains running through 123.6 km. The North body claimed to have cleaned 100% of estimated silt from its 192 drains covering 112.62 km. The South corporation has reportedly cleaned around 28,000 metric tonnes of silt from its drains out of a target of around 31,000 metric tonnes, based on last year’s estimates.

A senior corporation official said desilting of the drains is the main intervention that can be carried out by civic bodies. This includes cleaning entry points to drains from road surfaces.

Most major drains belong to the PWD and the channels that flow into the drains are managed by the Flood and Irrigation Department, municipal officials pointed out. These drains, the official claimed, have not been cleaned and as a consequence drains owned by the civic body also get clogged.

Needed one nodal agency

 “With so many agencies managing the city’s stormwater drains, it is difficult to coordinate and ensure that the drains are cleaned ahead of monsoon every year,” said a senior PWD official. “Due to the multiplicity of agencies, fixing accountability is difficult. There has to be one nodal agency for cleaning and maintenance of drains so that disasters such as the one that happened at Minto Bridge do not recur.”

 “The most important thing is that the city should have a proper sewerage system in place,” said Sarvagya Srivastava, former engineer-in-chief of Delhi PWD. “Currently, sewage waste flows in stormwater drains in most areas”.

Other SDMC officials and independent experts pointed out faulty designs of the stormwater drains. “Construction of wide stormwater drain at the beginning of the slope to the underpass can help,” said Rajeev Goel, head of bridge engineering and structure at Central Road Research Institute (CSIR-CRRI). “Also, drains where heavy water flow is expected should be connected to the main drainage. But the most important thing is to improve the drainage system along the roads.”

While the excuses and passing the buck game plays out, there is little by way of practical solutions from anyone on how the city will cope with the next downpour. As the ball gets lobbed back and forth among the many agencies responsible for maintaining the stormwater drains, Delhiites are unlikely to get any respite from flooding and water logging as the monsoon takes hold.

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