Underwater too often: Large infrastructure projects such as metro rail networks run the risk of worsening urban water logging unless they are specifically adapted to climate change impacts | Photo: Rajya Sabha TV

India’s new public transport infrastructure is less than watertight

Extreme rain events interspersed with irregular distribution across the Indian landscape have been the standout features of yet another tumultuous monsoon season. While dangerous levels of flow in rivers across the country after an unusually wet August led to devastating floods in the countryside, urban India has not been able to escape inundation either.

Over the past two months, practically every major city in the country has reported crippling waterlogging issues following spells of moderate to heavy rainfall. Under the current developmental paradigm, urbanisation is an unstoppable process. At the same time though, the effects of climate change have become readily evident in recent years. Predictions of fewer but more intense days of rain have escaped the binds of academic journals and have now very much become a feature of India’s climatic patterns. As India jostles with these realities, a clash between the need for critical public infrastructure and environmental adaptability seems inevitable.

In an effort to gauge how this clash is being navigated within India’s developmental aspirations, CarbonCopy takes a look at Metro rail projects that have sprung up across the country’s biggest cities.

Destruction and disruption

This year, social media was inundated with videos of Mumbai’s Girgaum Chowpatty filled to the brim, with residents unable to distinguish where the road ended and the sea began. A common complaint from residents of South Mumbai, an area of the city that is not usually prone to flooding, was the unbelievable rise of water levels in localities across the region. The reason, they believe, is the ongoing Metro work for the Colaba-Seepz line and the reclamation work for the coastal road, which has been undertaken in full-flow around the time the city went into lockdown. 

Just how much has the Metro work contributed to this development? A lot, according to Stalin Dayanand, director of the Mumbai-based NGO, Vanashakti, who says that Mumbai’s waterlogging woes this year have been deepened by poor construction planning and implementation. “They have excavated close to 3 lakh MT of mud, which was supposed to be sent to quarries outside Mumbai and areas in Raigad where ports are being constructed. They were supposed to be sent by barges to avoid traffic congestion in the city due to dumpers moving in and out. Not a single barge left the city. All of the mud found its way to the wetlands in Mumbai and the Uran area. So a problem was created not only within the city but also outside it,” Dayanand says. 

A more permanent problem, however, is the layout of the project itself, which according to Dayanand obstructs natural drainage to the sea. “The rainwater has no way of reaching the sea because of the work. They are blindly bulldozing for the tunnels without mapping the aquifers and the water is not finding an outlet. Until it finds a new route the water will stagnate. All development agencies have failed to study this aquifer system and continue to resist doing it.”

And it isn’t just Mumbai that seems to have disrupted pre-existing drainage paths, similar allegations have also been launched against the Metro rail project in Jaipur. While the historic city is famous for its underground drainage system that dates back several centuries, decades of neglect, encroachment and haphazard construction has seen this network decimated. The massive excavation and re-concretisation carried out as a part of the Metro rail construction in Jaipur, which started in 2016, exposed and built over the remnants of an extensive network of historic tunnels, drains and canals. Incidentally, the city has since seen at least one flash flood and spells of inundation nearly every year following heavy rain events. Experts opine that the Metro rail project is likely to have to have further exacerbated this drainage network’s demise, which has added to the pink city’s vulnerability to waterlogging. The situation this year was particularly bad as a spell of heavy rain in August was followed by severe waterlogging across the city, which saw a sea of silt bury anything that stood in its way.

Weather made worse by planning

While Metro rail constructions have added to existing drainage issues in cities like Mumbai or Jaipur, the problem is a new one in cities like Bhopal or Indore. While the need for such a system in these cities, which have moderate populations of under 2.5 million is debatable, what is not debatable, according to urban planners, is that the Indore and Bhopal Metro rail projects provide textbook examples of aspirational development taking precedence over sustainable development, which has led to reduced natural resource management capacities.

The state’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy draft from 2018 for the Metro project provides a glimpse of the lopsided objectives driving urban public infrastructure development in the state. While the draft bats for high intensity development along Metro rail corridors, there is no mention of surface water management or waterlogging risks. Prakhar Rathi, the urban town planner, who analysed the Bhopal and Indore Metro rail projects for CarbonCopy, said the projects have allowed a 500 metre (Walking Distance) of influence area along the Metro track for transit-oriented development. That will increase the surface run-off whereas  widening of natural drainage to increase the carrying capacity in the Metro influence areas was not considered.

“Low-lying areas and topography of the area were not considered in the feasibility of the project, which will result in haphazard development and making the area vulnerable to flash floods,” he added. Experts also point out that Bhopal Metro rail has been proposed to be built near the Bhoj Wetland, including at the Ramsar site of Lower Lake, which will impact the ecology of the area.

The impacts of these projects were evident this year as both Bhopal and Indore (which are not prone to flooding) reported severe waterlogging and urban flooding while battling record levels of rain in August. 

The lack of planning for the Metro rail in Pune, a city of 3.1 million residents, is even more egregious on the face of it. Being implemented by the Maharashtra Metro Rail Corporation, the Pune Metro project, has been shrouded in controversy from the get-go. In 2015, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) cited cost considerations to submit a revised alignment plan for the Metro route that now runs along the Mutha river as opposed to the earlier route, which ran almost parallel to the river. The Metro construction has begun right on the riverbed, which is a prohibitive zone. 

In deep water: A swollen Mutha river afterwater was released from the Khadakwasla dam in September 2019 | Photo: Indian Express

“We filed a case in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against this change in alignment,” says environmentalist Sarang Yadwadkar. This led to the formation of an expert committee by the NGT, which included one scientist from the Maharashtra State Biodiversity Board (MSBB), who was supposed to investigate any impact to the biodiversity, one from the MPCB, who was to check on pollution levels and one from NEERI, who was to check on the flood levels.

“The report they submitted to the NGT was completely in favour of the Metro project, prompting the NGT to give the green signal to the project. We challenged this in the Supreme Court, which ruled the committee had not heard the petitioners in the case and asked them to hear us out and then file another report to the NGT.”

There are 59 Metro piers built in the riverbed. According to Yadwadkar, the first report by the committee misrepresented the width of the river around every pier, which skewed the estimated flood levels. “We checked this chart with Google images and found that the actual width of the river was much narrower than what had been mentioned in the report. Therefore, the flood level mentioned in the report was much lower than what it would be in reality. We presented this discrepancy to the expert committee. They submitted a report to the NGT stating they arrived at these numbers based on cross-sections from the irrigation department.”

“When we verified the irrigation department cross-sections with the measurements given by the expert committee, we found that the latter had measured the river width to be 25.33% more than the actual width,” he adds. When presented with this data, the committee, Yadwadkar says, then revealed that the river width was actually based on numbers given to them by the Maharashtra Metro Rail Corporation. “They did not verify the numbers when they received them from MahaMetro. The committee then filed a report in the NGT admitting there were discrepancies in the figures mentioned in the report.”

In August of last year, many areas upstream of the 59 Metro piers built on the riverbed were filled with water after 45,474 cusec of water was released from the Khadakwasla dam. The blue line of the Mutha river is 60,000 cusec. The flooding proved the point the environmentalists were trying to make.

“Pune is a flood-prone city by way of its location and therefore it is important that this study is conducted once again. The magnitude of the Metro construction in the river is also much larger than what has been mentioned to the NGT, which has further aggravated the flood levels,” Yadwadkar says.  

The lack of coordination continues

In Kochi, which has already experienced multiple flood-like situations this year, the Kochi Metro Rail Corporation Ltd is more than just the implementing agency for the city’s Metro rail network. Its duties in the coastal city have extended to all kinds of public works, which have little to do with the Metro rail and this has resulted in severe deficit of coordination with other departments and local bodies, according to D Dhanuraj, chairman of Kochi-based Centre for Public Policy Research. “Waterlogging is a legacy issue for Kochi and flood-like situations are not new. However, there has been uptick in this in recent years due to unplanned development and haphazard construction, which has interfered with the city’s open canal drainage system,” says Dhanuraj. The route map of the Kochi Metro rail has substantial overlap with Kochi’s waterlogging prone zones and poorly planned construction has potentially exaggerated the issue, adds Dhanuraj. “There have been allegations that the Metro rails road-widening activities have infringed on the city’s canal system and disrupted the flow in critical places.”

The main problem though, according to Dhanuraj, is the confusion and lack of coordination that has arisen out of the KMRL’s involvement in other public works. “Regarding the Metro rail, the KMRL has gone beyond its original aim of setting up the rail network and has gotten involved in all sorts of public works activities, which are unconnected to them. This has resulted in very poor coordination where different state agencies, departments and local elected bodies are not on the same page. This has not only led to poor planning that adds to the city’s vulnerability to extreme climate and natural events, it also erodes accountability and transparency that one seeks in institutions of governance.”

This lack of coordination and planning is not an exception, but seemingly a feature of Metro projects around the country. “When they widened the highway in Mumbai and concretised roads, authorities didn’t take into account the addition of Metro pillars. There is no coordination between the city’s development agencies in the planning stage. Mumbai needs a single planning authority to get its infrastructure going. Here we create problems and then run around looking for solutions,” Dayanand says.

Failing to keep pace with climate change

Even as the country struggles to contend with the spate of extreme rain and flooding events, there is little evidence to suggest that any lessons are being learnt for future endeavours.

For India’s many Metro rail projects, the lack of adaptability to climate change is borne right at conception with exemptions from environmental impact assessments. The lack of regulatory oversight means there is little incentive to include environmental and climate risks, and strategies for adaptation, in feasibility reports and detailed project reports. Unsurprisingly, vulnerability to waterlogging and flood risks are nowhere to be found in the vast majority. 

India’s response to urban flooding must move beyond constructing roadside drains with obsolete designs to incorporating green infrastructure measures, which has not only been shown to be cheaper, but also offer more than just upgrading, expanding or retrofitting traditional drainage systems.

There is no denying that critical infrastructure projects, particularly those that aid public mobility such as the Metro rail, are potential game-changers when it comes to energy and air pollution concerns. However, at the same time, these gains stand to be greatly compromised if these projects are not aligned with a future that is becoming more probable with each passing year. With the predicted changes in extreme precipitation events already underway, we are way past the point where lawmakers and development agencies must swallow the realities of climate change, and not just keep it at the tip of their tongues.

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