Millennium Post

Status Quo: Managing the deluge

Even 40 years after India’s only commission on floods was constituted, the situation has not improved. There is no national-level flood control authority in the country. Rashtriya Barh Ayog (National Flood Commission or RBA) was set up by the then Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in 1976 to study India’s flood control measures after the projects launched under the National Flood Control Programme of 1954 failed to achieve significant success. In 1980, RBA made 207 recommendations and four broad observations. 

First, it said that there was no increase in rainfall in India and, so the increase in floods was due to anthropogenic factors like deforestation, drainage congestion, and badly planned development works. 

Second, it questioned the effectiveness of the methods adopted to control floods, for instance, embankments and reservoirs, and suggested that the construction of these structures be halted till their efficacy was ascertained. However, it did say that embankments could be constructed in areas where they were effective. 

Third, it said that consolidated efforts among the states and the Centre to take up research and policy initiative to control floods must happen. Fourth, it recommended a dynamic strategy to cope with the changing nature of floods.

An analysis of the report suggests that the problem begins with the methods of estimating the flood-prone area of the country. An accurate estimate is crucial for framing flood management programmes. RBA estimated that the total area vulnerable to floods in 1980 was around 40 million hectares. The figure was reached by calculating the maximum area affected by floods in all the states in any one of the years between 1953 and 1979, and adding to it the area where flood protection works had been undertaken. The areas where protection works failed were then subtracted from this total.

However, this is a flawed methodology and RBA itself acknowledges this fact. “It is clear that while the maximum area flooded in any one year may broadly indicate the degree of the flood problem in a state, it does not strictly indicate the area “liable” to floods as different areas may be flooded in different years,” states the report.

There is another problem. The very definition of a flood-prone area does not reflect the effectiveness of the flood management works undertaken, wrote G S Purba, former Chief Engineer at Central Water Commission (CWC), in a paper presented at the Indian Disaster Management Congress in 2006. “One reason for this could be that we are still unsure of the performance of flood management measures,” says V D Roy, member, CWC.

Despite its flaws, the method continues to be used. “We have begun collecting data for a more scientific assessment—one that relies on frequency-based climate modelling— but adopting it with full force will take time,” says Roy. In a 2011 meeting of the working group on flood management for the 12th Five Year Plan, C Lal, Director of Flood Management Programme, CWC, acknowledged that scientific criteria need to be adopted to assess flood-prone areas. This should be based on the frequency of flooding and period of inundation as gauged by contour maps and satellite imagery, he suggested.

The RBA report also recognised the need for timely evaluation of flood management projects. It entrusted state irrigation and flood control departments, CWC, Ganga Flood Control Commission, and the Brahmaputra Board with the task of adopting or discarding them on the basis of their performance. But this has not been the case. “In 2001, we found that state governments had hardly done any assessments of flood control projects,” says R Rangachari, chairperson of the committee and former CWC member. 

Even when flood management projects are evaluated, the reports are not credible. “Most post project evaluations that we laid our hands on did not have enough data,” says Rangachari. Moreover, the evaluation is generally done by departments that undertake flood-control projects. “I haven’t come across any third-party evaluation of flood management projects in Assam,” says Goswami. 

A major problem is a lack of action on recommendations of evaluation reports. For instance, in 1978, RBA asked Programme Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission to review the Kosi embankments. The study, published in 1979, concluded that embankments had, in fact, enhanced the flood problem. But still, the embankments were raised by 2 m in 1987-88.

Another key recommendation of the report was that state governments should legislate on floodplain management, particularly encroachment and floodplain zoning (demarcating a floodplain into zones and specifying the level of development allowed in each). But apart from Rajasthan and Manipur, no state has enacted laws on floodplain zoning. Same is the case with legislations on encroachment. 

Only Bihar, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have laws against the encroachment of floodplains. Even Assam, a state that gets flooded almost every alternate year, does not have specific laws against floodplain encroachment. State governments argue that such laws would hinder development.

The RBA report also said that state governments must focus on maintenance of completed works rather than constructing new structures. In Assam, for instance, over 4,470 km of embankments were constructed till the 1970s, says Ravindranath, founder of Assam-based non-profit Rural Volunteers Centre. But these get breached every year. 

Over 90 percent of these have outlived their life and need maintenance. During floods this year, breaches were reported at 28 places, stated water resources minister of Assam Keshab Mahanta in the Assembly on August 11. 

In 1981, the government accepted all RBA recommendations and circulated them to the states and concerned ministries. This was the first attempt in the country to evolve a national response to floods. However, between 1987 and 2001, CWC, four regional task forces, Planning Commission’s working groups on water and flood management, and an expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Water Resources reviewed the implementation. They found that the recommendations had not been implemented. The expert committee, the last major effort to track the RBA recommendations, had 10 meetings with various groups and state governments and undertook field trips to flood-prone areas.  

It concluded that while international and inter-state issues, fund constraints, population pressure, and lack of infrastructure were the main difficulties in implementation of some of the recommendations, there were several others which could have been implemented. “It has been 12 years since we pointed out the loopholes in implementation, point by point, but little action has been taken by the states and the Centre,” says Rangachari. DOWN TO EARTH

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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