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Accidentally Venetian

Accidentally Venetian

Inaugurating a new flyover or metro rail may be a better photo op than cleaning it, but it’s a compromise on maintenance that may be responsible for Indian cities getting regularly submerged

In the recent past, we have seen several examples of a city virtually going under water after one heavy downpour. The most recent was in Delhi, when even US Secretary of State John Kerry, was not spared despite the meticulous arrangements that would otherwise have been made for him. This prompted Kerry to enquire from the students of IIT-Delhi if they arrived in boats.

This is indeed a sorry state of affairs, especially at a time when we are talking of Smart Cities. For such a thing to happen in the nation’s capital is indeed tragic as it leaves a poor image of how our cities are managed. Obviously, questions will be asked about why this happens and what can be done to remedy the situation. Enquiries will be conducted, some officials punished and then things will be forgotten as soon as the media stops reporting them.

The general belief is that some officials and politicians have been corrupt or callous or not sincere in performing their duties. While this may be true to some extent, it would be a mistake to leave it at that and not look at deeper systemic problems that need to be addressed.

Inside Issues

I would divide the problems into three categories -design problems, maintenance problems and resource problems. There are technical manuals that lay down the standards for the design of our drainage systems. Typically, these standards are based on the likely severity of storms. Unfortunately, this severity, especially in the context of climate change, has been going up. As a result the capacity of the drainage system is proving inadequate and just not able to discharge the volumes of water that seem to be coming down on us. It is, therefore, very important that our design standards are reviewed in the context of recent experience and suitably corrected.

In terms of maintenance issues, it is well known that storms bring large quantities of silt into the drainage system. The silt deposits often use up as much as 30% of the drainage space and reduce the discharge capacity. Due to the dry weather between the monsoon months, the silt tends to harden and does not get flushed out in the next monsoon or even get cleaned with superficial cleaning before the next monsoon. It is, therefore, important that the drains are cleaned immediately after the monsoons and again before the next monsoon. They should be cleaned before the silt hardens.

One other problem encountered frequently is that when the sewerage system proves inadequate, local bodies tend to use short cuts by connecting it to the drainage system to facilitate easier disposal of the sewerage system. However, apart from being a serious health hazard, this also reduces the capacity of the drainage system further. This practice needs to stop. The two systems are different and need to remain so.

The Supreme Court has rightly prohibited human beings from going into the sewerage network for cleaning it. This is a serious risk to the person who does the cleaning. However, this also means that mechanical methods of cleaning have to be deployed and most local bodies do not have the resources for adequate cleaning equipment. It is essential that this should be provided.

This brings us to the final issue relating to the resource problems, which is perhaps the most important. When I say resource problems, I mean both financial resources and human resources. In terms of financial resources, we must realise that as we build more capital assets, we will need to spend proportionately larger amounts on their maintenance. Unfortunately, public programmes seem to be good at providing funds for capital assets but not for their annual maintenance.They tend to leave the annual maintenance responsibility to local bodies, who can raise the funds either through increasing taxes (for which the avenues are very limited for them) or increasing the fee for services (which is politically very unpopular). So what can they do, other than compromise on maintenance? Besides, inaugurating a new flyover or a metro rail system is a much better photo opportunity than cleaning a drain. Therefore, it is very important to use one’s limited financial resources sensibly and also not fight shy of levying a higher charge for improved services. There is no escape from this.

Bridging Capacity Gaps

Coming to our financial resources, it is well acknowledged that our cities face serious capacity gaps. Both the JNNURM and the new AMRUT programmes recognise this and have provided adequate funds for capacity building. Unfortunately a well-designed and scientific capacity building plan has not been taken up.Merely conducting a few short training courses is not enough. It needs a scientific plan and a systematic approach with a clear goal and vision. Sadly, this is missing, despite huge amounts being allocated to capital investments in urban infrastructure.

Therefore, it would be a folly to think that corruption and callousness are the only reasons for our cities going under water with just one heavy rain. There are other problems as well. Gaps in financial and human resources, outdated design standards and poor maintenance practices contribute significantly and must also be addressed.

Author: OP Agarwal is Executive Director of the Punj Llyod Institute of Infrastructure Management at ISB and formal civil servant with wide experience in Urban Developement and Transport.

Source: This article is reproduced from The Economic Times dated September 04, 2016.

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