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How Safe is Our City?

Posted by Sanskriti on July 12, 2011

This is the original text in English of my article that appeared in Sakal on 12 July 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Panshet dam breach. The Sakal article (in Marathi) is at this link.

I grew up in IAT on one bank of the Khadakwasla Lake and went to school in NDA, on the other bank. My school bus went by the road adjoining the Khadakwasla dam and every day we would see the huge broken pieces of the old dam which was breached in 1961 when the upstream Panshet dam failed. Fortunately, there was no loss of life in that event of 50 years ago.

But, the population of Pune then was about 6 lakhs; there were hardly any slums and not so many people living in or near stream and river courses. Pune today is a highly dense, much built-up city.

With monsoon patterns becoming erratic due to Climate Change, Vijay Paranjpye says it is quite possible there might be an episode of 2-3 days of heavy rains in the catchment areas towards the end of the monsoon when the five upstream dams are 90% full. Planned discharges from the dams may cause flooding in Pune and this time round a much larger population would have to be evacuated.

Pune is on the verge of three types of disasters according to Sufi Pore, Former Director Disaster Management Training Institute, Mumbai, and who is on the UN list of disaster incident commanders. The number and intensity of earthquakes near Pune is increasing. Their epicentre is typically near Katraj. A stronger quake would affect Khadakwasla and Panshet dams. Another vulnerability is the number of tankers carrying hazardous chemicals, gas, acid on Mumbai-Bangalore highway. In the past, accidents have happened requiring evacuation in a radius of 5 km. If such an accident happens near Chandni Chowk, evacuation would be quite difficult. A third vulnerability is related to terrorist attacks, including biological weapons such as viruses. Even in epidemics, the capability for quarantine is limited.

On this day, the 50th anniversary of the Panshet dam failure disaster, it is pertinent to ask some questions: How prepared is our city to face disasters? Are we taking any preventive steps?

As per the National Disaster Management Act 2005, the District Disaster Management Authority is the main body for planning, coordinating and implementing the measures for disaster management in the district. Urban local bodies have a role too. The PMC has recently set up a Disaster Cell which has prepared a Hazards Response and Mitigation Plan focusing on fires (available on the PMC website). Mr Ganesh Sonwane, in charge of the Cell, says that training, capacity building and awareness efforts are underway. Plans have been made for enhancing the capacity for fire hazard handling equipment and personnel. But are these plans for hazard mitigation adequate?

Recent flooding events present mixed experiences. On the one hand we have read about heroic rescues by the Disaster Response Teams. We also get advisories on TV, radio, newspapers and over sms when planned dam releases are to take place. But I have also interacted with residents along the Ram Nadi who had flood water rising in their houses in a matter of minutes at night last year. No flood warning had been issued, and no officials came to their aid on the day of the flooding. The walls along the campuses of NCL, IITM and the defence estates act as mini dams for rain water rushing down the Chatushringi to Chandni Chowk range. Every monsoon we see flash flooding in these parts even with just a day of heavy rains. We witness landslides every year.

Clearly, our city is at risk. So what should be done? Architect and green building consultant, Anagha Paranjpe says that hazard mapping at the micro level should be done indicating areas prone to flooding, landslides, subsidence as well as congested areas etc. For risk reduction, we should respect the right of way of streams and rivers and the no-development zones on their banks. Of course, people living along the Ram Nadi will say that we don’t care whether you call it a stream or a river, the fact is that we are facing floods and marking a line on a map does not change that reality. Such actual experiences of the community must be taken into account when making micro-level hazard maps rather than sticking only to the theory of planning.

The master plan for the old city limits is being revised. While it is much delayed, this delay presents an opportunity to still try and integrate risk reduction measures in the master plan such as marking out no-development zones and rehabilitation of people living in risk-prone areas. There has to be recognition that the push for conversion of more and more open spaces including hills and wetlands into buildable zones often means increased risks to life and property.

The eco-housing policy that mandates rain water harvesting in every construction after the year 2000 should be reviewed. Geo-hydrologist Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, who is on the committee on sustainable ground water management set up by the Planning Commission, says that all areas of the city are not suitable for rain water recharge. In some places, due to the peculiar nature of the underlying basalt rock, harvesting rainwater and putting it into the ground can cause structural problems for buildings and may even lead to collapse. Instead of the current practice, a comprehensive and scientific aquifer management plan is needed which should be made after identifying the groundwater recharge zones and discharge zones in the city.

The national policy on disaster management recommends increased responsiveness towards vulnerable groups like slum dwellers, school children, poor households, construction workers, migrants etc. They call for conducting community‐based risk and vulnerability assessments and awareness drives through Residents Welfare Associations, traders and industry associations, NSS, schools etc. A clear disaster risk reduction strategy may not be available from the civic authorities. But we citizens should certainly demand for it. Strong democratic and participatory processes at the community level will enable people to be disaster prepared and we can all contribute to making our city a safer place.

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