By Bisweswar Morang*
Mr. Himanshu Thakkar is the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). It is an informal network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to rivers, communities and large-scale water infrastructure like dams and their environmental and social impacts. It also publishes a journal titled “Dams, Rivers and People”. Mr. Thakkar, an engineering graduate from IIT Bombay, has worked for these issues for more than twenty-five years and has been associated with the work of World Commission on Dams, Narmada Bachao Aandolan, and Center for Science and Environment. The following is an interaction with him regarding some issues he is currently working on.
Floods in India
“When we say we want to look for solutions of flood, we need to first understand that all floods are not same.” says Mr. Thakkar when asked about some solutions for flood disaster. According to him, the answer clearly is that we’ll first have to assess what are the characteristics of the flood. Moreover, flood doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. Flood is part of a natural cycle in a monsoon driven climate like that of India. It is inevitable. One cannot flood-proof the Ganga or the Brahmaputra basin. So, when we talk about solutions of flood, we necessarily mean what can be done to reduce the impact of flood on human establishments. And herein comes the question of the characteristics of flood because a flood due to a dam upstream would be very different from a flood due to excessive rain or cloudburst.
The first thing in reducing the impact of flood is forecasting. If there is a good forecasting system in place, then a lot of the damage could be reduced. There needs to be a flood management system in place which would become active whenever there is a flood warning.
Also important is the operation of dams or management of embankments in the upstream. These structures have a certain capacity which can deteriorate over time due to deposition, changing rain-fall patterns, or lack of maintenance. Then the assessment of the current capacities and vulnerabilities is also a part of flood management. These are non-structural measures which could be very crucial in the mitigation of a flood disaster. But very little attention is paid to non-structural measures in India. Structural measures like dams, embankments, and river-front structures are broadly considered the primary solutions for flood prevention and mitigation.
On being asked about the effectiveness of Government bodies and institutions in flood management, Mr. Thakkar points out to the different roles that the different institutions need to play. For instance, Indian Meteorological Department has a role of providing advanced accurate rain forecast in the catchment area while the Disaster Management authorities at the district, state and national levels have to prepare for evacuation, rescue and relief. Then there are government agencies like the CWC, the different river boards, and management authorities of big dams and embankments. Mr. Thakkar goes on to say that most of these institutions, however, have a long way to go in achieving their full effectiveness in mitigation of flood. They are not very good at implementing non-structural measures for prevention of flood disasters. In fact, India is very good at managing a disaster once it had happened, but we are not very good at predicting and preventing disasters that can be prevented through systematic measures.
On being asked about his views on big river projects of recent times like the Namami Gange project, Mr. Thakkar goes on to explain how we are ignoring the important things while spending large amounts of money on certain others. According to him, the most important characteristic of a river is its flow. A river like Ganga needs to flow perennially without any issues. But if we observe the river in places like, say Varanasi, we will notice that in most months after monsoon, there is very little fresh-water flow. Most of the flow is actually sewage, which is also true for many other rivers, like the Yamuna in Delhi. These projects do not have any concrete strategies to ensure that the rivers get back their flow.
Mr. Thakkar is of the view that India is actually exporting huge quantities of water. Explaining further, he says that by incentivising the export of water intensive crops like sugar and rice grown mostly in the fertile river plains, we are in essence exporting our river water while doing nothing to ensure their continued flow. We need to have a strategy to ensure sustainable usage and prevent overuse. Also, very little attention is paid to the tributaries of a river whereas rejuvenating the tributaries can automatically help in the rejuvenation of the river.
The most important thing to achieve clean Ganga or any other river for that matter, according to Mr. Thakkar, is to ensure proper Governance. Explaining further he says the whole focus of the Government or its agencies is on infrastructure and technology. They want to show how many thousand crores were spent on which projects. But the point is that all of these, infrastructure, technology and money, are mere instruments. They will deliver whatever they are supposed to deliver only when there is credible governance in place. Governance, which is accountable, transparent and participatory. For example, consider the STPs in Delhi. Every STP should have a management committee in which 50% people should be from the Government and the respective departments, and the rest 50% should be from the outside, people who are independent and ready to speak their mind. They should have the right to access of all information and data, to inspect and to ask questions to the concerned persons, and so on. This kind of committee would help achieve some sort of transparency, accountability, and participation. Now if we have similar management committees for dams, rivers, and in fact every city, far better governance would be ensured.
*IIM Ahmedabad | PGP in Management | Class of 2022