A car was swept away by gushing rainwater. Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force personnel and firefighters rescued marooned people. The administration provided food to those unable to come out of their houses. People waded through waist-deep water. Pumps were used to drain out water from residential areas. This was the first time in years that Odisha capital Bhubaneswar witnessed such scenes. Half the city went under water after it rained through the night of July 20. More rains followed the next day, washing away all the grandstanding by the Odisha government and the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) about being the ‘No. 1 Smart City’ in India.
Bhubaneswar received the highest rainfall of 180.6 mm on a single day after the Phailin cyclone in 2013 when the city had recorded 184 mm on October 13. Jatani block of Khordha district (of which Bhubaneswar is a part) and Barang block of neighbouring Cuttack district received 255 mm and 205 mm, respectively, surpassing both Phailin (215 mm and 120 mm) and the 1999 Super Cyclone (213 mm and 60 mm).
“The rainfall was heavy this time, but not so heavy as to cause the catastrophe it did,” says Ranjit Patnaik, a resident of Shahid Nagar, a residential colony in Bhubaneswar. Once upon a time the city was known for its natural drainage system. “No matter how long and hard it rained, it took just a few minutes after the rain stopped for the water to clear out. Now, it takes three days after just an hour of heavy rain,” says Pitambar Pradhan, a 78-year-old retired government official who has lived in the city for over 50 years. How the city turned into one where water-logging is the norm on rainy days is a study in all that is wrong with our urban planning.
Retired IAS officer Prasanna Mishra, who has seen Bhubaneswar grow from a sleepy town of a few thousand people into a bustling, million-plus city, hits the nail on the head when he says, “Unplanned and unruly expansion has been the bane of the city.” Rapid growth during the 1990s saw the Master Plan thrown out of the window and permissions granted for high-rise apartments and buildings, which ended up blocking the major drainage lines that used to flush out rainwater. Environmentalists also blame water bodies vanishing to make way for housing and commercial activities, besides climate change resulting in uneven patterns of rain. Just three days of heavy rain not only offset the 19 per cent rain deficiency that Khordha faced till July 7, but also ran up a surplus of 29 per cent. Plastic waste clogging drainage is another major contributor to urban flooding.
Construction of a series of flyovers on National Highway No. 16, which cuts the city into two halves, made things worse. Nowhere is this more evident than on the stretch of road in front of ISKCON temple in Bhubaneswar, where dozens of cars and bikes get stranded in water every time there is rain. This time, firefighters had to be brought in to evacuate passengers from a bus that got stuck there.
Stung by the flood of criticism, the BMC has now promised action. “Around 10 sensitive places where people have encroached on the Gangua Nullah, the main drainage in the city, have been identified. Encroachers will be evicted and the nullah restored to its original size in a year’s time,” Mayor Ananta Narayan Jena promised on July 23. Urban planner Piyush Rout, however, is sceptical. “The BMC’s past record doesn’t inspire confidence in its ability to clear the blocked drainage lines,” says Rout, adding that the recently announced state government scheme to regularise unauthorised constructions would make the removal of encroachments more difficult. But if the authorities heed the warning signals even at this late stage, something may still be done to ensure better preparedness the next time the heavens open up.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar