Urban Floods Expose Ugly Truths
Zirakpur, Dera Bassi and Kharar ‘development’ leaves questions unanswered
The recent spell of heavy rain and urban flooding, has laid bare some ugly truths about the periphery of India’s first planned city of Chandigarh. The dismal scenario in what have come to be known as the satellite towns of the City Beautiful today puts them in the category of the dark underbelly of a modern city.
The ‘development’ that has taken place in places like Zirakpur, Dera Bassi and Kharar leaves so many questions to answer. The people who purchased houses in several localities here in the hope of a better life feel dejected and cheated at the hands of an unholy nexus.
In the last few years these places have come up as the most sought destinations for the people of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. They serve as the second homes of the fast emerging middle classes in these states who choose to work in the tri-city of Panchkula, Mohali and Chandigarh besides availing the education and health facilities available there.
Le Corbusier, the French architect behind India’s first planned city, envisioned Chandigarh as symbolic of the essence of a modern democracy. It was to be a metropolis of ideas and ambition “unfettered by the traditions of the past” according to Jawarhalal Nehru.
Beyond Chandigarh’s carefully curated sectors arranged in a gridlock pattern lie the satellite townships of Panchkula, Mohali, Zirakpur, Kharar, and Dera Bassi. The last three areas have been inundated by a severe flooding water logging crisis.
Visuals of sunken vehicles, and apartment dwellers wading through waist-deep water emerged on social media. Residents of the Mohali region complained of hundreds of houses being flooded as local businesses were forced to a standstill.
While many standalone houses were reported as having collapsed, it was the numerous apartment complexes, and societies, that were particularly affected in all the regions of the outskirts.
A young IT professional residing in one of the most affected societies in the Dera Bassi region complained of the daily dilemma of life in the Tri-city. “I came here because housing in Chandigarh is exorbitant, and the society advertised itself as being ‘Chandigarh-Adjacent’ and boasted numerous facilities,” he said.
He added that he has only felt disappointment ever since he moved, citing a near constant problem of drainage and water logging. This only got predictably aggravated by the excessive rainfall this past week. “What use is a so-called gated society when the flooding makes it impossible to even enter or leave?” he added.
The question here is how these things have come to pass? If one goes back a couple of decades these areas that now boast of multi-storey residential and business complexes, were nothing but fields dotted with small ponds. It was only after the year 2000 that things picked up and the entire land was taken over by builders who prefer calling themselves as ‘developers’.
The officialdom and politicians pitched in by facilitating hideous constructions that threw all the laws and by-laws to the winds.
All that has resulted in residential schemes with improper sewerage systems, and almost non-existent drainage systems in the residential societies marketed as upmarket gated societies.
The builders on their part just pocket their money and left the buyers to fend for themselves. The system is such that such criminal acts hardly make it to the pages of the newspapers given the pitiable state of the mainstream media.
While an immense amount of thought went into planning the architecture of ‘The City Beautiful’, with a special emphasis on ideating structures that balanced meaning and utility-not so much in its satellite townships. From its spacious boulevards flanked by manicured gardens, to the ‘pits of contemplation’ areas that aimed to foster public debate and conversation, right down to the manhole covers in the same grid like pattern as the city itself; city planners seemed to foresee every facet of a futuristic city, except the possibility of a growing population.
While Corbusier may not have anticipated the growth of the Indian fertility rate or migration from neighbouring states, he undoubtedly focused on the integration of man and cosmos. Planned and unplanned cities aside, it is precisely this focus that separates infrastructure in Chandigarh from that of its outskirts.
Chandigarh today stands out as an ivory tower surrounded by a contrasting mesh of Kharar, Zirakpur and Dera Bassi which is now expanding towards Banur, Rajpura and Kurali. It needs to be pointed out that Chandigarh is a unique city. Besides being the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, it is also a Union Territory where by-laws have largely prevented vertical expansion.
Horizontally it has almost reached its limits making housing in the city prohibitively expensive. A Supreme Court judgement reportedly prohibiting fragmentation/division/bifurcation/apartmentalisation of a residential unit between Sector 1 to Sector 30 of Chandigarh in view of its heritage status has further added to the limited availability of housing in the city limits.
Former director of town planning in Haryana Government, Hitendar Singh, pointed out that, “the state governments need to ensure that private developers are actually laying down the required sewer and drainage systems before embarking on ambitious public-private partnership projects, as opposed to just vaguely planning to do so”.
He added that the water logging crisis was inevitable in the concrete flatlands of the suburbs, where the illegal encroachment upon natural drains was a common phenomena, coupled with inadequate rainwater disposal mechanisms.
In an era of satellite and geographical information system (GIS) mapping, the authorities seemed to have failed to check the construction on patches that were actually water bodies. To make it worse these properties are duly registered with the purchasers having paid the required revenue fee. In a way an ‘illegal’ development has been made ‘legal’ with the people having been left in the lurch.
The Punjab Periphery Control Act, 1952, disallowed construction 16 km outside the Chandigarh boundary, with an aim to preserve the agricultural land that surrounded the city. However, with the breakdown of the Punjab state, newly formed Haryana and Punjab endeavoured to rapidly acquire and build alongside the shared capital city.
Steadily increasing urbanisation, and the migration of Haryana and Punjab residents to the outskirts, led to the development of satellite cities built over the natural water retention areas, and encroached upon the ‘Choe’ or seasonal streams that originated from the Shivalik Hills.
“A lot of this issue stems not merely with government policies which often just involve ticks in the boxes of a hypothetical set of plans, but in the actual implementation of such plans to be followed before construction, as well as regular maintenance of the same”, Kapil Setia, the chief architect of Chandigarh said.
He added that the apartment complexes that mushroomed around the city often exist as isolated concrete islands, often hastily constructed without any integration. Such integration, he clarified, should exist not merely in terms of transport and accessibility (as they often advertise to be), but to the drainage and sewerage system.
And, as Le Corbusier had always intended, to the wider cosmos of the natural world, comprising rivulets, streams, and water retention lands.
The water logging crisis urgently necessitates attention towards the wider issues of unsustainable development and town planning amidst rapid urbanisation. The outskirts exist as an antithesis to the city that Corbusier planned and Nehru ideated, unplanned, unregulated, and one that imposes itself upon nature.