How 330 mm of Rain Flushed Down 15 Years of Urban Development in Bihar

Why Patna had to go through what it did this season.

“The climate is changing and this heavy rainfall is due to the Hathiya Nakshatra. Such rainfall is common during the Hathiya”, thundered Nitish Kumar, trying to mock the press gathered in front of him.

A chief minister blaming astrology and climate change for water logging in the capital city of his state could be the worst nightmare for the citizens of that state. But it’s the new normal in Bihar where the chief minister and his ministers are busy blaming nature and ‘nakshatra’ for the unprecedented water logging in the city of Patna.

Instead of fixing responsibility, the administration is trying to paint its humungous failure into a natural calamity. 

The water logging or urban floods in the city of Patna are not at all a natural calamity as is being claimed by ‘Sushasan Babu’ and his administration. For long, Nitish has been called by this epithet for his able administration. These floods, however, exemplify how man-made disasters are created by a lacklustre, almost non-existent municipal corporation and corrupt urban development authorities.

Also read: For Nitish’s Political Future, the Bihar Floods Couldn’t Have Come at a Worse Time

The chief minister also said that when waterlogging happens in Mumbai and America no one is bothered enough to raise questions. But ‘Mr. Good Governance’ needs to know that unlike Mumbai and America, water logged Patna is living evidence of how 15 years of urban development has resulted in nothing but the concretisation of the city. 

People affected by waterlogging near Prem Chand Rang Shala area in Rajendra Nagar. Photo: By special arrangement

Fifty five people died and thousands suffered as most parts of the city of Patna remained water logged for after 330 mm of incessant rainfall in just 48 hours since September 28. It’s been almost a week since the water logging but the city still stinks as filth remains accumulated in all localities of Patna. What is even worse is that now the fear of epidemics like dengue and malaria has increased as 640 patients have already tested positive for dengue.

What Patna has reaped and will continue to reap are not the results of natural calamity; it has rather reaped the fruits of neglect by and corruption in the same administration that citizens have nurtured in the name of development. 

Urban development has never been on the agenda of the Bihar government. All that it has done in its name is the concretisation of cities. And this formula of urban planning was bound to fail.

A detailed study of the sequence of events would provide a clear picture of why. 

The Sump House Factor

As many as 38 out of the 39 sump houses in the Patna Municipal Area failed to work as they were all found to be defunct due to some reason or the other.

Patna is geographically bound by water bodies on three sides. It is situated at a lower slope than the surrounding water bodies, in the shape of a bowl.

Dr. Deepak Kumar, assistant professor of Geography in Daudnagar College of Magadh University says, “In situations where the ground is at a lower level, a sump plays an important role in sucking out storm water and thereby minimising water logging”.

Apart from these smaller sump houses the big ones in Jogipur, Saidpur and the NBCC sumps in Kankarbagh were non-functional as well. In total, these pumps with a combined power of 22,645 HP, could have pumped out 10,689 million litres per day (MLD).

Waterlogged Rajendra Nagar Hospital. Photo: By special arrangement

But all this came to nought as none of the pumps worked in the initial few days, thereby becoming the most prominent reason for water logging in Kankarbagh and Rajendra Nagar Colonies.   

Lacklustre attitude of administration

The sump houses did not stop working on their own. Prior to last year, the sump house system was under the administrative control of Bihar Rajya Jal Parishad.

But with the absorption of the Jal Parishad into the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation (BUIDCO), the responsibility of running the sump houses was outsourced to private agencies.

Meera Devi, the deputy mayor of Patna Municipal Corporation, is of the view that outsourcing of the sump houses was a grave mistake by BUIDCO. “After the Jal Board was amalgamated with BUIDCO, the contract for running the sump house system was given to those who didn’t even know the functioning of it…the result is in front of you… none of the sumps worked. Rather, parts of many sumps were missing and gallons of diesel was never to be found.”

The administrative units lacked co-ordination as BUIDCO and Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) were on two different planes regarding preparedness before the heavy rains and also during rescue. The only thing common between the two was that both were clueless about the steps to be taken. On being asked about the co-ordination between the two, Meera Devi says, “During my tenure, there were no meetings of BUIDCO and PMC, let alone discussions on preparedness for rains or plans on rescue operations”.

The Namami Gange conundrum

Along with the sump house failure, what hampered the drainage system, (if there exists any) was the ongoing works of development for the ‘smart city project’.

‘Namami Gange’, one of the dream projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has also played its part in keeping Patna stranded for four days. Sewer pipelines are being laid down in the entire city and this has led to damage of the previous drainage system by breaking drainage pipes, creating manholes, puddles and ditches which have further assisted the accumulation of water in the city.

The Namami Gange project comes directly under BUIDCO, while the drainage system is being controlled by the PMC. Another tussle of agencies was seen and non-coordination resulted in making situations even worse.   

De-Silting the budget instead of drains

The non-functional sump houses and the unplanned construction of sewer lines could have still been cured had there been proper preparedness for the situation.

The authorities were sleeping when the India Meteorological Department warned of heavy rains 72 hours prior to the actual rains.

The authorities took the warning very lightly and did not bother to prepare. The unpreparedness was so much that even the drains were not desilted properly. A budget of Rs 6 crore had been allocated for the desilting of the drains, however, they were not done properly, as a result of which most of the water did not reach sump houses quickly.

When the water finally reached, the sump houses themselves were either submerged or non-functional. The utilisation of funds was done in such an opaque manner that even the Deputy Mayor had no idea about how they were spent. “Where did the Rs 6 crore allocated for desilting go? Even I want to know about it,” said a clueless Meera Devi.   

A rickshaw puller stuck in logged water. Photo: By special arrangement

A construction site called Patna

A clear look at the city, even by a layman would give an impression that the city has been in the phase of construction since time immemorial.

Flyovers after flyovers have created an ugly looking ‘net’ in the lower skies of Patna. Then there are the roads, suspended in a state of being built. Rather than beautifying the city or decreasing pollution or the number of traffic jams, these projects have turned the city into a messy construction site. 

Three major road construction projects are going on in the city, the R-Block-Digha road, the Lohia Pathchakra in Bialey Road and the Mithapur-Karbigahiya Flyover in Mithapur. Satyam Kumar Jha, a resident of Patna who actively participated in the relief and rescue operations feels that these projects, especially the R-Block-Digha Road project was majorly responsible for water logging in various localities.

Satyam said, “The road between R-Block and Digha is being constructed on the R-Block-Digha railway line. This railway line crosses various underpasses and nullahs in the journey. However, the road is being built in a haphazard manner. Many of the underpasses and nullahs are choked and broken by debris accumulated by construction of the road, which consequently block the flow of water. During the heavy downpour, this construction failure was exposed as it led to unprecedented water logging in colonies such as Patel Nagar, Indrapuri, Shivpuri, Rajiv Nagar and so on.”

A water-logged parking area of one of the New Patna Colonies. Photo: By special arrangement

Satyam also raised doubts on the planning of the government by questioning the timing of the constructions, “Everybody knows that in monsoons, we are not supposed to do construction, rather we clear the mess from the drains so that the city can be saved from water logging.”

It is not just situational mismanagement that could be regarded as the sole reason for the disease epidemic that’s going to break in Patna now. The disease that the city is suffering from has its roots in the unplanned structure of the city.

Uncontrolled and unplanned expansion

From Khemnichak and Brahmpur in the south to New Azimabad in north and Saguna More or Gola road in the west, localities have been built by filling up ponds, wetlands and low-lying areas which served as the drainage system and maintained the ground water table of the city. Nearly 2.5 lakh people live in a dozen colonies in the area located south of the Bypass Road in Patna.

Bihar’s capital is reeling under population pressure, and situations like the current water logging expose this weakness of the city. 

Newly built colonies in Patna’s Kankarbagh area. Photo: By special arrangement

Ranjiv Kumar, convenor of the Nadi Wapsi Abhiyan Samiti, is not surprised by the grim situation. He feels that over the years, Patna has been developed in such a way that situations like this would become the new normal.

“Patna is a city built on the grave of its ponds. Be it Tara Mandal, Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (IGIMS), Nalanda Medical College and Hospital (NMCH) or the newly built colonies such as Hanuman Nagar, Rajiv Nagar etc. they are all built by filling up of the ponds and wetlands. In such a  situation, where would the water go, it has no way to seep into the earth, it stays right on to the road, giving the ugly picture of development to the citizens”. 

Further, the Patna Bus Stand at Mithapur, National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Chanakya National Law University (CNLU), Aryabhatta Knowledge University and Chandra Gupta Institute of Management (CIMP), are all built on what was previously known as the Mithapur Wetlands, giving weightage to Ranjiv Kumar’s claims of ‘blind development’. 

The newly envisaged smart city project has allocated a budget of Rs 2,700 crores for Patna. 

Thanks to this, the remaining ponds are either being filled to make big buildings or are being converted into recreational spots under the Patna Smart City scheme. Ranjiv is perturbed by this decision making of the government but he is not surprised.

“Managal Talab in Patna city is an example of how ponds are best suited for the drainage of this city. Even in this era of submersible pumps, the ground water level near this pond is a constant at 150 metres. Not only this, during heavy rains, it comes as a respite for the locals as the problem of water logging is also minimised through the pond. Instead of learning from this, the government is busy commercialising everything,” says the scholar. 

The PPP model of encroachment

While the government is commercialising commons, privatising ponds, and bulldozer-ing green pastures, there is no dearth of private encroachments on drains, footpaths and even the manholes.

The government is responsible no doubt, but some accountability has to be fixed upon the public as well. In connivance with the government authorities, people try to grab every piece of land. Commenting on this nature of the public, Dr. Deepak says, “People in Patna have become selfish with their land. Not only with their land, they try to grab the common land as well. Politicians may claim that they will get rid of this water logging in 48 hours, or save Patna from water logging in the future, but encroachment has reached such a level that apart from parks and government buildings, there is hardly any open space in the city. In such a situation, only an overhaul of planning can save the city.”

It is therefore no rocket science as to how the localities that faced the fury of the rains are also the worst hit by encroachment.  

On paper, use of polythene bags and plastic is banned in Patna, but the same is sold indiscriminately on the roads of the capital. People use it and authorities do nothing but seek “hafta” from sellers. This plastic has played a major role in blocking sewers and paralysing the drainage of the city. 

Plastic bottles and bags cleared from sewer lines in the city. Photo: By special arrangement

Ranjiv observes that urban planning is an art that Bihar needs to learn.

Once a self- sufficient economy based on agriculture, Bihar had the means to tackle every kind of natural calamity. Today however, the mad race of urban development has converted Patna and most other cities in Bihar into an unhygienic, unplanned filth, that can never be regarded as a city.

Dr. Deppak Kumar also observes that if we do not take lessons from such historic blunders on the part of administration, the city is bound to be doomed.