In the middle of October, people across India were startled by horrific videos of flooding in Hyderabad. One video from the Falaknuma area showed a man being swept away by the gushing water. Others showed cars bobbing around like rubber ducks in a bathtub. The city’s administrators said that the rainfall between October 14 and October 21 was so intense, the city’s drainage system did not have the capacity to handle it.

That would have been a credible claim if the waterlogging had been a one-off phenomenon. But Hyderabadis complain that the city has begun to flood routinely over the past decade, irrespective of the quantum of rainfall.

Among the key reasons for this regular waterlogging is the rapid concretisation of the city, as buildings take over open spaces, nalas, tanks, ponds and lakes. This concretisation is the result of municipal policies relating to development, roads, transport, buildings and real estate, dictated by the Telangana government, without public debate and consultation.

Rise in built-up area

In its publications and press releases, the Telangana government has taken great pride in highlighting the fact that it has added 129.55 million sq. ft of built-up space over the past five years in the 625-sq-km Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation area.

As per the annual report of the Municipal Administration and Urban Development Department 2019-20, the total commercial built-up area in Hyderabad increased by 50.7 million sq.ft between 2010 and 2014. Between 2015 and 2019, it increased by 100.44 million sq.ft. The municipality expects an addition of another 60 million sq.ft in the coming years.

In the five years since 2015, Hyderabad added 392.14 million sq ft of built-up residential area. In addition, roads and other common facilities were added.

Much of the built-up space was the result of land-use changes that came from flattening hillocks and filling up low-lying areas, streams and tanks. This altered the manner in which rainfall in the city is stored on and runs off the land surface. The increased concretisation of the city and building in natural storage areas that allowed water to percolate into the ground has vastly increased the load on the drainage network. As this network becomes increasingly overburdened, streets turn into streams with heavy rains.

A study on cities by researchers at Chennai’s Hindustan University in 2013 showed that the built-up area in Hyderabad had increased 136% between 1973 and 1996, from 245 to 587 The annual rate of growth in the city’s built-up area was 3.77% between 1973 and 1983, 4.95% between 1983 and 1991 and 2.37% between 1991 and 1996.

This built-up area increased at a much higher rate (44.5%) in the peripheral areas than that in the core city (2.7%). Even though there was some increase in the open spaces, playground and recreational areas from 6.3 sq km to 12.2 between 1973 and 1996, some of this was in lake beds, the study said.

A scene from flooded Hyderabad on September 14, 2017. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Between 1973 AND 1996, more than 128 sq. km of agricultural land in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal area vanished. During that period, the area under dense vegetation (such as plantations or gardens) reduced by 6.4% from 40.33 sq km to 37.73 There was a substantial decline in the share of scrubland, from 20.1 sq km to 13.4 sq km and also in the barren rocky areas.

The area under water bodies such as reservoirs and tanks fell by 8.6% from 22.79 sq km to 20.84

According to a study on Hyderabad flooding published last year by researchers at the Hyderabad campus of the Department of Civil Engineering, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, rainfall patterns have changed An increase of about 54% in extreme rainfall events was reported, between 1975 and 2016. As a result, both the frequency and intensity of floods increased. If the built-up continues to increase in Hyderabad, there is a possibility of more environmental disasters.

Changing regulations

One of the prime reasons for the increase in built-up area and encroachment of water bodies is the ease of getting permissions. In 2016, the Municipal Administration and Urban Development Department of the Telangana government introduced the Development Permission Management System, an online building plan approval system. In 2019-2020, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation earned Rs 986.44 crores by issuing 17,538 building permissions. This number it claims is more than 100% increase in the last four years.

Relaxations for building permissions, ostensibly to improve Ease of Doing Business, also added to this. The Transfer Development Rights policy, Land Regularisation Scheme and Building Regularisation Scheme legitimised encroachments on open spaces. The occupation of nalas and tanks were regularised under the Land Regularisation scheme. Buildings constructed on unauthorised lands and without adhering to the zonal regulations of the city Master Plan were regularised.

Adding to this, on September 15, the Telangana government passed a law titled TS-bPASS (Telangana State Building Permission Approval and Self-certification System), a self-certification online based time-bound building and layout approval system.

The overall growth rate of building permissions between 2016-’17 and 2018-’19 was 51.92%.

This is all very lucrative. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation earned Rs.3,507 crore from these building permissions between 2015 and 2019. In the same period, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Agency, which has the mandate to regulate development in Hyderabad Metropolitan Region, surrounding the municipality corporation area, earned Rs.2,000 crore from permitting the construction of 29.11 million sq.ft. in the Hyderabad Metropolitan Region that surrounds the municipal area.

Both the agencies, with urban planning as a major objective in their mandate, continue to derive income from permissions for land conversions and building permissions, ignoring the impacts.

They have failed to assess the cost of the spread of concrete structures on the environment, people and ecology. The floods of October 2020 floods are testimony to the folly of these policies.

Dr. Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a public policy reviewer. He has been working on environment and development challenges for more than 30 years.