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Experts say that it isn’t too late for Hyderabad to save itself from the damage that incessant rains can result in. Control the bad policy making, unplanned orders and land grabbing. The major reason for this disaster is encroachments.
When K Mahesh bought a house built on a 140 square yard plot located in Sai Nagar in Hyderabad’s Chengicherla, never did he expect that he would end up seeing his entire area flooded during the heavy rains in Hyderabad. In 2007, he had bought this property for Rs 15 lakh, which was money saved from years of hard work. There are presently more than 100 houses located in this colony. Until a few years ago, Mahesh did not know that the land he had bought more than a decade ago was located on the Full Tank Limit (FTL) area of a waterbody.
Speaking to #KhabarLive, Mahesh says, “The officials who had visited from the gram panchayat informed residents that it was an FTL land and that flooding is likely every time it rains. I have been paying property tax and I was given an electricity and water connection. How is it now, that after all these years, they tell me that it is an illegal property?”
This is the same question bothering Mohammad Yasin, a techie from Nadeem Colony of Tolichowki. His three-floor home, barely 15 metres away from the Shah Hatim Lake, was fully submerged on October 13, “My father bought this plot a decade ago from a real estate agent. We didn’t know at that time that it used to flood here,” says Yasin who finds it a little demeaning when someone calls the locals of the colony as encroachers. “We pay property tax, have our property documents in order and even election IDs registered to our address, how can we be encroachers?” he asks.
On paper, the Shah Hatim Lake is close to 87 acres in size, including its FTL, but from the top of Golconda Fort, the hyacinth-clogged mosquitoes-infested lake is barely 20 acres in size. Single and double-storey apartments dot the edge of the lake. At one end of the lake, construction debris has levelled part of it to form a new plot, up for sale. The plight of several other lakes in Hyderabad is more or less the same. Perhaps this is the reason why a major brunt of the Hyderabad floods this year was borne by the communities that live inside the buffer zones and FTLs of lakes.
The concept of protecting lakes, for the Telangana government, is to merely fence the lake, build a jogger track around it and mark the FTLs using stones, suggest excerpts from official meeting records of the Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MAUD).
The departments tasked with protecting lakes are still in the process of identifying and notifying the lakes. The problem of Hyderabad lakes being encroached is decades-old; local activists blame real estate agents in cahoots with revenue and municipal officials for converting lake beds into plots and selling them by manipulating records. Those working for the well-being of the water bodies in the city say, the crux of the problem lies in the way policy makers approach water bodies, treating them as property, rather than as the city’s wealth.
The function of water bodies such as lakes has changed over decades, points out Anant Mariganti, Director of Hyderabad Urban Labs, “We have a lot of tanks which emerged from an agrarian economy, but all of those functions are gone, every one of them is gone. The only function that remains is for burials, idol immersions and if anyone still uses it, it’s the washermen.
When the main social-economic function of a water body is gone, it’s easy to forget about all of its basic details and how it even works,” he says, adding that lakes need both, the FTL that acts as a sponge taking in and releasing water, and a buffer zone.
The Hyderabad Municipal Administration (HMDA) GO 168 on the restriction of building activity in the vicinity of water bodies states that no building or developmental activity is to be allowed in the FTL of any lake or pond. The concept of a buffer zone doesn’t even arise.
The FTL is to be measured by the Irrigation Department and certified by the Revenue Department. Under the rules, as ‘recreational/green buffer zones’, no building activity is to be carried out within 30 metres from the boundary of the lake and 50 metres for rivers. These rules came into effect in 2017 and are weakly enforced. The same notification also mentioned that a 12 feet walking/cycling track will be built within the 30-metre buffer strip. Funding of Rs 232 crore for the project was released in 2018 for 20 lakes and is a work in progress.
Ananth is of the view that the MAUD’s approach to only limiting the boundary of any lake to FTL serves no purpose without an additional buffer zone. “The approach is to think only of FTL. They are thinking in terms of hard property boundary. What’s the use of an FTL when your buffer area is built up? An FTL has to be spongy, it’s not a hand-drawn line. This is a city which understands only property,” he says.
Dr Lubna Sarwath from Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL) minces no words, she terms the Hyderabad deluge a government-made disaster. “The Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development is promising people that he will build more stormwater drains, this is not the solution to the flooding problem. Only 2-3% of the rainwater flows into the stormwater drains. Even the Minister is aware that this is not the solution but he refuses to accept the issue. What we witnessed is sure to happen again,” she says.
The activist, who is also the State General Secretary for the Socialist Party (India), had filed over nine Public Interest Litigations in various courts over water bodies management and encroachment in Hyderabad over the years. She points at how during the Kakatiya dynasty, several water bodies were interconnected as part of water conservation and flood prevention as the water flowed downstream into the Musi river, “When one lake fills up, the water moves through channels into another lake and then that lake fills up. For example, the Shah Hatim Talab is connected to the Langar Houz lake, but the channel connecting the two has been cut off by encroachments. The only solution to this is to mercilessly restore every channel. We should not circumvent the problem. Lakes have to be restored; their area and storage need to be restored.”
According to Dr Sarwath, the top areas in the city that saw heavy flooding are all those that are located near huge channels. Gaganpahad, Chandrayangutta, Bandlaguda, Al Jubail Colony, Tammidi Kunta, Nadeem Colony are all areas that saw the most flooding. Gaganpahad is located near Brahman Kunta and Appa Cheruvu.
Chandrayangutta is located between Balapur lake, Gurram Cheruvu. Bandlaguda is near Palle Cheruvu, Surram Cheruvu, Gurram Cheruvu, Salkam Cheruvu, Jal pally. Nadeem Colony in Toli Chowki is near Shah Hatim Talab which is another heritage water body abutting the Golconda Fort and the Seven Tombs. All these areas were flooded because the channels of these water bodies have been blocked by encroachments.
‘Manipulation at engineering-level’
Ananth, on the other hand, says the manipulation is not just at the level of revenue and municipal records but also at an engineering level at the lakes itself. “When water stretches into the FTL, it can be stored by closing the gates or drained out by opening the gates. All you have to do to get extra land is to lower the level in the water, one foot of water being drained from the lake could give you several yards of land. This has already been happening across the water bodies,” he adds.
‘Government is often the encroacher’
Mohammad Habeeb is a heritage activist highlighting several instances of encroachment of the Waqf properties as well as the ASI properties by private players. “Encroachments don’t happen in a scale of square yards, they happen in the scale of acres.
Real estate agents get the building layouts approved from the municipal officials and the revenue officials help fudge the survey numbers with backing from local politicians, it works as a syndicate,” he says, while adding that sometimes, the encroacher is the government itself. “In Golconda Fort, the Hyderabad Golf Club blocked one of the channels that carried excess water into Langar Houz lake. They didn’t want the stench from the dirty water from the lake disturbing the bureaucrats playing golf inside. One of the reasons why Nadeem Colony was the worst affected,” he adds.
‘Hyderabad needs a land-use commission’
The way forward for Hyderabad is to bring in place a land-use commission, says Ananth. “The way forward is to consider the city as a sponge that can take in and also release an amount of water. We need to model it, we need the institutional capacity for a land-use commission, which says we need wetlands to see how much can be protected and mark them in the master plan, like how Kolkata did,” he says.
A 2004 report titled ‘Impact of Urban Growth on Water Bodies: The case of Hyderabad’ estimates that there were 932 tanks in 1973 in and around Hyderabad but this came down to 834 in 1996. The revised estimates of water bodies within the Outer Ring Road (ORR), according to the figures on HMDA as of today, is just 455; about 379 water bodies have vanished since then.
‘Still not too late’
Ranganath NK, Water Ambassador of Grundfos India, a leading global water technology company, feels it was poor planning that led to this man-made disaster. “It is a fact that there was phenomenal rain and that nature dropped a lot of water. The rest of the problem is man-made. This is often not the case just in Hyderabad, it could be Mumbai, it could be Chennai. Mumbai is making a lot of effort to make corrections,” he says.
When asked what according to him would be the solution to this crisis, Ranganath says, “What has been occupied has been occupied. It isn’t too late. There are enough tools available. There are satellite images, GIS maps, and whatever is remaining needs to be mapped. Get rid of people newly occupying bodies, clear out canals that carry run-offs and if canals are not present, underground canals need to be built. Chennai has done that at Velachery. Keep it clean, de-silt canals. Everything can be calculated by mapping; how much water will flow and more can be found out using maps.”
‘Political will is the need of the hour’
According to Ranganath, district by district mapping has been done predominantly in Maharashtra. “When it comes to policy planning and planning of infrastructure, it can’t be done on a 5-year basis. It usually is run on a 5-year plan because the government stays for five years. These things need to be run on a 25-30 years because the infrastructure doesn’t change with the change in the government. Hyderabad has the DNA to bring about changes in terms of roads. Roads were doubled, buildings were pulled down etc. If they feel the water bodies and the water run-offs are as important as the roads, they can do it. A political will is all that is needed to find a solution to this.”
“Hyderabad is a city that has been handed down on a platter,” says Lubna. “According to the various contours, the various channels were already prepared. The channels are present in the catchment areas. All that needs to be done is that the inflow and outflow channels need to be maintained. This deluge would not have happened if the lake area storage capacity was maintained,” adds Lubna Sarwath. #KhabarLive #hydnews