A record rainfall has put Odisha capital Bhubaneswar in the same space where Delhi found itself a few days ago. Residential spaces, commercial hubs, heritage zones, major road stretches and even the railway station were not spared after 200 mm of rainfall, induced by a deep depression, battered the temple city. The weather system put to end a long dry spell but left much of the capital in the throes of despair and chaos. For a city that topped the Smart City Challenge barely six years ago, its vaunted urban planning and design seem to have gone down the drain.
One of the key reasons Bhubaneswar was chosen as the site of Odisha’s new capital over 70 years ago was its geographical advantage— its topography and an excellent drainage system with a west-to-east slope and host of natural channels. But in the last 10 years, everything seems to have been choked. In 2008, the regional planning body Bhubaneswar Development Authority’s Building Regulations and the Comprehensive Development Plan created a new zoning classification ‘Environmentally Sensitive Zone’. Other than restricting construction, neither the government nor the BDA had any conservation plans for these large swathes of mostly private land that eventually gave way to illegal structures and unplanned developments, further choking the very places perceived as environmentally fragile. In 2018, the building norms were revised to allow regulated development in these zones, providing an opportunity to develop public utilities. The damage was done by then. Once enlisted in the Smart City programme, urban development took a concretised route leaving even the central business district in a shambles. Interestingly, the Odisha Municipal Corporation Act, 2003, provided for a dedicated chapter on urban environmental management that stressed vulnerability and risk assessment but no lessons were learnt.
Millions of rupees have been spent, yet the city does not have a drainage master plan despite the flooding trouble it faces every year. Blaming climate change will not help. Bhubaneswar deserves a better future and the Odisha government must make course corrections before it is too late.