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Urban Development And Environmental Risks In Eastern Himalayas

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India is urbanising and currently, a large share of its population resides in small and medium towns. Therefore, in 2011, 312 million people were living in urban settlements with a population between 5,000 and 1 lakh. Whereas, on the other hand, only 265 million were in large cities.

In India, cities are considered to be the engines of economic growth. Therefore, small and medium towns suffer in various ways due to the same. Thus, a major cause of concern in India is that the coverage of basic urban services in such small and medium towns has been way lower in comparison to any large city.

It is essential to note that such deprivation is more prominent in the least developed states of India.

webinar was organised by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, and Indrastra Global on Disasters Beyond the City: Urban Development and Environmental Risks in the Eastern Himalayas.

Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay explains that the percentage of people living below the poverty line increases as one moves down in the size of towns both nationally and regionally. He further adds that the poor quality of infrastructure in these towns further leads to economic stagnation and disturbs their potential to grow.

Unfortunately, in India, development, research and action have often overlooked the social, political and economic dynamics of these smaller cities. Therefore, it is imperative to focus on the range of institutions, individuals and governance of small cities. It is vital to understand how such specificities and social, cultural and historical contexts of such cities mutually interact with one another.

Dr Andrew Rumbach, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University, discusses findings of a 4-year long study in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. He initially comments: “India has a lower urban population and it will only grow in the coming years, which will be concentrated in smaller cities.”

With respect to rural urbanisation in India, he explains that he referred to medium and large villages that were home to almost 460 million people in 2011. He further explained the concept of census towns, which are considered urban with respect to the size of the population but are rural in terms of their governance. Lately, he showed that contemporary villages have characteristics similar to the cities.

He explains that urbanisation is a major driver of disaster risk in Asia. This happens in two ways:

  1. Exposure: As cities grow spatially, more and more land that was exposed to hazards gets occupied. For example, a city that has grown from a very stable ridgetop started to become more exposed to hazards as it expanded.
  2. Vulnerability: It is a complex idea where certain people, groups or assets become more susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard.
Representative Image. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, Dr Rumbach explains that disasters are not just about the earthquake or landslides but also about the people and how they experience the same. Therefore, literature shows that urbanisation has increased both exposure and vulnerability.

Dr Rumbach focuses on answering the following: How is India’s urban transformation beyond the city-shaping disaster risk? He explains that fast urbanising rural places lack research. Due to a lack of research, there is a need first to build a fundamental base.

While discussing his research study on the beautiful but challenging landscape of the Darjeeling district in terms of the urban development perspective, he explains that in this district, natural hazards are of two types: landslides and earthquakes.

His research uses the MOVE framework, a holistic approach that incorporates hazards, issues of vulnerability, how governance intercedes in the risk-creating process, and how it reduces risks. It is a conceptual framework and flexible to use multiple variables.

The five study areas were: Pulbazar, Lebong, Lower Chibbo, Dungra and Pedong and 139 households were covered in the study. These were selected in order to cover all different types of fast urbanising rural places.

Built Environment Change 2006-2017

Study Area — 2016/17 Buildings — % increase in 10 years — 2016/17 Roads — % increase in 10 years

  1. Dungra — 4499 — +38% — 15.9 km — +29%
  2. Lebong — 1471 — +40% — 18.0 km — +14%
  3. Lower Chibbo — 2531 — +42% — 27.8 km — +39%
  4. Pedong — 5825 — +55% — 63.1 km — +67%
  5. Pulbazar — 814 — +43% — 11.1 km — +82%
Representative Image. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are 43% of the buildings built in the last decade in Dungra on steep slopes, which increase the risk of destruction from disasters. As per the research, all areas observed a high growth over the past couple of years pertaining to higher investment and, thus, enhancing prosperity.

Dr Rumbach discusses two variables: exposure element (economic dimension of vulnerability and what kind of resources are used during the hazards) and risk governance.

With respect to the economic dimension of vulnerability, income inequalities have been observed. Still, 25% of the populous survive on a monthly income of less than ₹2,000. Moreover, income is a seasonable variable. It depends not only on agriculture but also on tourism, making them vulnerable to shocks as a sudden shock in the high season will wipe out the annual income.

The study also found out that the government schemes and programs have made available bank facilities to the people. They have access to financial institutions that can transfer huge resources at once in times of disaster.

Changing occupation structure in these hilly regions from agriculture to other sectors such as construction, tourism and education at both higher and lower levels are making them more vulnerable to disasters since these occupations are seasonal.

People won’t be able to send their kids to schools and tourism will halt if the landslide persists. If the district suffers an earthquake, it may take 20 years to rebuild. Compared to agriculture, these industries are more vulnerable to shocks.

Representative Image.

Risk governance is the kind of decisions and actions taken by the formal stakeholders in order to handle, mitigate, transfer, accept and avoid risk. Thus, it is imperative to note. One cannot completely get away with all risks and planners can always have an acceptable amount of risks in the region.

The research showed that development regulation in these areas was piecemeal and not sensitive to natural hazards due to a lack of expertise in the planning department. The building codes and regulations are the vestiges of the colonial period which have not been modified over time.

The survey showed that the households understand these risks and worry about their livelihood and assets. There is a very low penetration of insurance products in the regions where only 3% have health insurance and 1% have access to property insurance. Thus, it makes them dependent upon the state to save them from disasters.

Dr Rumbach quotes a planner: “No building plan was ever rejected in the last municipal government. There is no town planning, no long-term thinking. You give them 10,000 bucks (permit fee) and that’s it.”

He further discusses how lenient this entire process has been and lacks urban development schemes such as health insurance and property insurance. These areas have response plans which are not of much help and limited resources for the NGO sector.

Furthermore, Dr Rumbach concluded with some key takeaways and they are as follows:

  • Urbanisation has transformed towns and villages, definitely brought about changes in employment.
  • A mismatch of pace and scale of urbanisation, he further argues that urbanisation could be a force for vulnerability reduction but is instead largely unmanaged. This is also because urbanising places are still governed as rural.
  • Urbanisation is largely invisible to urban scholars and policymakers.
  • Urbanisation has reduced some of the key factors of vulnerability in these areas, particularly in the case of everyday hazards and disasters, but it has also produced some new landscapes of risks.

Acknowledgements: Kashika Chadha is a research intern at IMPRI and is currently doing her master’s in public policy from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai.

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Abhinav Alakshendra and Arjun Kumar

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