Guwahati: Along the Brahmaputra, poised for a reset

ABHISHEK LAW | Updated on January 27, 2018


Guwahati needs more than good intentions; it has to put its money where its dreams are

As he navigates the heavy Guwahati traffic, the cab driver wonders aloud: “Smart city? What’s that? Will it solve the problem of urban floods that we face or at least ease some of the traffic congestion?”

As if to validate his pessimistic point, the car screeches to a halt on the arterial Guwahati-Shillong Road (GS Road) in what is considered the central business district, where traffic is frequently reduced to a crawl.

The 30-year-old driver’s anecdotal experience, narrated over the duration of the cab ride, offers a succinct encapsulation of Guwahati’s main problems –– and the solutions it yearns for as it seeks to morph into a “smart city” of the future.

Called Pragjyotispur in ancient times, the city served as a riverine port dotted with temples. Today, It is one of the largest cities in the North-East region and a top-draw tourist destination.

Situated between the mighty Brahmaputra and the Shillong Plateau, Guwahati straddles the valley of the Bharalu, a tributary of the Brahmaputra.

“Our focus is to develop the city as the hub of the North-East,” says Mayor Abir Patra. A seasoned politician, he knows, however, that’s easier said than done.

Urban flooding

The city is blessed with wetlands and is surrounded by hills, but bears ample testimony to the downside of unplanned development.

The wilful degradation of the ecosystem, unplanned urbanisation, changes in land-use patterns, loss of wetland cover and tree-felling near the hills… all these have taken a toll.

Sources say that soil loss on exposed slopes (owing to rains) is 188.09 grams per litre, as against a normal 3.062 g/l of surface flow when there is vegetative cover.

The result: Guwahati witnesses flash floods and landslides almost every year. No wonder that in the smart city proposals, priority has been given to connecting the wetlands with stormwater drains.

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As a sustainable measure, the need is for co-ordinated watershed management and better utilisation of open spaces for retention of water (through rainwater harvesting), says Narayan Konwar, Commissioner, Guwahati Municipal Corporation.

To the southwest of the city lies Deepor Beel, a permanent freshwater lake, a part of which is an acclaimed Ramsar convention site. It is home to a variety of migratory birds. The Mora Bharalu river empties itself to this wetland; the other one –– Bharalu river –– connects the Borsola Beel.

Under the area-based development proposals, the plan is to retrofit a contiguous area of 696 acres of connected water bodies of the city, which includes the Deepar Beel wetland, Mora Bharalu stream, Bharalu river and the Borsola Beel; additionally, a 6-km stretch of the Brahmaputra riverfront is to be taken up for development.

According to Konwar, the project will be designed to mitigate the effect of floods, manage recreational, cultural and ecological assets in the proposed area, and reconnect the city to its “riverine ecosystem”.

Eco-restoration and bio-remediation techniques will be explored to transform these degraded water bodies into ecological landscapes. There are also plans to facilitate real-time data recording and analysis to provide flood forecast to mitigate disasters –– and broadcast flood warnings.

The move is also seen as having the capacity to create an alternative activity space; there are also plans for a continuous ecological parkway system equipped with a trail for walking and cycling.

“It is expected to be the backbone of the city’s tourism circuit in the future,” Konwar notes.

Decongesting the city

Traffic congestion is another problem that Guwahati grapples with. Additionally, some 70 per cent of the streets in the city don’t have good footpaths. This has seen road accidents soar.

“We lack user-friendly pedestrian and public transport infrastructure,” admits Mayor Patra. His prime focus is to improve and augment these facilities “not just to retain the current passengers”, but also to “prevent a shift to cars.”

“We must persuade city folks to start using public transport and avoid cars, at least for short trips of, say, 5-6 km. That would automatically decongest the city,” Patra adds.

The proposed solutions include an intelligent traffic system, and CCTV surveillance in real time at bus junctions and parking zones.

Realignment of road traffic will also be addressed, with provisions for dedicated bicycle lanes, pedestrian pathways, and a bus corridor.

With the proposed real-time monitoring of buses, the modal share of buses will increase to 43 per cent from 30 per cent currently.

Funding gap

But grand plans don’t succeed without funds. The entire smart city proposal, including the area-based plans and pan-city solutions, is expected to cost nearly ₹2,300 crore.

Even after providing for a Central allocation and a matching State grant, there is a funding gap of about ₹500 crore. The urban local body is expected to pitch in, but that may not be enough.

“We have seen some growth in revenues. But more funds are required,” Patra maintains.

The plan is to complete the project in five years, and make the proposals self-sustaining. For now, however, that remains a distant dream.

Click here to read about other Smart Cities

Published on March 06, 2016

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