Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] What happened to India’s flood management plan?

India is the worst flood-affected country in the world after Bangladesh and accounts for one-fifth of global death count due to floods.
By IASToppers
July 24, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Flood
  • Causes of Recurrent floods
  • National Flood Commission
  • Observations and Recommendations
  • Concerns
  • Ineffective flood management
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

What happened to India’s flood management plan?

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Flooding is an overflowing of water onto land that is normally dry. Floods are an annual occurrence in India (almost 15% of India is prone to flooding), with little changing in terms of disaster management from year to year. It is a recurring story of political and policy disabilities: attention deficit of the public, dyslexia of the policymakers and lack of will on the part of political leadership.


  • India is the worst flood-affected country in the world after Bangladesh and accounts for one-fifth of global death count due to floods.
  • According to the National Flood Commission, around 40 million hectares of land in the country are subject to floods, and an average of 18.6 million hectares of land is affected annually.
  • The annual average cropped area affected is approximately 3.7 million hectares.
  • The most flood-prone areas are Brahmaputra and Ganga River basins in the Indo-Gangetic-Brahmaputra plains in North and Northeast India, which carry 60 % of the nation’s total river flow.
  • The other areas are the north-west region of west-flowing rivers such as Narmada and Tapti, Central India and Deccan region with major east flowing rivers like Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery.
  • Nearly 75 % of the total Indian rainfall is concentrated over a short monsoon season of four months (June-September).
  • As a result, the rivers witness a heavy discharge during these months, leading to widespread
    floods in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and other states.

Causes of Recurrent floods:

  • The Himalayan Rivers carry a large amount of sediment, causing erosion of the banks in the upper reaches and over-topping in the lower segments.
  • Heavy siltation of the river bed reduces the water carrying capacity of the rivers and streams leading to flooding.
  • Drainage problems arise concurrently if floods are prolonged and the outfalls of major drainage arteries are blocked causing urban floods.
  • The massive indiscriminate deforestation leads to large amounts of topsoil coming loose in the rains.
  • Thus, the soil, instead of soaking up the rainfall, flows down into the river and in turn, causes the riverbeds and its tributaries to rise.

National Flood Commission:

  • Rashtriya Barh Ayog (RBA), or National Flood Commission was set up by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in 1976.
  • It aimed to study India’s flood-control measures after projects launched under the National Flood Control Programme of 1954 failed to achieve much success.

Observations and Recommendations:

  • In 1980, RBA made 207 recommendations and four broad observations:
  • There was no increase in rainfall in India and thus, the increase in floods was due to anthropogenic factors such as deforestation, drainage congestion and badly planned development works.
  • It questioned the effectiveness of methods adopted to control floods, such as embankments and reservoirs, and suggested that construction of these structures be halted until their efficacy was assessed.
  • The report suggested that problem began with the methods of estimating flood-prone areas of the country.
  • It recommended a dynamic strategy to cope with the changing nature of floods.


  • While record-breaking rain might be to blame for severe floods, poor planning and management are culprits too.
  • It has been 43 years after India’s first and last commission on floods was constituted and there is no national-level flood control authority in the country so far.
  • The government spends more on compensation after floods than it does on prevention.
  • Government agencies need to adapt forecasting techniques to factor extreme weather patterns.
  • Rampant mining and quarrying, especially in hilly regions, bring landslides (like in Wayanad in Kerala) while riverbed sand-mining extends the flood-affected areas.
  • A 2017 CAG report found that of the 219 planned telemetry stations (used to forecast floods), only 56 were set up and 60% of existing stations didn’t work.

Ineffective flood management programmes:

  • As per RBA total area vulnerable to floods in 1980 was around 40 million hectares by calculating maximum area affected by floods in all states in any one year between 1953 and 1979.
  • However, it was a flawed methodology as it does not strictly indicate area liable to floods as different areas may be flooded in different years.
  • It is clear that while maximum area flooded in any one year may broadly indicate the degree of the flood problem in a state. But despite its flaws, the method continues to be used.
  • The RBA report recognised the need for timely evaluation of flood management projects.
  • It entrusted the task with state irrigation and flood control departments, CWC, Ganga Flood Control Commission and the Brahmaputra Board.
  • Till 2001, state governments hardly did any assessment of flood-control projects.
  • Even when flood management projects are evaluated, the reports are not credible and most post-project evaluations did not have enough data.
  • A major problem is inaction on recommendations of evaluation reports.

Ex: In 1978, RBA asked programme evaluation organisation of the erstwhile Planning Commission to review the Kosi embankments (as they had enhanced flood problem).

But the embankments were raised by two metres in 1987-88, and remain aggravate the flood situation in Bihar.

Way Forward:

  • There have to be consolidated efforts among the states and the Centre to take up research and policy initiatives to control floods.
  • There is a need for collecting data (Mapping of flood-prone areas) for a more scientific assessment — one that relies on frequency-based climate modelling.
  • This should be based on the frequency of flooding and period of inundation as gauged by contour maps and satellite imagery.
  • No major development should be permitted in the areas which are subjected to high flooding.
  • The people who have already built their settlements should be relocated to better sites to reduce vulnerability.
  • In urban areas, water-holding areas like ponds, lakes or low-lying areas can be created.
  • The amount of runoff can be decreased with the help of reforestation, protection of vegetation, conservation and clearing of debris from streams and other water-holding areas.
  • Flood diversion measures like construction of levees, embankments and dams should be undertaken.


In addressing the problem of floods, the central focus over the years has been on engineering/structural solutions. Apart from the massive investments in large dams, India has already constructed over 35,000 km of embankments. But these are rapidly reaching their limits. India needs better flood mapping and forecasting, done on the scientific lines.

The snail’s pace progress in setting up the critical forecasting systems is only leaving the administration at the local level without any warning to prepare for the surge of the rivers. Although it is acknowledged that risk can never truly be zero, the goal should be to minimize it as much as possible by.

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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