Is Bengaluru dying?
Bengaluru needs surgery, not a band-aid, say environmentalists in the silicon city following the inundation of vast areas by rainwater
Traffic snarls are not new in the silicon city. But even then, the video clip of a doctor leaving his car and running to reach the hospital for a critical surgery shocked citizens. The doctor left his car on Sarjapur-Marathahalli Road after traffic came to a standstill following heavy rains last week.
Images of rainwater flooding living rooms in posh villas and millionaires fleeing on tractors went viral. BJP leader Tejasvi Surya claimed it was all a conspiracy by the Congress to malign the city and the BJP. Saner residents also shared images to claim that the older and better planned localities in the city remained relatively dry. Better drainage there had allowed the excess rainwater to flow away.
But illegally developed areas and encroachments in south-east and north-east Bengaluru were said to have choked the outlets. Several high-end residential complexes on the Rainbow Drive layout—where each villa costs upwards of Rs 10 crore—were flooded in no time and boats had to be sent out to evacuate the stranded residents.
Employees of tech companies whose offices are located in Bellandur and Whitefield areas were asked to work from home. The Outer Ring Road Companies Association had complained in the past about crumbling infrastructure. This time the Association once again wrote to the chief minister and warned that companies will have to move out if the situation does not improve soon.
Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, at the receiving end of criticism, visited the inundated areas, waded into ankle-deep water and blamed the previous Congress government for not taking action on encroachments that are on storm water drains (SWD) and rajakaluves (channels that connect water bodies and help in draining rain water).
Ten days after rains claimed two lives (both caused by two-wheeler riders losing balance on slushy roads), the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) swung into action from September 12 and demolished some of the structures constructed on SWDs.
Bhargavi S Rao, Trustee at the Environment Support Group (ESG), blamed rampant violation of rules laid down in the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act. There were no public consultations before buildings came up on the Outer Ring Road. “They are sitting on lake-beds because IT was seen as the golden goose contributing to Karnataka’s GDP and was treated like a special child,” she quipped.
The old areas in contrast like Basavanagudi or Malleshwaram built on the colonial British model, taking care of drainage and sewage systems, escaped unscathed despite receiving equally heavy rains, she added.
Regulators and builders did not respect nature, encroached upon low-lying areas and changed the land use and its contours, says civic evangelist V. Ravichandar. “We have a challenge because our storm water drains have been concretised and lakes have silted up. Besides, old Bengaluru was designed for 75 mm per hour peak rainfall while the city now receives between 125 mm and 150 mm per hour peak rainfall,'' he argued.
The ESG which works with environmental and social initiatives across the world has been filing cases against lake encroachments. An ESG report claims that while Karnataka has about 40,000 lakes and thousands of kilometres of canals; over 10,000 lakes have been lost in recent decades. Bengaluru has over 400 lakes, and according to authoritative estimates about 200 lakes have been lost, or are suffering from serious encroachments.
“For a city which boasts of its heft in science and technology, it is ironical that it should fail so miserably in urban planning.” Given that Bengaluru sits on a plateau and has three valleys, the landscape and topography should have been studied in greater detail, feels Rao. “The new neighbourhoods have infinity pools and fancy penthouses besides 2-3 levels of car parking but they have failed to take care of the drainage systems inside the apartments. These drains are concretised and there is no space for the water to percolate,” she adds.
While the nexus between the real estate developers, builders, government, politicians and the bureaucrats is quite evident, the city's Master Plan had not anticipated the erratic weather conditions or the boom in construction. Besides there are multiple ‘parastatals’, parallel bodies like the Bangalore Development Authority, the Karnataka Industries and Areas Development Board, Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Development Authority and so on which have little functional coordination. Ravichandar also points out that the old city has SWDs which are more robust than those in new areas like Outer Ring Road.
"If you want to see the results, bring down the buildings of very influential people in the city. This was how Surat was cleaned up after the plague. The then administrator S.R. Rao first demolished buildings of five influential people and others saw that they had no chance. In Bengaluru demolitions to remove encroachment were initiated five years ago, but when they reached some influential areas, they stopped and people forgot all about it,” recalls Ravichandar.