Saving Bengaluru from its absurdities

The IT Capital of India which was well on the path of becoming the second Silicon Valley of the world couldn’t wait for carefully and inclusively planned Bengaluru.  

As we commemorate Teachers Day in memory of the erudite Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, it’s worth asking: how does one pass on knowledge to someone who claims to know already, or quite simply is immune to learning.  This is the feeling one gets every time you hear of Bengaluru flooding, or worse, one suffers its terrible consequences.

For a sprawling metropolis sitting 1000 metres above sea level, drained really well by three richly featured valley systems, within which hundreds of generations have nurtured every stream and gully, and protected kaluves (canals) to carefully and intelligently guide rain, spring and surface water flows into  irrigation tanks (which we now call lakes) which they built. These structures were designed to hold water for a few months longer, temporarily, turn dry during summer and be ready to receive fresh water next monsoon.  In this manner, a semi arid zone was turned into an highly livable region that also supported excellent diversities of crops, horticulture and pastoralism.  Take a toposheet of the region and you will notice that the landscape is littered with water bodies big, medium and small, and rarely, if ever, will you be able to find a spot for constructing a new lake or pond.  It is this landscape rich with traditions of water harvesting that transformed into a sprawling metropolis which floods every time it rains.  This is the outcome of stupidity, hubris and corruption that has become systemic to administration and planning in the region.  And we shouldn’t accept any explanation that claims this is because of unprecedented rains. Here’s why.

As massive finance flowed in from across India and the world, ambitions soared of turning Bengaluru into an aerospace hub, and also as a second home for millions of NRIs in fancily named gated communities.

If engineers and bureaucrats of Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahangara Palike (BBMP), and Corporators and MLAs over the decades, had it in them to respect traditional knowledge and wisdom, to follow ecologically wise planning from the ground up, willingness to learn from civil society and academia who working with local communities gained deep understanding of the landscape, or had the humility of complying with judicial directives repeatedly stressing the critical importance of protecting wetlands and water ways from encroachment and polluting, perhaps then this calamity that we are now witnessing and suffering, would not have occurred.  But we have a metropolis now where blessings from the sky instantly turn into curses resulting in multiple miseries: loss of time, loss of health, loss of homes, loss of property, loss of infrastructure, loss of opportunity, even loss of life.  And as always, the poor are worst affected.  But the damage now extends to neighbourhoods of middle classes and the rich as well.

Hebbal Lake

In simple terms if this situation has to be explained, it is this: careless disregard for the role wetlands play in supporting and sustaining human settlements. This phenomenon has been markedly true for Bengaluru from the early 1970s when the draining of lakes became epidemic as a method of containing the spread of malaria and also to create a variety of public infrastructure, and industrial and residential layouts.  For decades, sewage and industrial effluents were let into kaluves polluting them, and these polluted waters ended up in lakes.  In the process not only was the ecology of these surface water bodies contaminated and destroyed, soon the pollution reached ground water aquifers adversely affecting public health.

The intensity of this cycle of contamination and destruction of wetlands and water worsened when the IT sector expanded in Bengaluru.  Massive infusions of capital into the sector phenomenally transformed land into highly valued real estate.  With return on investment being the major guiding factor, and without a second thought to sustainability and functionality of the metropolis, massive tracts of land was urbanized frantically. Under directions from successive Chief Ministers who commandeered the parastatal BDA, and without any public oversight as a result, massive corporate complexes and neighbourhoods were approved just about everywhere.  In the process, thickly wooded horticulture farms and wetlands (which mostly were paddy fields) were transformed into densely built real estate.  An approach uncaring of raja kaluves, even lakes, became the feature of the day as natural drainage features of the region were bulldozed away.  Planned development fell by the wayside and kaluves, which act as sponges to absorb flood waters, were constricted and turned into narrow concretised channels carrying sewage, filth, debris and solid waste and depositing them on lake beds.  As a consequence of such urbanization, when it rains, it floods. There is no place for water either in the kaluves or in the lakes which are brimming with sewage.

The State Government appointed Lakshman Rao Committee report (1988) forestaged protection of wetlands as crucial to the success of Bengaluru’s urbanisation project.  Its recommendations the Government accepted in toto. but it did act on them.  Meanwhile, BDA in its Master Plans ignored the critical role of wetlands in providing water security and buffering the city from flooding.  As a parastatal unaccountable to the people, only to the CM, the agency turned Bengaluru’s peri-urban region – filled as it was with lakes, kaluves and wetlands – into commercially lucrative real estate.  Brokers and builders managed conversions of projects big and small with such ease, that those who followed the lawful path were left bewildered and frustrated.  Deputy Commissioners as revenue officers played a supportive role, especially in rural areas.

Corruption ruled.  Against all urban planning norms, disregarding environmental limits and ecological principles, without in any manner considering social losses of farming and pastoral communities, of the urban poor, BDA officials and Tahsildhars (Revenue Officers) turned the power they wielded of converting land use into a  powerful instrument: those who were willing to pay could convert farmland and wetlands into ‘developed’ urban areas.  This was a difficult choice for stuggling farmers to reject as the value of land appreciated geometrically.  And its impact is evident in a historical review of the peri-urban region of Bengaluru, say by Google Earth, and the rapidity with which the city is literally choked by its own reckless and unplanned expansion is clearly evident.

This cannot all be the bureaucracy’s making; they merely executed diktats coming from real estate brokers (several of who were erstwhile feudal landowners) for a hefty commission.  These brokers and land developers over time amassed sufficient wealth to finance their political ambitions: check the background of most corporators, MLAs, even MPs.  The heft of political power they now wielded was employed in modulating and modifying land use planning and governance laws in ways that would support their highly successful business interests – corrupt as it was.

Over time, such ill-gotten real estate gains transformed the nature of politics.  This was tapped by mega facility managers who supplied ‘world class’ inventories to the IT/BT sector.  As massive finance flowed in from across India and the world, ambitions soared of turning Bengaluru into an aerospace hub, and also as a second home for millions of NRIs in fancily named gated communities.  The supply of land for such projects always came without a care about environmental and social impacts, and functionality.

This juggernaut of ‘development’ promoted by this nexus of bureaucracy-political-builder-investor class mocked warnings, of which there were plenty.  Traditional wisdom was discarded and massive real estate projects that effectively concretised all wetlands in the Bommanahalli-Koramangala-Bellandur-Varthur-Whitefield-Sarjapur region, for instance, were allowed without a thought to their environmental sustainability.  After all, v

white topping of roads also contribute to flooding

Such was the frenzy with which the demands of the IT/BT sector was being met, that planning norms were bent out of shape and land use regulations willfully modified to suit fancies of developers and their financiers such as global investment and real estate firms Black Rock, We Work, etc., on the one hand, and mega Indian developers such as Prestige, Sobha, Purvankara, Salarpuria, Brigade, Mantri, etc. on the other.  Very soon, the peri-urban region of the city which was replete with horticulture farms, lakes and paddies, was transformed into this heavily built metropolis.  There was simply no effort invested in developing appropriate supportive infrastructure for transport, housing, health care, education, and most certainly not for water and environmental management.   The traffic snarls in the region is one indication of this terrible lapse.

What matters now is how we get out of this conundrum.  For thousands of families who are losing all they have – and this is the poor and working classes, and for those employed in and gaining form the IT/BT sector whose loss is in time, health, opportunity and resources, Chief Minister Bommai’s promise that he will resolve this situation by removing encroachments of the kaluves and lakes and then concretising kaluves, may seem as an helpful way forward.  After all, Rs. 1500 crores has been allocated to this project.  But I argue this project will make matters worse. Here’s why.

Given the loss of paddies and other wetlands, kaluves are the only buffers left with potential to serve as a sponge, especially during heavy downpours. This is most critical given the nature of rain as we are now witneesing, which is likely a consequence of climate change when extreme weather events, such as the rains we are receiving since May  this year, become frequent.  In this situation, concretising kaluves will drastically reduce their water holding capacity, and will force water to rush on these concretised surfaces into lakes. But lakes, which went through cycles of drying up and receiving fresh waters, are always full now, and with sewage.  This causes lakes to overflow, flooding low lying areas which not too long ago were downstream paddies known as atchkats.  As the lakes are not well maintained, they can easily breach.   Thus the concretising and building of walls along kaluves will only intensify flooding, as is now the case with the Outer Ring Road region.  People suffering here been forced to take a boat or tractor out of these flooded zones, and have begun to call it Outer River Road.

Matters could turn worse as sumps storing drinking water are contaminated with flood waters and this could result in a choleric epidemic.  The Mandya water pumping station from where Bengaluru draws water from Cauvery is also flooded and it is highly like that normal water supplies will take days to be restored.  As a major public health intervention, emergency supplies of clean water would be essential in all flood affected areas for several days.

Getting out of this mess demands a politics of accountability where carefully constructed interventions evolved ground up find a place.  And several highly viable solutions have already been written out and has received judicial approval: the 2012 Justice N K Patil Committee report that is the outcome of a PIL filed by ESG in 2008 is the most comprehensive.  But even a decade after this report was accepted by nine government agencies, which were party to its crafting, and a judicial directive to follow the recommendations from the Principal Bench of the Court, they are ignored by State and civic agencies.

This is evident in how kaluves are constricted and concretised preventing them to act as sponges during floods and as free water cleansing zones otherwise.  It is evident in how lakes are padded all around with wide walking paths which also restrict water flows into the water bodies and contribute to devastating bund breaches.  It can be perceived  from the absolute lack of interest in the administration in ensuring protection of lakes, kaluves and other wetlands is undertaken with community involvement.  Instead, floods are being turned into an opportunity to finance mega projects, such as the concretization of kaluves, in further expansion of ‘white topping’ of roads even as it is abundantly evident. They contributed to the flooding.  Rather than waste precious resources on such projects that will worsen flooding in years to come,  ensuring public involvement through deeper local democracy  and encouraging every ward and sub-ward to develop a plan not only to avoid such catastrophic flooding, but to also ensure urban transformations do not end up in an irrevocable disaster.

As we commemorate Teachers Day, a day when we also painfully reminisce the assassination of Gauri Lankesh, can we expect such simple wisdoms to become systemic to Bengaluru’s governance?

Leo Saldanha works with Environment Support Group, a voluntary policy analysis, education, research and campaign initiative responding to social and environmental justice causes.  More information: Email: [email protected] 


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May 2024


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