When it began to rain heavily late in the afternoon on September 4, K.P. Singh, a resident of Rainbow Drive Layout located in Sarjapur in south-east Bengaluru was worried. The posh layout on 36 acres had been flooded in May and August. On September 4 as the rain continued to lash Bengaluru, the Halanayakanahalli lake nearby breached its banks, and several houses in the layout were filled with water. “Many of the houses were badly damaged while we had to use boats to exit the premises,” Singh said.
Thousands of Bengalureans had similar stories to tell as heavy rain battered the city in early September. On September 4, according to the India Meteorological Department, the city received 131.6 mm of rainfall. This was the third heaviest spell in the city for a 24-hour period in September in the past 75 years.
Consequently, roads along the Outer Ring Road, houses in low-lying areas, basements, and lower floors of apartment complexes in a broad swathe running from north-east Bengaluru to the south-eastern part were flooded. Two persons—a 22-year-old woman and a security guard—died of electrocution. More than 10,000 houses were inundated according to estimates derived from collating reportage on the flood.
While the loss to economic activity has been estimated to be $30 million according to the Outer Ring Road Companies’ Association, this pales in comparison to the loss of reputation the city has suffered. Bengaluru’s famous cosmopolitan character was tested as social media chauvinists blamed migrants, both white-collar and blue-collar workers, for the unchecked urbanisation and the floods it caused. The region affected by floods corresponds with that part where unscientific urban development happened over the past three decades to cater to the needs of the Information Technology (IT) industry.
Lakes in Bellandur and Yamalur in south-east Bengaluru, which lie alongside the IT corridor, breached their banks, affecting villas and mansions of some of the corporate icons such as Wipro chairman Rishad Premji. Gaurav Munjal, CEO of Unacademy, had to be evacuated by a tractor along with his pets and family members. His video of the evacuation went viral on social media and was emblematic of the scale of the calamity. While privileged residents of the city managed to survive the crisis, the poor, many of them migrant workers, living in slums in these areas were severely affected as well and had to rely on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who set up relief camps in local schools and provided cooked meals.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a restaurateur who volunteers with NGOs during crises such as this, said that when he visited the flood affected parts after the September 4 deluge, he was shocked. “People were stuck in their apartment complexes without food and electricity for more than two days. With basements flooded, they couldn’t leave,” Ibrahim said. He added: “Social media helped tremendously in coordinating relief efforts and we even managed to arrange swimmers and dinghies to rescue people. The stagnant water was filthy. The situation was dire in some of the economically weaker areas behind the glitzy apartments and we organised rescues of slum dwellers in Kadugodi where there was up to eight feet of water.”
Ibrahim is not an environmentalist or urban planner, but it was evident to his untrained eye that the flooding was a result of “mismanagement and corruption of a few decades where rajakaluves (canals) and lakes have been encroached upon”. This was reiterated by the environmental activist Leo F. Saldanha, coordinator of the Bengaluru-based Environmental Support Group, who, in his interview with Frontline, pointed out that the loss of lakes, the destruction of natural canals, rampant corruption in land use changes and the unholy nexus of politicians-bureaucrats-builders fundamentally altered the natural lay of the land in the suburbs, leading to the floods.
A series of investigative reports published in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani in the wake of the flooding also showed how government institutions responsible for the administration of the city, such as the Bangalore Development Authority and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), had authorised the construction of roads and layouts on canals and lakes, impeding the natural flow of water.
In an interview, Harini Nagendra, Director of the Research Centre at Azim Premji University and author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future, ascribed the floods to three reasons: first, climate change, because of which there are heavier downpours in shorter time spans; second, the concretisation of the landscape, meaning that water cannot be absorbed into the ground; and third, the changed topography of Bengaluru from a naturally undulating terrain to a more even landscape because of human interference. A significant point that Nagendra made was that the older parts of the city did not suffer any serious consequences due to the downpour.
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Apart from subject experts, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2021 report on the state of stormwater drains coming under theBBMP also pointed out that “water bodies and drains were not inter-connected and linkage between different drains was absent”. In a 2016 Revenue Department survey of stormwater drains in the city, 2,626 encroachments were identified along the 842 square kilometres of the network of canals but nothing was done to address this serious issue so far. All this clearly lays the culpability on the untrammelled development that the city has been witness to over the past few decades.
Speaking to mediapersons, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai blamed encroachments on lakes and rajakaluves in two zones of the city (out of nine) for the problem. He also allocated Rs.1500 crores for clearing out the stagnant water and Rs.300 crore for removing encroachments on the rajakaluves. He also chose to attack the “maladministration of the Congress” for the floods, andpredictably the Congress accused the Bommai government of “misgovernance” and “corruption”. Politics aside, the city’s groaning infrastructure needs a substantial overhaul if it has to deal with similar instances in the future and, more importantly, if it wants to remain competitive in the global arena.