Fragile foundation

Print edition : August 25, 2006

With the monsoon gaining strength, Bangalore's shaky infrastructure will once again be put to the test.

PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

Collecting drinking water next to an open stormwater drain in Garvebhavipalya in the Bommanahalli City Municipal Council area.-K MURALI KUMAR

BENEATH Bangalore's offerings of world-class infrastructure for international investment and enterprise lies a rather sordid reality. Away from the gated islands of residential prosperity that have mushroomed on the city's outskirts, away from the software technology parks and electronic campuses of leading software firms, away from the central city areas that comprise the "pensioners paradise" that Bangalore once was, are the burgeoning working class suburbs of the metropolis, where unplanned urban growth and persistent official neglect have resulted in desperate civic poverty and deprivation.

The city's infrastructure is at best fragile, and particularly so in the seven City Municipal Council (CMC) areas that comprise the relatively new and expanding suburbs of the city. At worst, and in any unforeseen crisis, like last October's heavy rains, the infrastructure simply caves in, bringing untold distress and suffering to residents who have to pay the price of official neglect (Frontline, November 18, 2005). Between October 21 and 22 last year, the city received a record 101 mm of rainfall, which caused extensive flooding of homes, offices and public buildings in at least four CMC areas.

As another monsoon approaches, residents who experienced the horrific flooding brace themselves for yet another onslaught. The flurry of promises made after the floods by the then Chief Minister and Ministers of the State of strengthening the infrastructure of these areas remain largely on paper.

The area administered by the Bommanahalli CMC, with its appalling civic amenities, is representative of other suburbs of the city and symptomatic of much that is faulty and negligent in the city administration's attitude to pressing urban requirements. It is also an example of the growing mobilisation of citizen activism that is forcing official action and accountability in the face of mounting civic problems. Since the last floods, the Bommanahalli Citizen's Welfare Association (BCWA) has been active in bringing residents together on their demands and forcing the official machinery to respond to their grievances.

This CMC area covers 43.57 square kilometres and has a population of around 3.5 lakh. It has a large percentage of migrants who came to Bangalore in the wake of the software boom in the 1990s. Lying to the west of the Hosur-Bangalore Road, and adjacent to the IT Corridor, the area has a number of corporate offices of leading software companies and a few upscale residential layouts such as the recently formed HSR (Hosur Sarjapur Raste) Layout. For the most part, however, it comprises vast swathes of congested and unplanned residential-cum-business localities, with minimal amenities such as tarred roads, proper drainage and sewage lines, street lighting, public water supply and public toilets.

The Bommanahalli area saw extensive flooding in last year's rain. A slow-to-respond Council appears to have done little that could prevent a repetition of the experience this year. "Immediately after the floods there was some activity on the part of the CMC in response to our distress calls," said S.V. Lakshminarayanan, a retired senior manager with Motor Industries Company, or MICO, who now lives in MICO Layout. "After that, the whole thing came to a standstill, and the old story will be repeated no doubt if we have heavy rains this year."

Residents of the area whom Frontline met were resentful and fearful of what lay ahead. If basic civic amenities have not been upgraded, how can the localities withstand another deluge? "Ours is the biggest CMC in the city with the highest revenues," said Shamana Reddy, convener of the BCWA. "We have 31 wards. But most of the roads are very poorly maintained. Although 60 borewells are supposed to be functioning in each ward, only five to ten actually work. Private water contractors sell water at high costs."

In the layouts of Hongasandra, Garvebhavipalya, Vajpayeenagar, Muniyappa, and even in the relatively upscale MICO Layout that Frontline visited - areas that bore the brunt of last year's floods - stinking sewers and drains lay uncovered and clogged with garbage. The many illegal layouts that have sprung up in the area do not have proper roads or lighting. Drinking water is scarce and there is a thriving private market for water.

"We get water for an hour a day from a nearby borewell," said Kulamma, whose house is next to a stinking drain. "I pay Rs.100 to a private borewell owner to fill my sump and it lasts for around 15 days," said Jamuna, who lives in Ward 10 of the CMC. The demand for proper drinking water supply is vociferous in Wards 9, 10 and 11. "Our children fall sick at least once a week because of bad water and insanitary conditions," said V. Bharathi from Shanti Colony.

At Garvebhavipalya, the main stormwater canal. Because of encroachments, the canal, which was 10 metres wide, is now just two or three metres wide in some places.-K MURALI KUMAR

"Nothing has changed in the affected areas since the floods," Loise A. Pious, a young activist in the BCWA and a resident of Shanti Nagar in Ward 10, told Frontline. "No proper civic works have been undertaken, drainage facilities are virtually non-existent, and we get water only once in six days."

A particularly glaring area of neglect has been the repair and upkeep of the tanks and canals which together act as a soak pit for the area. In Bommanahalli, the rajakaluve or major canal that acts as a storm water weir in times of excess rain connects the Begur tank to the Agara tank and traverses a distance of 8 km through the CMC. A major reason for the flooding last year was that the rajakaluve was blocked in several places - either because of encroachments by private land developers or because garbage and silt had clogged it. Water that would normally have flowed from Begur to Agara tank instead overflowed into adjacent low-lying areas, not only submerging huts and small houses, but also entering a few floors of relatively affluent apartment complexes.

"The kaluve should be 33 ft in width. Because of encroachments it is now just 10 and even five feet in some places," said Shamana Reddy. The evidence of encroachment is very clear. In MICO Layout, for example, Venkateshwara Hollow Bricks Factory straddles the channel. "Because of our struggle to repair the kaluve after the last rains, the CMC got an official survey done to mark the original channel," said S. Lakshman Kumar, a convener for the BCWA, pointing as proof to the red crosses that have been drawn to mark the course of the kaluve. There is evidence of excavation work in a small stretch in front of the factory that according to the residents was begun by the administration soon after the rains but stopped owing to pressure from a powerful Zilla Parishad member. He claimed that the land through which the original kaluve flowed was his. "If the original Kaluve is excavated and is cleared of garbage, then 50 per cent of the problem of flooding will be solved," Lakshman argues.

In Vajpayeenagar the channel is so blocked with garbage that a person can walk on it, as residents are quick to point out. "In this area sewage and drainage have merged," said V. Nirmala, a resident. Gladys Pereira, another resident whose house was flooded in last year's rains, and who is an active member of the citizen's committee, points to the poor quality of roads in Vajpayeenagar. "This road was supposed to have been metalled at a cost of Rs. 4.75 lakhs," she says, pointing to the pot-holed mud road and a board that announces completion of work.

Members of the citizen's committee say that the CMC called a public-grievance meeting for residents on March 11 this year. Residents were asked to fill in a form stating their demands for better sewage disposal, roads and drinking water facilities. "Several of us got replies telling us that our problems would be attended to but there has been no change in the situation," said Lakshman.

"We have spent Rs.2 crores in the area after the flood last year," CMC Commissioner K.S. Venkateshappa told Frontline. "The same thing will not get repeated. We have removed debris from the Saraki and Puttenahalli tanks, desilted the Begur main tank and the rajakaluve in the Vajpayeenagar locality," he said. "We have improved conditions in the localities by 75 per cent."

Enforcing any sort of accountability on the part of bodies such as the CMC is virtually impossible for residents' associations, as the figures provided in the CMC budgets are aggregate figures for the CMC as a whole and do not have ward-wise breakdown of works completed and costs incurred. For example, the budgetary support for water tankers for 2005-06 in the Bommanahalli CMC was Rs.38.9 lakhs. There is no way of knowing if the allocated amount was spent. The supply of drinking water in all these localities is mainly in the hands of private contractors. The same Budget says that Rs.49 lakhs was spent on garbage collection until December 2005 against an outlay of Rs. 2,35,00,000 for 2005-06. Next only to the problem of water, garbage collection continues to be the most pressing problem for the residents of the area, and they have no way of ascertaining if the money was spent and if so how.

Similarly, under the Special Packages Scheme for Rain Affected Areas, there are several claims of specific civic works being completed whereas in fact they were only partially completed. For example, the claim that in Muniyappa Layout (Ward 9), the main road and the crossroads were repaired at a cost of Rs.4.85 lakhs this May is only partially true. Only a part of the main road was repaired and the cross roads remain in their original state of disrepair. This is true of almost all the items in the list of completed works that the CMC has compiled. The last Commissioner of the Bommanahalli CMC was apprehended by the Karnataka Lokayuktha for corruption and the possession of Rs.29 crores of unaccounted money. This has not helped public confidence in the CMC.

"We are prepared this year for any crisis," Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate M.A. Sadiq told Frontline. Following the heavy rains last year, the areas where extensive flooding occurred in four of the seven CMCs had been identified and work was in progress to strengthen tanks and storm water drains, he said. Further, in the Bommanahalli CMC, the work on the Puttenahalli tank has been finalised and work "will commence shortly." Yet, an Action Plan released by his office in May 2006 has made the claim that the "majority of encroachments have been removed" from the Begur tank rajakaluve and that it "has been desilted and a mud drain has been formed for the free flow of water". Neither of these claims is correct and will only serve to deepen public scepticism about official accountability.

Bommanahalli's problems are symptomatic of the situation in other parts of the city that felt the impact of last year's deluge and remain unprepared for another spell of heavy rain.

However, in spite of the civic problems, these under-serviced areas face, the price of land here continues to spiral upwards. The demand for land is triggered by the growing numbers of migrants who find their way to the city in search of better economic prospects. This has resulted in the indiscriminate growth of illegal residential layouts developed by land sharks and developers who collude with officials to get the necessary clearances and provide nothing in the way of civic amenities.

Even in already developed residential layouts such as the MICO Layout, site owners are constantly threatened by former landholders of the area who demand higher prices for the land, well after the sale-deeds have been finalised and signed.

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