Bangalore's woes

Print edition : November 18, 2005

Three decades of a pattern of urban development that has undermined the natural valleys and interconnected lakes leaves the city at the mercy of the rains.

in Bangalore

Evacuating residents from an apartment complex in Garvebavipalya on Hosur Road.-K. MURALI KUMAR

BANGALORE and its seven million inhabitants have had a season of heavy rain. For the past two months the rainfall pattern has been one of heavy rain for a few days followed by a lull. Just as the city begins to believe the worst is over, another deluge cripples life. The unpredictability of the rain has left the residents anxious and uncertain about just how to cope if and when the heavens open again. Rain-dread has indeed become a new dimension of urban consciousness in this city.

That the residents have reason to feel demoralised rather than upbeat over a robust northeast monsoon is because of the unprecedented damage that the rain caused to the infrastructure and civic amenities that keep the wheels of the city moving. Bangalore has seen worse rain in the last decade, but none of the destruction that the recent downpour caused. On September 4, Bangalore received an unseasonal 34.4 mm of rain, as a result of which homes and apartments in low-lying areas went under water, both in the core city area under the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) and in the seven City Municipal Councils (CMCs) clustered around it.

Just as the city was recovering from this onslaught, four days of heavy rain culminating in a virtual deluge on October 22 and 23 sent the city reeling again. This was caused by a depression over the Bay of Bengal, which intensified into a deep depression and remained almost stationary centred 250 km east of Chennai. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) recorded 120 mm of rainfall on October 24 alone. Although the rainfall was nowhere near the highest ever recorded over a 24-hour period in Bangalore (179 mm, which fell on October 1, 1997, holds the record) it nevertheless exposed the city's woeful unpreparedness for a calamity of this sort. It exposed the hollowness of assurances from government officials, including the Mayor of Bangalore, that the city could never flood the way Mumbai did recently as its elevation (920 metres above sea level) would ensure that water would drain away naturally.

The official response to the crisis, from which the city had not recovered even a week after the downpour, has been tardy and delayed. At least 13 people died in rain-related accidents, major lakes and tanks breached flooding housing colonies. Many of the colonies have come up in newly formed layouts, many of them unauthorised (the State government has itself said that there are 450 such layouts). Hundreds of houses and buildings collapsed. The swollen Nagawara, Puttenahalli and Begur lakes breached their banks and water rushed into homes in Nagawara, Hebbal, Hennur, J.P. Nagar and Jakkur. A good part of this water came from contaminated sources such as broken drainage and sewage channels. Telephone lines snapped, making it even more difficult for people to access help. The three main arterial roads of the city - Hosur Road, Magadi Road and Sarjapur Road - were inundated, causing heavy traffic jams. Hosur Road, which leads to a major Information Technology cluster and which carries thousands of people to work every day, took three days to return to normal. Another outcome of the rain was the accumulation of lakes of garbage, the result of the flooding of some of the large garbage dumps on the outskirts of the city.

Those parts of the city where housing layouts that have come up in the last five or six years, most of them in reclaimed tanks and on tank bunds, bore the brunt of the heavy rain. HSR Layout, the new Arkavati Layout, layouts in Mangamannpalya, apartment complexes in Bommanahalli and K.R. Puram, and layouts in the Byataranyanapura CMC were among those flooded.

The State government opened 21 relief camps when the rain refused to let up on October 25. This was a grossly inadequate intervention as there were many areas where relief did not reach. Not many people came to such camps, particularly if they were located at a distance from their submerged homes. Further, most camps were woefully short of essential commodities such as blankets and bed sheets. Those who took refuge in the camp were in desperate need of clothing, which they did not receive. The camps served three meals a day and sachets of drinking water. Ironically, none of the city's non-governmental organisations (NGOs), industrial and corporate houses, or business chambers organised flood relief work. As in Mumbai, in most affected areas, it was the neighbourhood network that people turned to for help. Most families moved in to the dry house of a kindly neighbour.

Five days after the worst of the rains were over, the stench of garbage and rotting fish still pervaded Janakiram Layout in Geddanahalli and Prakruti Layout and Sri Baireswara Layout which fall under the Byatarayanapura CMC. "We have had very little help from our councillor, despite repeated pleas," said Kavita Gururaj, who moved from her home in Prakruti Layout to a friend's house located in a safe part of the colony. "The Council could have at least found affected families a dry place to stay for a few days until the water recedes from our homes. We need a safe and clean place to keep our infants and small children." It is evident that the official response mechanism has been entirely inadequate. "It is five days now since I have gone to work," said S.L. Stany, a non-gazetted officer in the Defence Department who lives in the same layout. "I have phoned the councillor and the council engineer to repair the road in front of my house and disinfect the area, but they have not yet come."

WATER-LOGGING in parts of Bangalore is believed to be the result of three decades of a pattern of urban development that has undermined the natural valleys and interconnected lakes that the city was well known for. This grid of lakes and waterways was a feature of the city built 468 years ago by Kempegowda. The British retained and developed upon this well-designed natural drainage system. In the colonial period, there were 400 lakes and tanks in Bangalore, interlinked by a system of rajakaluve (canals) that followed the natural gradient of the land. Excess water from one lake would flow through waste weirs into the next lake/tank, thereby preventing flooding. Farmers would use water from the canals via lift irrigation for their paddy fields.

Today the number of lakes in the city has shrunk to just 64. A fallout of Bangalore's emergence as India's "Silicon Valley" has been an explosion in real estate values, particularly after 1990. The city's vanishing lakes have fallen prey to a real estate mafia, which in connivance with local officials has ruthlessly acquired land. Lakes and tank beds have vanished having been either encroached upon, filled and made into layouts, or sold for future development. They have become residential layouts, commercial complexes, corporate offices, hospitals, a sports stadium, a golf course and even the main government bus stand. The responsibility of the land mafia for the present crisis is an issue that has been highlighted by a range of individuals and citizens groups. Even former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) president H.D. Deve Gowda mentioned this during his tour of the city. Almost all areas affected by the rain (some were under three feet of water even a week after the rain had almost stopped) were formerly lakes or tank beds. A post-flood assessment by the Karnataka Cabinet noted that 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) of government land in and around Bangalore - much of it on tank beds and lakes - has been encroached.

A Bangalore road after a heavy downpour.-N.V. JAGADEESH/REUTERS

Chief Minster M. Dharam Singh, after one of his cursory visits around the rain-affected areas, acknowledged encroachments to the extent of 3 km on the rajakaluve connecting the Begur and Agara lakes. He said that the government would evolve a permanent policy to clear encroachments on tank beds and lakes in the Bangalore CMC limits. Will the government have the will to demolish structures that have sprung up on these encroachments, often with official connivance? Dharam Singh said: "Encroachments have been made by big people. The drains and tank beds are full of encroachments, so where will the excess water flow? I wonder how the officials allowed such constructions and issued building licences for them."

One of the worst-affected areas in Bangalore is Chandra Layout in Kamalanagar, where around 120 houses (with a population of over 500), mainly of the economically weaker sections were inundated. Most, if not all, the structures are unauthorised, having been built almost atop a storm water drain. Touts who fabricated land documents cheated residents into buying small plots of land. According to 40-year-old Muniyamma, who works in a tailoring unit, a tout, in connivance with government officials, sold her the land for Rs.20,000, complete with papers, around five years ago. It later turned out that her papers were bogus. While residents like Muniyamma want the Bangalore City Corporation to build a retaining wall along the storm water drain so that flooding will be minimised in the future, others who are fed up with the constant threat of water inundating their homes are prepared to shift to an alternative place, provided the government gives them land.

It is not just Chandra Layout, or the nearby Bande slum, that has been affected. Swathes of land in Valmikinagar, Vrishabhavatinagar, Kempegowda Layout, Puttanahalli, Madivalla, J.P. Nagar and Azadnagar too have been affected. Land in these areas commands a hefty price. Middle-class housing colonies here were inundated. There are pockets here that have no civic amenities worth their name - roads being nonexistent, sewage lines yet to be laid - but are home to thousands, all of whom have paid substantially for their dwellings.

In J.P. Nagar's Fifth Phase (which is close to Puttanhalli lake) residents saw their houses and roads submerged in knee-deep water, sewage lines choked and power lines cut off even a week after the October 22 rain. Apartment owners may be relatively better off. But marooned in the stench of their locality, they now blame greedy builders for their plight.

Namitha Singh, a software professional who is expecting her first baby, told Frontline: "I can't move out of this place. No hospital is willing to send an ambulance since they are scared that it will get stuck while trying to cross the flowing waters. I am wondering what will happen if I go into labour." Adds Wing Commander (retd) K.V. Venkatesh: "There are no drains worth their name in this area. When we bought our flat four years ago the builder promised all amenities in a matter of months. Today sewage and water from the nearby lake has been flowing non-stop, we can't even walk out of our houses. The builder has washed his hands off, telling us to approach the officials concerned ourselves."

Bangalore's unplanned boom, especially during the last decade, has seen single-unit residential dwellings being demolished and multi-storied apartments springing up. These apartments, some of which have even been built in violation of norms, are on tiny plots of land. There are no vacant areas that can act as soak pits during a heavy downpour. This random and unplanned construction has caused a plethora of civic and traffic problems since the existing system - roads, drainage or storm water drains - has just not been designed to take the additional load.

Sewage management has been a major area of neglect. Bangalore's existing underground sewerage lines on any given road were designed with a few dozen houses in mind, but with apartments springing up almost overnight, the system is just not able to cope.

A 2004 Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notification specifies that if the project cost of an apartment complex is Rs.50 crores or more, it has a population in excess of 1,000, or it will discharge 50,000 litres or more of sewage, the builder should get an environment impact assessment done and obtain environmental clearance from the Pollution Control Board (PCB) before the building is sanctioned. This notification appears not to have been observed by builders. One of the requirements for PCB clearance is that the complex must have a sewage treatment plant on its premises and only discharge the treated sewage water into the public system. This too is not practised. According to informed sources, the Karnataka government is planning to issue notices to many big builders in an attempt to have them construct sewage treatment plants.

In the wake of the rain and the damage it wreaked, the State government has taken a major policy decision, which is to merge the seven CMCs with the BMP. Bringing the CMCs and the BMP under one centralised body is likely to bureacratise city governance further. The CMCs have an elected component to them, but the elected councillors have little freedom to act as the budget allocations to them are small. It will not be for the first time that the government will be expanding the jurisdiction of the BMP. The last such expansion was done in 1995 when 17 new wards (which were controlled by bodies such as the HAL Sanitary Board) were added to the then 83 wards.

To reverse a process of urban development that has been in operation for the last five years is going to be difficult for the government, notwithstanding the promises it has made in respect of clearing unauthorised constructions and strengthening the drainage system of the city to prevent flooding. There appears, however, to be no other solution to Bangalore's increasing vulnerability to heavy rain.

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