Leo F. Saldanha is the coordinator of Environment Support Group, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation that works on a variety of environmental and social justice initiatives. Working across many sectors for over a decade, Saldanha has gained wide-ranging experience in the areas of environmental law and policy, decentralisation, urban planning, and human rights and development.
In this interview with Frontline, Saldanha shares his thoughts on the historical loss of lakes in Bengaluru and the shoddy system of development that has led to flooding in many parts of Bengaluru.
Over the past few days, Bengaluru has witnessed harrowing scenes of flooding in several parts of the city. You have pointed out that Bengaluru has over the past few decades lost its common spaces into which excess water could have potentially flowed. Why are lakes so important to a city like Bengaluru?
As dynasties rose and collapsed over time across peninsular India, the turbulence and violence found many expressions, but through all that, an ancient aspect of human engineering survived: irrigation tanks. A study of the Survey of India’s toposheets will reveal that not a single opportunity for harvesting surface runoff was wasted, evident in the thousands of lakes and hundreds of thousands of ponds that are littered across the landscape. Each of these waterbodies was interconnected by streams and kaluves [canals].
Over the 20th century, as cities expanded and increasingly relied on electricity to draw water from distant rivers or picked up water from groundwater aquifers, the attention required to maintain lakes waned, and kaluves, which were living streams, became “sewage channels” or “storm water drains”. As Bengaluru expanded, it could have paid attention to this crucial water-harvesting landscape which was part of the interconnected network of tanks and lakes; instead, it chose to ignore it, which is why we are facing these problems today.
When you put it like that, it seems like the politicians and administrators of Bengaluru in the past made a major blunder in urban planning, and we are paying the price for it today.
Well, lakes in Bengaluru were drained to tackle malarial epidemics in the early 1970s. This also set off a trend where the spaces were transformed into infrastructure as industrial and residential layouts. There was no effort to tackle sewage and industrial effluents flowing into the kaluves; in fact, that was the default mode of flushing “waste water”. In time, groundwater aquifers got contaminated.
The extensive pollution and encroachment of lakes was already problematic by the early 1980s and compelled the then Chief Minister, Ramakrishna Hegde, to invite the renowned former city administrator Lakshman Rau to suggest ways out. Rau’s report recommended that all lakes and kaluves be immediately protected even if they did not have water, so they could serve in time as the city built up to prevent flooding. Though the report was fully accepted and a GO [Government Order] was issued to follow its recommendations, … city planning and civic agencies ignored it completely.
By the late 1990s, the city became the focus of global investment in the IT/BT [information technology/biotechnology] sector, and there was a massive demand for corporate and residential inventories. Erstwhile feudal lords who held large chunks of land in the periurban area began converting these into real estate to meet this demand. Revenue and land use planning laws prevented change in land use from farming to real estate, but these were subverted by employing discretionary powers of revenue officers to approve such changes. What was a trickle of such conversion clearances became a flood and, soon, a tsunami as changes in the nature of land use took place all over periurban Bengaluru. This was especially pronounced in the east towards Whitefield and Sarjapur and towards Hosur where Electronic City had already become a hub of IT activity. Many of these areas are where we are seeing the scenes of floods today.
So according to you, the IT boom in the city was accompanied by illegal urban planning. What was the result of this?
What resulted was a stupefying mix of highly congested neighbourhoods that slummed erstwhile villages supplying low-cost housing for working classes and the poor amidst which popped out snazzy corporate complexes supplying work spaces for global majors and expensive apartment blocks for those employed in the sector. This chaotic assemblage provided functionality as labour was available for a variety of services, and just about everyone who worked in this region somehow managed to get to work and back.
When the population densified rapidly and traffic snarls became the talk of the day, IT honchos threatened to move out. To calm them, the Karnataka government spent enormous amounts of public monies in a slew of elevated expressways, ring roads, and flyovers, all of which were retrofitted into this mishmash of glass, aluminium, and concrete that evolved and came to be called the IT corridor. Real estate values rocketed into stratospheric zones as Indian real estate majors picked up horticultural farms for a song and turned them into high-value inventories that global majors walked into and upped the stakes. The software majors swept up the inventories to establish large bases for their workforces. Indian IT majors had already built massive complexes in this region and sought to expand even more.
At base of all this growth were the erstwhile feudal lords who had turned real estate brokers, who were comfortable with the corrupt system that evolved to supply farm land to these large companies. Thousands of small and marginal farmers who cultivated in wetlands fed by the lake systems were forced to give up farming under pressure from agents and find any menial task to survive. The land released fed the insatiable desire to expand the IT/BT sector, and by the late 2010s, the clutter that it has now become began to flood every time it rained.
The corruption that allowed for land use changes seems to be one of the major reasons for this unplanned urban development, which has consequently led to the problems of today. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct. What happened in the preceding decades is that the corruption in land use changes—which formed the basis for the emergence of the IT/BT corridor, supported as it was with national and international finance, a phenomenon the sociologist Michael Goldman calls “speculative urbanism”—made the State government unmindful of the consequences of such urbanisation. The corrupt gnawed into every open space, the … erstwhile grazing pastures and lakes, even kaluves, and somehow managed to get building permits. Those who influenced this transformation were soon climbing up the political ladder, and they are now the MLAs and MPs representing Bengaluru, but they didn’t care about consequences as the politics of expediency took root.
While the visuals on national media give the impression that most of the city is flooded, this is not entirely correct as it is mainly the low-lying areas in the eastern part of Bengaluru that are facing this disaster.
Yes. At base of the growth and unfettered expansion of the IT corridor is the destruction of wetlands across the Bellandur-Varthur-Sarjapur-Agara-Bommanahalli complex, a huge swathe of extraordinarily rich horticultural farms and paddies to the east of Bengaluru. Without investing any thought into water flows and sewage management, this region was built up in a frenzy and associated with that was the rapid degeneration of lakes and kaluves. If we had paid attention to this in the past, we would not have been seeing the scenes of devastation that we are witnessing now.
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What has been the role of politicians in these sordid developments?
The majority of those who have played a role in this transformation are now MLAs and MPs of the city. The capacity to orchestrate legal manipulation to divert farmlands and wetlands and encroach water commons (lakes and kaluves in particular) got them a place in the political sun. National parties have used their capacities to supply financial resources to sustain party work, and, in turn, they have been rewarded with key political positions. Erstwhile politics which valued public service and evolved with an ancient culture of protecting the commons has now been replaced with a miasmic politics that gains tremendously from speculative urbanism.
And this is not peculiar to Bengaluru. It is … how the IT sector is evolving in Chennai, Hyderabad, Noida, and Mumbai. And this is being incentivised with tax holidays that further perpetuate such reckless “development”, with States competing with one another to retain investors through global investors meets, a veritable race to the bottom in which making money today is all that matters.
Nature has a way of throwing up the vacuousness of human hubris. Bengaluru’s IT corridor is no stranger to lakes catching fire, … foaming and flooding. Indeed, this year’s rains are unprecedented and could be part of an extreme weather event associated with the impact of climate change. But this corridor floods even with normal rain as waterways have all been choked with the material muck of the city and the corrupt political muck. The flooding is a consequence of all this.
- Toposheets of the Survey of India reveal that in ancient times the area had thousands of lakes and hundreds of thousands of ponds and that not a single opportunity for harvesting surface runoff was wasted. Each of these waterbodies was interconnected by streams and kaluves.
- Extensive pollution and encroachment of lakes was already a problem by the early 1980.
- The renowned former city administrator Lakshman Rau recommended that all lakes and kaluves be immediately protected even if they did not have water and a GO was issued to that effect.
- However, city planning and civic agencies ignored it completely.
- The IT boom led to farmland and periurban areas being converted into real estate for corporates and as residential complexes for their workforce.
- Revenue officers subverted revenue and land use planning laws to approve such changes.
- Many of the people who influenced this transformation were able to gain political power and are now the MLAs and MPs representing Bengaluru.
- The flooding is a consequence of all this.