India pays no heed to urban planning — Bengaluru floods are a case in point

The irony is that though the city and its administrators have help available from IISc in their own backyard, none of the advice the institute’s scientists have given has been heeded

bangalore floods
Besides human sufferings and a death, there has been loss of property and belongings in Bengaluru. Pic: Twitter/IYC

Last week, Bengaluru woke up to a waterlogged city. There were traffic snarls all around, a young woman got electrocuted, the rich and famous were hitching rides on tractors and bulldozers and boats to reach safer destinations, which included overbooked five-star hotels, and the poor as usual were left to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, politicians were busy blaming each other. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai pointed fingers towards the previous Congress regime and said the flooding was caused due to its ‘misadministration’. The Opposition, in turn, directed its guns against the BJP regime and sought ‘President’s rule’.

It took no time for the slugfest to turn into absurdity. Some Congress leaders jumped on to Twitter to criticise Tejaswi Surya, alleging that the BJP MP had enough time to taste dosas and give his reviews, rubbish Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra and blame Nehru for everything possible under the sun, but had no time for flood relief.


Also read: With floods ruining NRC-relevant documents, Assam residents face bleak future

Environmentalists and urban planners, normally only remembered when such crises break out, wrote lengthy columns in newspapers. Local television channels briefly halted broadcasts on their favourite topic of minority bashing and instead turned to the city’s woes.

Unmistakable voyeurism

Some of the footage was unmissable for its voyeurism: How often do you hear of the rich and the famous of the city, not millionaires but billionaires, struggling to keep their feet dry? So, Mercs and Audis were replaced by tractors and boats. HSR layout, or Hosur-Sarjapur Road Layout, which is a prominent residential area of the rich and the famous and gateway to the Electronics City of Bengaluru, was the worst hit.

Epsilon and Divyasree 77 degree East, two of the city’s high-end residential areas, were inundated. Gaurav Munjal, CEO of Unacademy, said he, his family members and their pet dog were rescued by a tractor. Many venture capitalists, founders and CEOs of start-ups were seen literally in water.

The reasons were all too familiar: Climate change, poor urban planning, poor maintenance of drainage systems, corrupt city administration, politician-builder nexus, mindless urban expansion, greed, etc. And finally, there was much wringing of hands and helplessness waiting for the next crisis to strike. 

Besides human sufferings and death, there has been loss of property and belongings. At one count, nearly 25,000 cars were submerged and it is not clear how many of them could be repaired. The poor lost their meagre belongings and many suffered without power and clean drinking water.

Climate change to blame?

Climate change and its impact is a factor, though some may still prefer to remain in denial. Data has shown that the frequency of heavy downpours has increased. According to hydrology experts, a phenomenon which used to occur say once in 500 years, is now happening once in 100 years, and events that used to happen once a century are now taking place more frequently. Some events have even become a recurring annual feature.

The impact of climate change is being witnessed by cities the world over, both in developed and developing countries. Unfortunately, while the rich nations have exploited natural resources the most and are responsible for a large portion of the carbon footprint, it is the developing nations that are facing the worst of Nature’s wrath. For instance, 1,300 people died in recent floods in Pakistan.

Carbon footprint is defined as the total amount of greenhouse gases we emit, including carbon dioxide and methane, per year. The average per person carbon footprint for the US is estimated at 16 tonnes, whereas the global average is only 4 tonnes. And for India? It’s a meagre 0.56 tonnes. 

Urban planning is key

The rich nations have managed to put in place infrastructure to minimise such devastations. The roads are better designed to drain out excess water, relief works reach immediately and emergency services ensure that there is no loss of life, and the elderly and poor are looked after. In developing nations these are luxuries and in most natural disasters they are left to fend for themselves. India has managed to reduce death tolls during cyclones and floods, but material losses are huge.

Urban planning is taken seriously in the developed world. As far as possible they try not to disturb the topography of the land; the undulations of earth are left as they are and construction activities are undertaken without disturbing them. This ensures to some extent the rainwater going into natural sinks and aquifers. This prevents water from running away instead of getting absorbed in the soil.

Bengaluru, once celebrated as the “city of gardens and lakes” and identified as a rest, recreation and retirement spot by the Britishers, is now a changed city. The city, with a 1.3 crore population, has 189 lakes, most of them constructed in the 16th century. Unlike Chennai and Mumbai, which are coastal cities sitting on the plains with long coastlines and therefore more vulnerable, Bengaluru sits at a height and has had a salubrious climate.

Poor maintenance and corruption

Bengaluru lakes are interconnected with canals or rajakaluves. These links in the past used to ensure that the water flowed from one place to another without flooding. According to reports, the city has a network of 890 km of rajakaluves, of which only 50 per cent are actually functional. The rest have not been de-silted, cleared or maintained and therefore rendered dysfunctional over a period of time.

Also read: Wonder why Chennai suffers floods and drought? It’s the poor infrastructure, stupid

The city, which prides itself as the Silicon Valley of India, has apparently installed several sensors along the canals, which should send out warnings when the water level crosses 75 per cent of capacity. Apparently, they didn’t work!

Now, this is where a corrupt and inefficient system plays its role. Reports suggest that the landlords, some old feudals, have sold their land parcels to builders. These include lake beds and low-lying areas on which shiny buildings are constructed, blocking storm drainages and natural waterways. In some places construction activities are carried out without requisite municipal and planning approvals.

Help at hand

One could argue that this is not something unique to India or to Bengaluru. This practice is prevalent all over the globe, but in India it is practised in a much more cynical manner — as we have a large population, there is pressure on land. Besides, we are growing fast.

Dr TV Ramachandra, who heads the department of Centre of Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, or IISc, in Bengaluru, has conducted several studies on why Bengaluru is facing repeated floods. He has also suggested various measures on how to save and rejuvenate the lakes of Bengaluru and improve urban planning. This would ensure that the city neither suffers due to lack of water during summer nor gets flooded during heavy rains.

Water is a serious subject. India, with its huge army of civil engineers and hydrologists, should be able to plan and enforce urban development in a better manner. Bengaluru city and its administrators need not look far, as help is available next door, in IISc. 

Unfortunately  none of the advice of the likes of Ramachandra have been heeded. That’s the irony we face.