A fortnight after the Bengaluru Floods. Will it happen again? Yes, most likely.

It’s been about two weeks since million-dollar homes were flooded in Bengaluru. There has been reams of press on why it happened and what can it be done about it. Sadly, much of the analysis misses the deeper questions. If the answers were only “encroachments on storm drains, must clear” – “lets Noida-tower the apartment blocks”, I fear the seasonal flooding in Bengaluru, as indeed across much of India, will continue and worsen as the warming climate makes intense rainfall more commonplace.

Let’s go deeper and ask (a) Is this bout of flooding unusual? (b) Who encroached – were all the motivations the same? (c) What was/should be done about it? (i) Should we Noida-tower the crap out of all encroachers – JCB-Justice, so to speak?, (ii) Or should this move through the court system follow due process, delay-be-damned and (iii) what about compensation – should the poor maid who lives in a shack next to a high rise tower be relocated to a far away neighbourhood and lose two (or more) hours to commute each way – more pertinently, even if she were relocated, would she stay relocated, or would she move back?

Lastly, what next? Quite a few questions, so let us begin:

Is this Flooding Unusual?

There is little hard data to show the level of impact – in terms of extent of property damage (comparable across floods etc), but we can check two parameters: (a) the level of rainfall, and (b) the search interest.

Level of Rainfall

High Rainfall events in Bengaluru District, source: WRIS

Looking at the chart above, flooding appears to be quite an annual thing for Bengaluru. Bellandur has flooded (and foamed and caught fire) in the past, as has northern Bengaluru, when some lakes overflowed after heavy rainfall in November 2021. The only thing that makes this episode stand apart is the clustering of high rainfall days within a period of 45 days.

But close readers will point out that this a flawed graph. Rainfall varies quite a bit across a city, and the actual rainfall over a particular neighbourhood, like Mahadevapura, could have been unusually high this time round. Bengaluru had received 131.6 mm of rain on September 5th as per IMD officials (I was unable to find this on an IMD website) – this is more than double the district figure shown in the graph above. But the local data (e.g., rainfall over Mahadevapura over time) was not available easily, nor indeed a time series of such data which would help prioritize which encroachments to clear first. Oh well. Moving on.

But as September high rainfall days in Bengaluru go, Sep 05th was far from the highest…

Source: IMD

If the rainfall and flooding were not unusual why has this particular flooding event garnered so much global attention?

Level of Search Interest

Using Google Trend data as a proxy, we see that the attention received by the Sep 05 flood event dwarfed any other flood event in Bengaluru’s 5-year past.

Data from Google Trends; Note the region selected is India. The data looks essentially the same if one chooses Karnataka.

Why this flood-fetish? Was this simply schadenfreude? The billionaires who always remained dry and warm, while others had to trudge through the muck, finally had the murky brown water overtake their swanky living rooms and wreck their expensive cars?

Or was there something else? In India, sooner or later, everything comes down to politics. The local elections are around the corner, and the state elections are coming up next year, could this be the reason for the unusually high interest?

The ruling party, BJP’s state general secretary was quoted as saying:

There will be no change in our electoral prospects. See constituency-wise, other than Mahadevapura and Bommanahalli which were largely affected, there was no major impact of rains and floods in other constituencies. did our MLAs in these two constituencies Arvind Limbavali or Satish Reddy create this problem? It (rains) was nature’s fury,” he said, ” the government is working to restore things and no one should politicise it…Let them (Congress) say how much they had cleared during their tenure, we will see how much we did in three years. Ramalinga Reddy himself has admitted they could not do much on clearing encroachments. Who was behind encroachments, gave permissions- whether from the Congress or BJP- let the truth come out. We are ready to debate it factually.”

Moving on.

What about the flood itself? It is unfair to blame the rain alone. Almost all would agree that encroachments lay at the heart of the problem.

Why did this encroachment come about?

There has been so much written about this, often and well, that I will not add to it, except to say, encroachment philosophies vary by who encroached.

(a) By government to provide infrastructure and amenities, including siting landfills

For example, the Sampangi tank built by Kempe Gowda was neglected with the advent of piped water early in the 20th century. It was filled up and became the Kanteerava Stadium in 1946. This is a pattern that has repeated across India – the British prioritized centrally provided piped water supply over decentralized community-managed tanks – it suited both their pocket books and their need for control. To achieve this end, they often portrayed tanks as unhealthy, as something dispensable. The latter point was useful to city administrators post-independence to provide convenient land in the heart of the city – the dry tank bed. Easiest way to dry up a tank – encroach its feeder channel.

Tank beds and feeder channels have been officially ‘encroached’ – an oxymoron if there ever was one – for decades. Why are we feigning surprise and moral outrage now? This set the tone for others to imitate.

(b) By builders to cut cost/corners/provide access.

“The rajakaluve here is 40 feet wide but, about 500 metres from here, has been narrowed down to just 10 feet by a big builder,” said Jagadish Reddy, who has lived in Marathahalli for decades. “They laid a slab over it for a road to their complex. We had complained several times and asked them to at least clear the silt under it, but they did not care even for the MLA.”,

Jagadish Reddy to News Laundry.

Predictably, with less carrying capacity, the feeder drain overflowed with the heavy rains leading to flooding of the surrounding neighbourhood. Advertisement for these “encroacher” properties are carried flamboyantly on the cover of the same newspapers where opinion pages, lamenting the encroachments, are sandwiched in the middle. Many of the encroachments, which are now being cleared, have people protesting that they have received an no-objection certificate to build where they have. The subtext is clear: do it, everyone else is and the chance of you getting caught is small.

(c) By the economically vulnerable/migrants to find housing close to the place of work.

“We moved here 10 years ago”, says a woman in clear Hindi (not Kannada) to a news channel. Many of the slum dwellers act as waste pickers or household help or auto drivers. They are the grease that keeps the city clean and running. They cannot afford a commute as things stand, and therefore they build their own houses on the only vacant land they can find close to their place or work: the tank buffer zone.

Clearing such informal encroachments is likely to be impermanent band-aid: a household help is unlikely to commute 2 hours each way – she will want to stay close to her place of work. The transport infrastructure in most Indian metros will not permit her to live in a ‘legal’ affordable house with a manageable commute. Could vertical building help? Perhaps. Electric mobility will not.

In short, almost everyone in the city encroached or benefitted from such encroachment directly or indirectly (working in a company that encroached/ earned advertising revenue from a building that encroached/ employed a maid who lived in a slum that encroached etc).

So, much like the Delhi Air Pollution crisis, after every flood, there was temporary outrage, a few studies, some clearing and then quietly waiting it out.

Action on the encroachments

This time however, given the media interest and with elections around the corner, the bulldozers are out in earnest.

“By next monsoon, we’ve to clear all pending demolitions… all apartments will be led off, as you saw in Noida. Action to be against officials and builders.”,

said Karnataka Revenue Minister, R. Ashok.

What has happened?

“About 11 properties across Yelahanka, West and Mahadevapura zones have been bulldozed, while encroachments in West Zone and KR Puram, Shanthiniketan Layout and Challaghatta were cleared from
rajakaluves…However, BBMP officials said only compound walls and gates are being removed, and asked the inmates to vacate in a week’s time, so they can complete the demolition.”

Citizen Matters, a regional news provider.

Not all faced demolition – indeed there have been complaints of favouritism shown towards larger developers. But BBMP has said that they have begun to take action against everyone. The New Indian Express reported Special Commissioner and Mahadevepura Zone-in-charge, Dr KV Trilok Chandra, as saying BBMP would follow the Court’s writ and clear lakes and buffer zones of encroachments as per land survey reports by the revenue department. Countering the charge of favouritism, he reportedly said, “We are first focusing on ‘important ones’. We are ensuring the connectivity to lakes is restored through drains.”

But sometimes clearing encroachment was not straightforward – with clearances being delayed by following due process. Per Citizen Matters, “The BBMP surveyed Bagmane Tech Park on Wednesday and a report is expected to be prepared soon. Bagmane had approached the Lokayukta to restrain the BBMP, but Justice BS Patil only advised both BBMP and Bagmane Development Pvt Ltd to cooperate with each other.”

Meanwhile, The Hindu reported, “Chief Civic Commissioner Tushar Giri Nath said that Bagmane Tech Park had agreed to remove the compound wall which is encroaching the SWD. “However, they have raised the issue that if the wall is removed, it will flood the tech park area. We will take up a survey soon and we will remove encroachments there and at the nearby Puravankara property too,”.

On the other hand, some of the smaller players who claimed they had official ‘permission’ to build where they had were not spared. Per Citizen Matters: “A compound wall built by Sri Chaitanya School in Shantiniketan Layout in Munnekolala was demolished, though there were protests that it had the relevant documents and occupancy certificates. But BBMP officials responded that it was a warning to owners and in a few days they would give notice before more demolitions.”

Having to clear illegal buildings that have received official sanction is going to be a repetitive problem in India’s quest to build climate resilience. There are no easy answers of how to do so.

There are nearly 700 encroachments that have been officially identified on the drains that become essential to ferry away the rainwater and prevent flooding. Experts such as Prof. Ramachandra of IISc say that this identification is a starting point, and more may come about if the exercise were carried out scientifically to understand why water does not drain away.

Until such mapping happens, and the necessary encroachments are cleared, parts of Bengaluru will flood again.

What Next?

Let us acknowledge that clearing encroachments – something that has built up over a century with official sanction, are not easy at all. It will need all hands to push. The best way to move forward is with each community taking ownership of its own neighbourhood and pushing relentlessly not just when floods come to call. To help with this, we need data – after all in a highly contentious issue, knowing the likelihood of a floods, and past occurrences will help. Here, some of the data is available but not accessible. Rainfall varies considerably over a city – the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Management Centre – collects data from several rain gauges from the city. But, when I tried to access a longitudinal rainfall series, or even see how much it rained in various parts of the city on the 5th, I drew a blank. Given the prestigious institutes, both private and public, and the very active civil society in the city, could this data be made accessible, and compelling?

Next, to move forward, could the prodigious IT talent in the city help create a nifty dashboard showing where are the encroachments, what is the status, what is the next step or bottleneck? And could this dashboard be made public to see where and why progress is stalling.

Or do we want to resort to Sir Humphrey?

“They [citizens of a democracy] have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity and guilt. Ignorance has a certain Dignity.”

Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister.

What is the alternative? What if status quo did not change? In the world accustomed to WFH, any job that can be Bangalored can also be Salem’d, Madurai’d, Nellore’d or Nagpur’d. At some point, the traffic and the water woes will reach a tipping point, especially as climate change tends to increase the incidence of intense rainfall events. And then the growth might reverse.

It already appears to be happening.

“India is a tech hub for global enterprises, so any disruption here will have a global impact. Bangalore, being the centre of IT, will be no exception to this,”

K.S. Viswanathan, vice president of NASSCOM, quoted in the Mint. ‘Traffic, water shortages, now floods; is it the slow death of Bengaluru, India’s tech hub?’

Even before the floods, some business groups including the Outer Ring Road Companies Association (ORRCA) that is led by executives from Intel, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Wipro, warned inadequate infrastructure in Bengaluru could encourage companies to leave.

“We have been talking about these for years,” Krishna Kumar, general manager of ORRCA, said last week of problems related to Bengaluru’s infrastructure. “We have come to a serious point now and all companies are on the same page.”

Mint. ‘Traffic, water shortages, now floods; is it the slow death of Bengaluru, India’s tech hub?’

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