A boy pushes a table in a flooded locality of Bellandur after heavy monsoon rains, in Bengaluru, Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022. (Photo: PTI)
Billionaires in boats. Techies in tractors. India’s Silicon Valley sinking. The dramatic visuals and headlines coming out of Bengaluru in recent days give a flavour of the catastrophe unfolding in India’s most high-profile tech hub and the trauma of the residents of this southern Indian city of nearly 13 million. Bengaluru continues to reel from torrential rains, flooded homes, widespread power cuts, submerged roads and more. The worst may not be over yet.
In Bengaluru, while we watched billionaires being rescued in boats on our television screens, there was also another story. Bengaluru’s Bellandur is not only home to software companies that are bearing the brunt of the incessant rains. It also has slums and an informal city. Slum dwellers in and around Bellandur are struggling to find food and water as their homes are inundated.
What is happening in Bengaluru is horrific. But this is not just about one city. And while unpacking the dramatic images we are seeing we must ask a fundamental question that goes beyond Bengaluru.
India is rapidly urbanising. India’s urban population, currently at about 480 million, is expected to double by 2050. What sort of "development" do we envisage for our cities? This is not the first time a significant part of an Indian megacity has gone under water after intense rainfall and it will not be the last unless we are ready for the bald truth and act on it.
The unvarnished truth is that unregulated and unplanned urbanisation means an urban India which is likely to be underwater every time it rains heavily.
Sustainable growth is not just an expression used by activist-academics. Nor is it just the environmentalists’ narrative. It must become the survival narrative unless we wish to continue to have headlines like "India’s Silicon Valley Sinks" and the kind of trauma of ordinary people we are witnessing. If we fill up our lakes and wetlands, we will have Bengaluru-style floods. More and more.
Climate change is man-made at a global level. It has made heavy downpours much more frequent and we often hear local politicians blame climate change for a disaster and saying there is nothing they can do about it. But the disasters triggered by this round of rainfall are largely man-made at the local level. We need to face this. One key reason behind the current catastrophic "flood" in Bengaluru is property developers filling up drains, wetlands and lakes and building homes, offices, malls, roads and so on right on top of it. The rainwater has nowhere to go now.
Over the years, government agencies have turned a blind eye to this and now the price of ignoring the obvious is getting steeper. Lakes have been vanishing in this city once famed for its many water bodies. Many citizens’ groups have been fighting hard to protect the water bodies but builders in cahoots with politicians have got their way. Interestingly, the parts of Bengaluru that have been less affected by the floods are those places that have seen an investment in storm water drains. So, they are better-equipped. In sharp contrast are the areas which have experienced massive growth in recent years and which are also in the low-lying areas. Many experts say these areas have not invested enough in the kind of infrastructure that would make it more resilient.
How do we deal with the situation now?
First, we must recognise that erratic and extreme weather will be more frequent due to climate change. There is no longer any debate about this. A report by the urban development ministry notes the "increasing trend of urban flood disasters in India over the past several years where major cities in India have been severely affected". The most notable among them, it goes on to say, are "Hyderabad in 2000, Ahmedabad in 2001, Delhi in 2002 and 2003, Chennai in 2004, Mumbai in 2005, Surat in 2006, Kolkata in 2007, Jamshedpur in 2008, Delhi in 2009 and Guwahati and Delhi in 2010. The most recent devastating ones were Srinagar in 2014 and Chennai in 2015".
There is official recognition of poor city planning. The government report concedes that "unplanned development and encroachments of sprawling habitations alongside rivers and watercourses have meddled with the natural streams and watercourses". As a result of this, it points out, "the runoff has increased in proportion to urbanisation of the watersheds causing urban floods. New and intensified phase of urbanisation during 2001-2011 coupled with spatial expansion of urban extents have compounded flood risk in the urban centres".
Bengaluru had 262 lakes in the 1960s. Now only a fraction of that number actually holds water. The same story is playing out in many other cities like Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. The devastating floods in Chennai in 2015 were telling markers of the mismanagement of water bodies. There were many photographs of a flooded runway in Chennai airport. That airport has been built by filling in what used to be a river. No one seems to have asked the fundamental question -- where will the water go when it rains hard.
Second, lakes do not die overnight. The death of a lake is a gradual process. If we let them be contaminated, become dump yards and let encroachments happen, we are in effect saying "yes" to more catastrophes of the kind urban India is beginning to see.
It does not have to be this way. Political willingness and an aware public can change the fate of these lakes and urban India.
Blaming just house buyers who did not sufficiently investigate the terrain will not help at this point. We must ask questions of the builders and the local authorities who chose to gloss over the clear link between shrinking water bodies and increasing urban floods.
Across India, many citizens are banding together to stop destruction and degradation of urban water bodies. In state after state, they have filed legal cases to save urban lakes.
Citizens are doing their "duty". But what is the duty of the elected representatives at a time like this? Can realtors get their way without collusion of politicians, municipalities and land mafias?
We cannot stop heavy downpours but we can minimise the damage. There is a movement in many parts of the world to build "sponge" cities that can soak in rainwater instead of letting it flow over miles of concrete and trigger devastating floods. Sponge cities focus on expanding trees, lakes and parks which can absorb rainwater and reduce flooding. This is not a fantasy. Cities as diverse as New York and Shanghai are exploring sponginess and improving their drainage system. Can we reimagine our cities?