How Caste and Class Divisions Caused Bengaluru’s Flooding

When I was a kid, I remember my home in Bengaluru flooding repeatedly, especially during the monsoons. 

This was strange as we were in Chamarajpet, a well-planned neighbourhood developed by the visionary Dewan Sheshadri Iyer, along with Malleshwarm and Basavanagudi neighbourhoods, to settle those who lived in the petes (trading and living zones combined) of the old fort town that Bengaluru was then as the bubonic plague had ravaged and decimated the population as the 19th century rolled into the 20th.  

In these new neighbourhoods, quarter acre plots were allotted to build houses – typically bungalows with gardens all about – along broad and well drained roads. These often led to schools, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds and parks. Every house was water secure with open wells and conservancies to remove waste – by those belonging to the repressed Dalit community, of course. Rainwater drained from these neighbourhoods into well maintained storm water drains which flowed into kaluves (canals) and ultimately emptied into irrigation tanks (now called lakes). These lakes had been built over centuries as water harvesting and flood impeding structures and were maintained healthily to supply water, mainly by nourishing ground water aquifers which fed open wells.    

That our street flooded repeatedly even when Chamrajpet did not flood had to do with the simple fact that our neighbourhood was in old Gavipura village, from which land was taken to carve Chamrajpet. The planning and civic services attending to the new neighbourhood were completely absent in the village. As the city population got more dense over time, the ‘unplanned’, congested and chaotic Gavipura provided cheap and affordable housing to the poor and working classes. No space was ‘wasted’ and thereby no thought was given to accommodating for flood water flows. Thus, my home flooded.

Gavipura was largely composed of erstwhile farming, pastoral and Dalit communities, whilst the population of Chamrajpet, literally across the street, was predominantly of the ‘upper’ caste and class. Planning, health and social services were abundantly available to Chamrajpet, but there was hardly any for Gavipura.

As young migrants from Coorg (now Kodagu) in the 1960s, without any social network for economic support, my parents could barely afford to pay for housing in the city, and so resorted to living in small houses they could afford in this urbanised village. Like them, lakhs of migrant working class families survived in such ‘villages’ as they provided affordable housing in the otherwise expensive city. 

It is such stories of migrant families that make the Bengaluru of the 20th century. 

Representative image of a Bengaluru neighbourhood. Photo: jchessma/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A sizeable chunk of the population lived in well planned townships built during the public sector era. They – along with those who lived in the colonial Cantonment, filled with churches, clubs and restaurants, and those from the old pete and Chamrajpet like areas replete as they were with old temple complexes and old lakes – formed a composite culture that promised a functional metropolis ready to face the demands of the 21st century. 

That did not happen, of course, as the city was hamstrung by the parastatal Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), a creature of the Emergency. Structurally subordinated to the Chief Minister’s Office, the agency became a parochial slave of an urbanisation agenda dictated by narrow political pursuits, and hardly ever imagined developing an inclusive and futuristic metropolis.

BDA, with its close cousin Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board (KIADB), armed with draconian land acquisition laws, recklessly acquired large swathes of farmland, wetlands and pastoral commons all about Bengaluru. In the process, the agencies wantonly exploited farmers and pastoralists providing them a pittance in compensation.

This was, in many ways, worse than what British had done to these rural communities. Other farmers wisened up, worried as they were by the harrowing prospect of their age old farms and villages eviscerating due to this most undemocratic and unfair expansion of Bengaluru. They responded as best they could: working through caste and community networks they engaged in the confounding praxis of ‘conversion’ of farm land into ‘developed’ areas, exploiting revenue laws. This resulted in the mushrooming of ‘urban layouts’ without even bare civic services and hardly a thought for integrating them into the large metropolitan project.  

FILE PHOTO: Residents are evacuated to safer places in a tractor trolley after heavy rains caused flooding in a residential area in Bengaluru, India, November 22, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Samuel Rajkumar

The mostly illiterate farmers who needed assistance for this colonial era executive ‘conversion’ project, critical to escalate the value of their land manifold, reached out to local real estate brokers who often happened to be “nammavare” (someone from the community). These agents orchestrated the amazing journey of “hakku patra” (record of rights of farmers) through a maze of bureaucracies to finally get a stamp of approval from the Deputy Commissioner’s office – in return for a hefty commission. That this conversion did not fit into the larger Comprehensive Development Plan of the BDA hardly mattered. The tacit blessings of the MLA or the minister was always there, without which no change would anyway be possible. 

The consequence? Bengaluru became a metropolis shaped by caste and community influences, where feudal lords were at a clear advantage to form massive layouts of their farms around the city. Thus emerged gated communities for villas and mega apartment complexes.

BDA and KIADB compounded the problem with their own layout expansions and did not care about environmental limits, traffic flow loads and patterns, urban transit demands, movement of goods and services, etc. As the cost of land reached stratospheric levels – as demand outgrew supply – the illegal conversion route actively supported by political lords ruled.

Take a look at periurban Bengaluru, especially that massive swathe of farm and wetland which was ‘converted’ into the IT/BT Corridor at an epic scale. Quarter way into the 21st century, a majority of Bengaluru’s population live in such ‘converted’ neighbourhoods where it is a real challenge to do anything normative to urban living – such as walk to school, drive safely, find a park to relax in, or reach a hospital quickly. Forget looking for a library in such areas. 

Into this hodgepodge of urbanisation was poured billions of dollars to intensify expansion of real estate inventories – massive corporate offices and apartment complexes, with no thought to water and traffic flows or sewage outfall, all of which captains of the IT/BT sector lapped up. Quite a bit of the unimaginable wealth generated by this sector from the 1990s has been concretely locked into this clutter of high end apartments and gated communities nested awkwardly in erstwhile villages. The villages got slummed, and just as Gavipura did for a century before, supplied affordable housing for the working classes and the poor, who were forced to move from villages far and near in search of a livelihood. They also provided cheap labour to the IT/BT corridor, the hundreds of apartments and gated communities, and the city beyond.

A mall in Bengaluru. Photo: Abhiman Singh/Flickr (Public domain)

For the young and upwardly mobile migrant community, putting up with all these inconveniences was acceptable as long as they could be able to afford a car, an apartment, may be even a bungalow in a swanky gated community filled with opulent services if they got lucky. As long as the IT/BT revenues kept growing, none in the civic and state administrations cared about the consequences of such urbanisation. The flooding is an outcome of such neglect. 

This is not new. It has happened before. This year it is far worse than ever before. But this unprecedented deluge cannot be blamed on the heavy rains over the past month. The flooding is a consequence of valleys and wetlands being built into and concretised, mostly supported by the ‘conversion’ factor, and with absolute disregard to environmental limits. 

In fact, much of the urbanisation of Bengaluru through much of the 20th century has been at the cost of wetlands.

This neglect intensified in the 1970s when water from the Cauvery, 100 kilometres away, became a massive political project and the critical importance of maintaining the intricately networked raja kaluves (canals) and lakes was ignored. Sewage and industrial effluents flowed freely into the kaluves and all of this ended up in lakes destroying their ecology. Quite obviously they turned fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes which then spread deadly malaria, thus becoming agents of a terror worse than the much feared Sabre jets from Pakistan which were feared for their potential to bomb Bengaluru’s sensitive electronics and defence industries into oblivion.

To tackle malaria, civic authorities did not keep drains and lakes healthy, they simply drained them. 

This phenomenon destroyed dozens of lakes and freed up so much land that any politician of any importance rushed to stamp their legacy by proposing a stadium, office block, school or bus stand in what was a lake. This encroachment plague became an epidemic in subsequent decades, especially post 1990s with the massive explosion of IT/BT sector. 

As lakes got ‘converted’ into private property, just about every stretch of kaluve was polluted and encroached. Across peri-urban Bengaluru, more particularly the large swathe of land linking Tata-Singapore Technology Park to the east in Whitefield (built in mid 1990s) and right across to the Electronics City to the south east, close to Hosur (built in the 1980s), lay some of the most critical wetlands (mainly paddies) linked to lake systems. 

All of this was taken over by real estate developers, small, big and global, who then invested heavily to create snazzy commercial complexes, malls, office blocks, fantastically named gated communities (Rainbow Drive that got completely submerges is mild representation of this outlandish imagination). 

None of this worked to any meta plan, as none existed. Everyone did what they pleased, or did whatever they could manage with their ‘connections’ to revenue and planning authorities to secure approvals for projects already built. To make matters worse, the slender possibility of public oversight through hearings that was mandated in the EIA Notification was removed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in 2006.  The lack of transparency further helped those who were comfortable with and complicit in the ‘conversion’ city.

Also read: EIA Legitimised Environmental Destruction. Now, Govt ‘Renovates’ it for the Worst.

Into this mess was retrofitted the Outer Ring Road, the Hosur Road Flyover, and of late the Bengaluru Metro. In this space now, almost completely built up and concretised, there is no space for water to flow and thus, even with a small rain, it floods. The deluge of this year has only proved that all the wealth that is created by building against nature’s ways can and will get washed away in moments. Worse can follow given that such heavy downpours are expected to be more frequent as the impact of climate change intensifies.  

What can we now do to save this expanding metropolis? 

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has decided to plough Rs 1,500 crores to remove encroachments of kaluves and then concretise these canals. There is no cry over removing encroachments by big developers who encroached to maximise the return on their investments, this must not be a licence to attack the rights of the poor who occupied such commons out of sheer necessity – merely to put up a shack so as to somehow sleep in a super expensive city. The concretisation drive, however, is a cure far worse than the disease – as it will simply weaponise flood waters which then will rush through the channels into lakes which are already brimming with sewage, and the resultant pressure could rupture bunds and cause an unimaginable disaster killing dozens who live downstream.

This is not in the realm of horrid imagination of a sick mind. It has happened before. In the middle of a monsoon night in 2019, following a heavy downpour, a breach in Hulilmavu lake flooded 800 houses. Thankfully, none died due to the alertness of a few.

A submerged in the flood water after the Hulimavu lake breached in Bengaluru in 2019. Photo: PTI

We may not be so lucky every time. 

Rains are blessings which can make Bengaluru water secure, even water surplus, only if all lakes (about 400 remain in the urbanised city, and about 900 in the greater Bengaluru region) and kaluves (about 840 kms of such canals still remain) are immediately rehabilitated as per the guidelines issued by Justice N.K. Patil Committee which is an integral part of the April 11, 2012 final order of the Karnataka high court in Environment Support Group and anr. vs. State of Karnataka and ors. (WP 817/2008). The order requires civic and state authorities to organise Lake Protection Committees directly involving local communities so every lake and its kaluve is protected from encroachment and pollution. Violators are required to be tackled by regulatory agencies such as the Karnataka Tank Conservation and Development Authority, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, Forest Department, and also powers wielded by civic and urban planning authorities.  

On March 4, 2020, when the principal bench of the Karnataka high court headed by then Chief Justice Abhay Oka reviewed status of implementation of earlier orders, it discovered negligible compliance. The state government was immediately directed to appoint revenue officials to undertake surveys to identify encroachments of all lakes and kaluves and report compliance in a few months. The court also took care to list earlier reports of the state and legally accepted mapping resources to identify encroachments. Despite such granular detailing by the court, barring removal of a few encroachments here and there, most of the rest has remained untouched. So when the rains came, deluge struck, for there was simply no place for water to go but into houses, malls and offices built in the waters’ way. Now these highly contaminated waters can cause a public health disaster.

There is a way out. And this requires working with communities from the ground up, through democratic processes with ward committees and lake protection committees, to immediately attend to the needs of flood prone regions. This exercise will easily identify those who used their influence to grab public commons for real estate gains, and they must be dealt with firmly. Such granular administrative and planning responses will also help identify the poor who are forced to live in flood prone areas out of sheer necessity and they cannot be evicted and thrown to the streets. They must be rehabilitated locally in healthy neighbourhoods. 

Meanwhile, the miasmic ‘conversion’ factor of the 20th century cannot continue to rule a city that is projected as India’s ‘science and tech’ centre. 

There is no lack of understanding or public interest to ensure this mess is permanently resolved. What is sorely missing is the public will to reject politics of complicity with the corrupt that allows the wealthy and the politically well-connected to build wherever they want and not only flood the city by their avarice, but worse, make it impossible for millions to find their tryst with their destinies. 

The impending civic elections which have been due for over three years now, hopefully, can be a turning point for this metropolis of promise. 

Yes, Bengaluru can save itself from floods and water stresses if democracy returns to it, if it moves out of the class-caste stratifications that marked the gulf between Chamrajpet and Gavipura.

Leo Saldanha works with Environment Support Group, a voluntary policy analysis, education, research and campaign initiative responding to social and environmental justice causes. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article was first published on The Wire.