The city lacks a functional system to drain out the water when the water level reaches a certain level following heavy rain.
We have been programmed to sneer at the drain inspector’s report. Blame it partly on Mahatma Gandhi’s use of the scorching phrase to describe American historian Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India. But the totally avoidable death of a young woman in a waterlogged underpass in Bengaluru recently only underlines the need for more and better drain inspections, and actionable reports.
In sum, it is about urban governance. Several things need to happen if we wish to avoid such tragedies, not just in Bengaluru, but across the country. Bhanurekha, 22, a techie working with Infosys, drowned to death last Sunday after the car she was travelling in entered a flooded underpass in rain-lashed Bengaluru. There were seven people inside the car. Six were lucky enough to be rescued in time but the young woman succumbed.
A lot of reports have already appeared in the local and national media about the incident. One learns there was a barricade to prevent people from entering the underpass, but the rain and wind had swept it away.
As I write, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the local civic body, is under fire for inadequate desilting of drains, clearance of encroachments, and monsoon preparedness in general. A report by the BBMP says heavy rainfall, along with strong gusts of wind, led to leaves and branches choking the small vents of the drain gratings, preventing rainwater from flowing away, causing waterlogging. Another report in a national newspaper links the delays in much-needed development work to officials being on “election duty for nearly a month”. Many location-specific reasons are being trotted out to explain the terrible death.
Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, who has just taken over, has announced compensation of Rs 5 lakhs to the next of kin of the deceased and free treatment for those admitted in the hospital.
Let us zero in on the basics: a young woman died in her prime. Needlessly. The broader picture underlying the tragedy serves as a glaring reminder of the huge gaps in infrastructure and governance in the time of climate change when extreme and erratic weather events are increasing. And the implications.
Flooded underpasses is not a new story in Bengaluru. Last July, local newspapers had pointed out that despite the corporation’s efforts to fix flood-prone underpasses, many remained waterlogged. Journalists flagged a survey by the Bengaluru Traffic Police which listed 54 flood-prone roads in the city, known the world over as India’s Silicon Valley. In September, heavy rainfall led to some among the city’s tech workers using boats to get to the office. A recent report by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre had identified more than 200 flood-prone locations where even one centimetre of rain would lead to flooding.
Clearly, the city lacks a functional system to drain out the water when the water level reaches a certain level following heavy rain.
But flooded roads and underpasses are not unique to Bengaluru. Several Indian cities are increasingly having to cope with severe urban floods.
In the time of climate change, only the very naïve or ignorant are surprised by unexpected extreme weather. “There has been an increasing trend of urban flood disasters in India over the past several years whereby major cities in India have been severely affected. The most notable amongst them 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… Global climate change is resulting in changed weather patterns and increased episodes of high intensity rainfall events occurring in shorter periods of time,” says the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
“Stormwater drainage systems in the past were designed for rainfall intensity of 12-20 mm. These capacities have been getting very easily overwhelmed whenever rainfall of higher intensity has been experienced. Further, the systems very often do not work to the designed capacities because of very poor maintenance. Encroachments are also a major problem in many cities and towns,” notes NDMA. “Consequently, the capacity of the natural drains has decreased, resulting in flooding. Improper disposal of solid waste, including domestic, commercial, and industrial waste and dumping of construction debris into the drains also contributes significantly to reducing their capacities,” as India’s apex body for disaster management observes in its portal.
How prepared are Indian cities to meet these enormous challenges, and what is being done to equip them to cope with the new realities? We have seen that ad hoc solutions do not work.
Srinivas Alavilli, an activist and co-founder of Citizens for Bengaluru, says the root cause is “lack of empowered city governments”. The third tier has not really evolved much largely because the state governments do backseat driving, especially when it comes to cities that are state capitals. The reason is obvious -- they are cash cows. Mr Alavilli says the “lack of devolution of powers and funds is the single biggest challenge for urban India”.
A 2021 report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (Performance audit of management of stormwater in Bengaluru Urban area) noted that “the city of Bengaluru is a victim of a paradoxical situation -- urban flooding on one hand and depletion of ground water table levels, on the other. There is an urgent need for urban managers to address this issue from the water security/environment and urban planning perspectives”.
The report went on to observe that “a robust policy governing storm water management does not exist” in the city and that the “BBMP did not possess foolproof data on the total number/length and nature of different types of drains under its jurisdiction. The absence of a comprehensive inventory of drains and their proper classification contributed to lack of clarity on critical issues such as the extent of buffer zone to be maintained, etc. This in turn hampered maintenance of drains as many utility lines like electrical, telephone, optical cable, etc, were laid across the drains in many locations obstructing flow in the drains”.
Right now, Bengaluru’s Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike is in the dock. But just blaming the bureaucrats in charge will not help unless we also ask the more uncomfortable question: why has the BBMP not had an election in the last three years?
A death by drowning has turned the spotlight on Bengaluru and the state of its drains. The issues it has thrown up, however, pivot around poor infrastructure, and are relevant to many of India’s cities. We need to wake up, and quickly.