Bangalore: High Tech and the Monsoon

The number of flood events occurring globally is on the rise. Although flooding in rural areas affects larger swathes of land, its effects in cities are made far more deleterious by the greater concentration of settlements, the highly unequal distribution of income and infrastructure, and the increasing precariousness of livelihoods in the face of global and domestic macro-economic shifts. The origins of flood risk and vulnerability in urban areas are, in other words, deeply social and political.

Flood-related anxieties and uncertainties mark the experience of everyday life for a great many of South Asia’s urban dwellers. Nearly half of all global flood fatalities over the last quarter century occurred in Asia, with South Asia accounting for a significant share of deaths and economic loss.1 While the subcontinent’s large coastal and deltaic cities appear to be obvious candidates for flooding – and are frequently brought to a standstill during monsoonal rains – cities located inland provide more perplexing instances of flood risk. That chronic flooding is on the rise in these seemingly less flood-inclined (hydroclimatically speaking) cities provides insight into the social, spatial, and political-economic drivers of urban flood risk and uncertainty.

Bangalore (officially “Bengaluru”), branded India’s “Hi-Tech City” at the turn of the millennium because of its dominance in the country’s software and biotechnology exporting industries, is one such city. At first glance, the city appears an unlikely site to study the evolution of flood risk. Sitting 3,000 ft above sea level in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats with an ancient wetland system, but no proximal river of its own (as a megacity of nearly 10 million people, it is unique in this regard), the city is not often thought of as one that floods. In fact, following devastating floods in the coastal megacity of Mumbai in 2005, politicians offered reassurances about Bangalore’s relative “immunity” to flooding, given its distance from coastal storm surges.

With hindsight, those reassurances proved foolhardy. Sustained monsoonal downpours wreaked havoc in Bangalore in late 2005, when over half of the city’s road network was inundated and thousands of homes and commercial establishments were damaged following four days of continuous rainfall brought on by an unusually strong northeast monsoon. During the recurring floods caused by normal rainfall over the next decade, the city government identified over 1,000 flood-prone areas, many of which are in low-lying, densely populated neighbourhoods at the city’s southern and south-eastern peripheries where the technology and service economy is concentrated. Efforts to map, calculate and govern flood risk and uncertainty – typically outsourced to private planning firms – comprise a centrepiece of infrastructure upgrading plans for the city, particularly given its deteriorating reputation as a destination for global investment. Yet, chronic flooding and its associated risks continue to be a normal state of affairs for the city’s more marginalised, peripheral residents. Witness, for example, the “floating” lower-income neighbourhood of Madina Nagar at the south-eastern outskirts of the city, where residents have built makeshift bridges over a murky cesspool of sewage and stagnant stormwater to access their homes on a day-to-day basis. Why has flood risk become so “everyday” in Bangalore and what are the drivers of flood-related uncertainty?

A spatially attuned history of the city’s changing wetland geography over the last half-century sheds important light on the cause of this heightened flood risk. In particular, enhanced real estate capital flows in the last two decades – due in large part to the high-tech economy – have driven the smaller-scale “encroachment” and large-scale “grabbing” of the city’s government-owned wetlands. These are processes that dangerously obstruct the flow of stormwater and the percolation of groundwater, thus exacerbating water-logging and a cascade of other social-ecological harms. State and parastatal actors have played instrumental roles in the risky commodification of the city’s public wetlands – both through institutionalised wetland “conversion” projects as well as the more opaque sanctioning of (wet)land transfers to developers and residents. A powerful nexus forged between political and real estate interests has also helped to recalibrate planning and zoning regulations in such a way that ecologically sensitive wetlands are recategorised and opened up for speculation and development. More broadly, the Bangalore case points to the crucial role played by the political economy of urban land and rogue real estate capitalism in catalysing ecological risks and uncertainties in cities of the Global South.

Until around the mid-20th century, a bird’s eye view of the Bangalore region would have revealed an extensive network of engineered and naturally occurring shallow water reservoirs called keres in Kannada, or “lakes/tanks” in English. More than a thousand such structures, interconnected through storm canals or raja kaluves (what are today the city’s stormwater drains), once crisscrossed the urban district of Bangalore. Developed four centuries ago, tanks were traditional and largely village-managed water-harvesting systems engineered in response to the vagaries of monsoonal rainfall in the region. They were gravity-fed, allowing for excess water at a higher gradient to be redirected through canals to a lower gradient. With no major river of its own, but four major valleys draining a number of smaller streams and lakes, Bangalore’s undulating terrain and agrarian economy was ideally suited to such an engineered wetland and irrigation system. These traditional water-harvesting systems were not entirely flood-free: in times of exceptional rainfall, the interlinked nature of the tanks was such that overflow was amplified.2 Such periodic flooding, however, was considered routine, and was offset by the fact that in normal monsoon years, a more or less predictable distribution of water was achieved.

The decline of agriculture in the 20th century, however, combined with new sensibilities favouring modern water infrastructure drastically lowered the appeal of local water-harvesting. In the post-colonial era, massive state-sponsored water projects got underway where colonial schemes had left off. The city’s water supply began to be sourced from increasingly distant river reservoirs – at increasing cost and energy intensity – as the boundaries of the city expanded, thereby indirectly contributing to the abandonment of tanks. As a result, many of the city’s tank beds were drained, filled, concretised, or otherwise converted through state-led urban projects for utilitarian and recreational ends, including for bus depots, parks, golf courses, and residential layouts. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find middle class residential areas in Bangalore named after a certain “tank bed layout”. The dumping of raw sewage and solid waste directly into tanks also compounded widespread public disregard for these water bodies, thus facilitating their appropriation and the city’s overall flood-proneness.3

Public interest litigations, expert group investigations and environmental activism eventually produced an official moratorium on the conversion of lakes within the city limits. Today, a mere 200 water bodies survive in varying states of health within Greater Bangalore, while a larger number dot the broader metropolitan region. In the absence of aggressive local activism around these remaining water bodies, the majority of wetlands, particularly at the city’s lower-lying outskirts, continue to be subjected to an onslaught of threats, including illicit and informal real estate development.

Fuelled by a dizzying flow of global and domestic capital, Bangalore’s real estate sector is one of the most lucrative in the country. Almost every instance of the more than 500% increase in the built-up area of the city over the last 30 years is associated with some form of akrama [“violation”] of planning, building or land-related legislation, abetted by state actors. “Encroachment” is the term used in India’s urban planning lexicon to denote illicit settlement on all forms of public land, but the term has more recently been directed at lower-income groups that settle in risky areas because they are lured there by fly-by-night developers. Many from Bangalore’s lower middle class live in “encroachments” at the outskirts under legally dubious conditions of tenure. For those unlucky enough to have settled in a key storm channel or on a lakebed, such settlement is especially hazardous during the rainy season. It is only in the event of rains (and thus much too late) that “encroachers” learn that their houses are obstructing stormflows. To equip themselves for the uncertainties of everyday life, residents in Madina Nagar (located in a major stormwater channel), for instance, must stock plastic sheeting to line their children’s beds and mosquito nets, among other precautions. Many continue to live in such flood-prone areas despite the damage caused and expected, holding onto hope that these peripheral areas will “develop like the rest of Bangalore”.

Larger-scale “land grabbing” – the appropriation of public land by globally-connected corporate interests – has also compromised the robustness of the city’s wetlands with uncertain implications for the future of flood risk. In conjunction with private developers and landed politicians, state players such as the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board have been powerful partners in sanctioning wetland development and overseeing meaningless or incomplete environmental and infrastructural clearances for such projects. Although the effects of corporate-driven wetland grabbing are uncertain at this point, large-scale obstruction of stormflows and groundwater absorption are bound to have detrimental effects on a city that is already flood-prone.

Growing public recognition of the connections between wetland politics, real estate capital, and flood risk in the city provides cause for hope. Citizen groups have sought to expose wetland-related illegalities by expanding the discourse of “encroachment” beyond its typical connotation of the poorer, informal settler to also include large-scale corporate land grabbers. This is an important and welcome characteristic of contemporary middle class politics in Bangalore – a politics not only defined by elite interests (as they can be in other Indian cities) but also by progressive demands for corporate accountability. While current citizen-led campaigns are not focused on ameliorating the flood-proneness of poorer groups per se, they are nevertheless working to expose the political economy and political ecology of flood risk in the city. In other words, the normalisation of flood-related uncertainties has been politicised through middle-class civic activism, especially through the spotlighting of large-scale wetland appropriations by globally connected actors. As a first step, this can go a long way to creating a safer, more equitable city.

1 Doocy et al., 2013
2 Shah, 2008
3 Ramachandra and Majumdar, 2009

Malini Ranganathan is Assistant Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC.