Heavy rain in the last week of July flooded parts of Bengaluru, with several lakes overflowing and bringing the city to a standstill. The situation reflected the toll that the IT hub is paying for the haphazard and unplanned growth of the city.
The overnight flooding in the low-lying areas such as Kodichikkanahalli and Madivala in South Bengaluru, where hundreds of houses were inundated, woke up officials of both the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and the Karnataka government. Encroachment of stormwater drains connecting the major lakes of Bengaluru led to the waterlogging.
Cut to the first week of August. During a weekend, house owners in some neighbourhoods of the city woke up to find that they may soon not have a roof over their heads. They were gripped by panic. The BBMP had initiated the drive against stormwater drain (SWD) encroachers, unannounced.
On the first day of the drive, i.e. on August 6, buildings were demolished in more than 32 locations in three zones of the city corporation. An official count of the exact number of structures razed was not available. Emotions ran high at the demolition sites. House owners were seen pleading with BBMP officials to grant them extra time to vacate while some even got into an altercation.
It was a disturbing sight where the houses built with hard-earned money were razed to the ground. Pradeep Rao, a tea vendor who built a modest house at Avani Sringeri near Kodichikkanahalli lake 15 years ago, was devastated to witness his house being demolished right before his eyes.
The same day, at Shubh Enclave —- a plush layout next to a lake in South-East Bengaluru —BBMP demolished around 10 structures allegedly built on stormwater drains. Shubh Enclave is located in an area between two natural water bodies and is built on primary and tertiary stormwater drains, according to BBMP officials.
Why did the city corporation launch the anti-encroachment drive all of a sudden without even issuing individual notices to property owners unlike in the past? In fact, in areas in South Bengaluru close to the lakes, where houses were demolished, the house owners claimed that though BBMP had surveyed their property several times in the past, every time the officials would assure them that no SWD passes through their land and they were safe.
In some other areas, the BBMP had conducted the survey in the last few years and even issued notices to the land owners to vacate the property. But, most of them, sensing danger, would get a stay from the high court once the notice was served, due to which BBMP did not demolish the encroachment.
This time it was different. The heavy rain followed by the flooding shook up the government. A BBMP official, who didn’t want to be named, said the civic authorities need not issue notices before the eviction drive as the land belongs to the corporation. “We, in fact, issued a public notice asking people to vacate the encroached property voluntarily,” he said.
According to BBMP sources, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, who convened a meeting with the officials following the flood situation, asked them to explain the cause behind the flood. When the officials cited encroachment of drains as the reason, the CM directed BBMP to mercilessly clear all drain encroachments.
On what basis did BBMP identify encroachments?
That is the question that residents have been asking ever since the demolition drive began. An officer from the Survey and Settlement Department says on condition of anonymity that the department had initiated a survey of stormwater drains in Bengaluru five months ago. The survey was taken up as per the direction of a legislative committee headed by Speaker K B Koliwad that has been working on lake and tank encroachment issues in Bengaluru. The whirlwind survey of drains was finished in a matter of four months.
“When the chief minister asked the officials if a survey of drains had been made and whether they have the encroachment details, the officials pointed to the survey that we had just finished. So, the CM immediately directed BBMP to demolish the encroachments based on that survey report,” said the survey department official.
Interestingly, this is not the only survey of stormwater drains conducted in Bengaluru.
In 2010, BBMP entrusted a private firm with surveying the stormwater drains in the city. STUP Consultants Private Ltd had prepared a master plan project report for remodelling of stormwater drains in the entire area under BBMP. According to the report, the total length of SWD area in Bengaluru is 840 km.
While the report did not give an accurate figure of encroached drains, it did propose solutions to the existing encroachment problem. But the BBMP set aside this report and did not take up the work of remodelling the drains.
On the day the anti-encroachment drive began in full swing, BBMP commissioner Manjunath Prasad told the media that of the 840 km of SWD network in the city, more than 340 km had been encroached upon. “This is not the first time that we are surveying and clearing the SWD encroachments. The recent and the last surveys have identified 1,923 encroachments of which 822 were cleared in the last two-three years. We have now taken up the eviction of remaining encroachments,” he said.
Protecting the rich and the famous
The BBMP claims to have cleared 200 encroachments since the demolition drive began last month. However, things have taken a different turn now. With the posh malls, tech parks and huge layouts having figured on the list of encroachers, BBMP has now started resurveying the encroached areas.
Responding to the allegation that the BBMP is resorting to resurvey to protect the big builders, Bengaluru mayor Manjunath Reddy said the resurvey is being done only to verify the previous survey report. “We haven’t stopped the demolition drive yet. Resurvey and demolition will be carried out simultaneously. Following the waterlogging in some areas, we had to clear the encroachments in sensitive areas immediately. The areas that are currently being re-surveyed are not flood prone,” he contended.
Despite all this, one question has continued to befuddle ordinary citizens. Many owners who have lost their houses claim to have all the property documents in place; then what was wrong in the system that allowed them to buy encroached property and build a house, knowingly or unwittingly?
That we shall know in the next part of this three-part series.
This story has been published through an arrangement with Oorvani Foundation/Open Media Initiative.