Flooding in streets
Flooding image by Joseph thomas from Pixabay

Caste, class and climate change cause flooding in Bengaluru, India

Historic flooding in Bengaluru this monsoon season was not only brought on by heavy rainfall but also a corrupt nexus of government bodies and real-estate developers.

Hailed as the Silicon Valley of India, Bengaluru city, in the southern state of Karnataka, has faced flooding every single year in recent memory. 

Last week, heavy rainfall on Wednesday caused several arterial roads in the south, east, and central parts of the city to flood. 

In August and September, heavy rainfall brought the city to a standstill. Over 1500 slum-dwellers are still seeking support to rebuild their lives, while many billionaires found themselves conveniently rescued by boat, the media attention it garnered being perhaps the only pro to the situation.

The sudden increase in Bengaluru rainfall, a pattern seen in the last few years, has been attributed to global warming.  There has been a 162 percent increase in average rainfall since June this year — the city, which receives an average of 970-999 mm of rainfall a year, has broken all past records by receiving the highest annual rainfall of 1,704 mm, according to the India Meteorological Department observatory. Even more, rainfall is expected to follow, once the northeast monsoon winds arrive.

But climate change is not the sole culprit.

Long before it became an industrialized IT hub, Bengaluru, was ‘kalyananagara’, or city of lakes. Early rulers and chieftains of Bengaluru created a network for water flow, transporting it from elevated land to the plains by means of channels or ‘raja kaluves’. 

These ground depressions collected rainwater and flowed into the next tank or lake via the channels, forming a cluster of 1000-year-old man-made lakes that form an interconnected system, earning the region its name and supplying water for both irrigation and consumption.

Agricultural, horticultural, and fishing communities maintained the lakes for hundreds of years, albeit along caste and gender lines — while some would like to omit this important facet of history to tell tales of harmony instead, oral history says otherwise. Folksongs reveal human sacrifice was a regular part of maintaining the lake — Dalit men (excluded from the four-tier caste system), pregnant women, children and even upper-caste women were sacrificed.

“The oppressed castes have some pretty horrific stories of caste violence from when they were younger,” said Harini Nagendra, lead at the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University. 

“We spoke to people in their 50s, 70s and 80s. One woman told us about how the upper-caste women in whose homes she used to [forcibly] work, would taunt her. And, if they wanted to use the lake, they couldn’t go to the place the upper castes were using the lake, they had to go to another area.”

“But, even so, they talk with such nostalgia about the lake. They got together as groups around the lakes, they had community events, festivals and songs – they had each other,” said Nagendra.

At some point during the colonial British era, the attitude towards the lakes changed and the idea of the “sanitary city” became popular in the colonies. Suddenly, out of fear that malaria might spread through stagnant water, the British began draining the lakes. The sourcing of water gradually shifted from the lakes to piped water. The city began to access water from faraway waterbodies like the Hesarghatta Lake, TG Halli Reservoir, and eventually the Cauvery River.

“During the colonial period, there came an emphasis on modern infrastructure,” said Malini Ranganathan, Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University and co-author of the forthcoming “Corruption Plots: Stories, Ethics, and Publics of the Late Capitalist City.” 

“Modernity was associated with large-scale state-sponsored water infrastructure – through piped networks and pumped centralized water systems.”

In turn, the lakes were transformed from a natural common to a recreational space. Sampangi lake, for instance, was drained and dredged to prevent nearby bungalows from flooding; the British military regiments also asked that a portion of the lakebed be drained so they could play polo. Horticulturalists who depended on these lakes were ignored and carnivals were hosted on the drained lakebed instead. 

By 1946, the lakebed was converted into the Sri Kanteerava Sports Stadium, a symbol of jingoistic pride and Indian nationalism, according to Ranganathan. 

“It is not money that shapes the city, it is water. You can throw in as much money as you want, but [disaster] events such as these wash it all away.”

The loss of the lakes meant the loss of livelihood — locals were forced to leave the area and the new settlers simply did not have the same connection to the water bodies.

Over time, in post-colonial India, a lack of public oversight and consultation, accompanied by a nexus of corrupt officials and profit-hungry real estate developers and the dilution of environmental laws, has allowed for hazardous construction to take place on wetlands and stormwater drains. The Bengaluru ecological landscape, as it once was, has been completely erased, fully altering the city’s natural drainage patterns. 

This only stands to benefit the rich builders and developers and has enabled the creation of special economic zones (SEZs) and poorly planned, unchecked lavish apartment complexes and villas. Most residents do not even know that their homes are built on wetlands. The IT hub in Bengaluru, too, has been built in this way. 

Now, every time it rains heavily in Bengaluru, the land where these structures have been built reverts to its original function of being a lake. Climate change has worsened this situation and poor Dalit communities are the ones paying the price.

“In the recent floods [in September], the response of the political class was immediate to the villas that were flooded but for those on the margins, their homes were underwater,” said Leo Saldanha, a veteran environmental activist and full-time coordinator at Environment Support Group.

The government’s solution to the constant-flooding problems in the city has been to demolish what they consider “illegal constructions,” or properties built on this government land, which they consider encroaching. Unsurprisingly, of the 700 properties that have been identified, the majority belong to the poor, such as the Dalit community in Bengaluru. Countless homes and buildings have already been razed. 

The Orion Mall, Bagmane Tech Park and Mantri Special Economic Zone, all located in flood-prone areas, have been left untouched by the anti-encroachment drive, however. They were, of course, developed by global corporations and developers with the right political connections, exempting them from the same level of scrutiny meted out to the poor.

“People will often talk about ‘oh the glorious days where we had these sustainable water harvesting systems,’ it’s not really all about that. We have to tell the story in its entirety, in its truth,” said Ranganathan.

“What was already a quite uneven caste-class ecology and landscape has now been rendered further uneven because of the kind of flood risk that both the State and private sector have exacerbated.”

Each flood leaves poor communities in Bengaluru completely vulnerable. Poor women, children, senior citizens, and the disabled are the most affected. To protect them, lake restoration needs to be high on the political agenda. Instead, the government has spent energy and money towards concretizing stormwater drains, a move that experts believe to be ill-informed.

Many locals have been fighting to restore the lakes and wetlands to their former glory but as Nagendra, who was involved in a lake restoration project, told Currently, it is a difficult undertaking.

“Since wetlands themselves have been concretized, it is a mammoth task with many political hurdles to cross, to restore them. The government has actually given out valid permissions to build over these wetlands,” Nagendra said.

Saldanha, who has fought cases against the destruction of lakes dating back to the 90s, believes that working with a bottom-up approach involving local communities is the only way to solve the crisis. 

He sees a pattern of development following the urbanization of India that is causing such repeated flooding.

“It is not money that shapes the city, it is water. You can throw in as much money as you want, but [disaster] events such as these wash it all away.”

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