Monday, February 23, 2009

Only a memory

The first time I heard about “urban planning” was from some friends at the School of Architecture and Planning in Chennai, when I was still in college. That was what some of them were planning to study when they went to the US for their masters degrees. I wondered aloud if that was something ever practiced in India, and was greeted with a unanimous laugh, and a witty quip about urban non-planning. Anyway, now that I’ve visited Bangalore after nearly four years, I can only nod in agreement. That the city has changed rapidly over the past ten years, there is no doubt. But the callousness and utter mismanagement of what should have been good urban planning has only left me deeply saddened.

The mismanagement has been at every level, resulting in the chaos that is now almost descriptive of the city. The city has, expectedly, grown rapidly. Unfortunately, it has grown with common-sense defying haphazardness, and has massively misused or mismanaged resources. The most important resource completely mismanaged has been water. There has understandably been a proliferation of new layouts, and an explosion of apartment complexes. Interestingly, some of the biggest growth has come in areas like HSR layout and Whitefield. These areas are apparently close to major technology centers, hence the growth. However, while the apartments have come up, promising ultra-luxurious living, the single most important thing you need for survival has been overlooked. Water. These areas have precious little of it. These areas have the lowest water table in the entire region, and try as you will, it is hard to strike any ground water here even at depths of 300 feet. Which then makes one wonder why or how such large residential complexes have been sanctioned in these areas. Typically, residents here shell out in the range of rupees five thousand every month for just their water needs, provided in part by tankers supplying water, and in part by depleting the little ground water that is left. How exactly this is sustainable eludes me. The presence of consecutive weak, apathetic governments in the states hasn’t helped. I cannot but help comparing the city to Chennai, which also had acute water problems. Years ago, they started enforcing rainwater harvesting, made it mandatory, and actually enforced the rule. The water situation in Chennai dramatically improved over the years. In stark contrast, the city of Bangalore “recommended” rainwater harvesting at least in large apartment complexes years ago. This was poorly implemented, with only a fraction of the larger complexes setting up rainwater harvesting systems (which don’t really cost much), and fewer actually utilizing them. In some belated form of realization, the city now plans to enforce a rule they passed four years ago.

Given the fact that Bangalore lies in a dry region, one would imagine that the administration would at least want to preserve the few sources of water around the city. Yet, instead of making the few lakes that still remain into city or state parks, they are now viewed as prime sources of real estate for buildings. Here’s how the system apparently works. There is plenty of construction happening all around town. There is obviously a lot of earth that construction digs up. Obviously, the easiest way to get rid of that earth is to take it to the nearest lake and dump it in there. If you visit some lakes like the Gottigere, Hulimavu or even Madiwala lakes (to name just three), you’ll see this happening all around them. Soon, a few acres of lake will disappear, and then in a year or two, the local authorities (or a local politician) will announce the creation of a new layout in that very former lake bed. The next thing you know, there will be a new “ultra-luxury American style” condominium complex coming right up. If this scheme doesn’t work, there’s an easier one. Just build a small temple in that reclaimed lakebed. Illegal or not, within a few months, crowds will start thronging to the temple, thereby forcing the temple to expand. Before you know what’s happening, a few acres of former wetland would have disappeared, all in the name of god.

A third strategy seems to be to cut off all sources of water for the lake, by allowing construction (residential and commercial, there isn’t much of a difference between the two) on all sides of the lake, up to the very lakebed itself. In a few years, all rainwater that should have fed the lake won’t make it there anymore, and then you’ll have a few feet a year of new construction land.

Finally, the greedy administrators in collusion with the land mafia seem to have another trump card to acquire lake land for buildings. Bring up the bogey of development. Clearly, if you want an “international” city, the best places to build a new technology park with an associated residential layout have to be on a reclaimed lakebed. And anyone who raises an objection to this is naturally anti-development.

The city (that once apparently had over 300 lakes in it) is being ruined by masterful mismanagement. For all the glitzy technology complexes with gleaming glass facades, a city can’t live without water. It remains unfortunate that the residents of the city don’t care too much about the issue, but when faced with water shortages clamor to the government to get more water from the Cauvery (miles away, passing through Mysore), potentially stroking inter-state disputes. To top the utterly callous mismanagement of water, the proliferation of residential and commercial buildings has been random, haphazard and mostly unregulated. A number of buildings have exceeded the number of floors they are legally allowed (on the specified area), or have come up without any parking space, or else commercial complexes have come up in ostensibly residential neighborhoods.

What is now left is a city that is monstrously large, and in utter chaos. Any changes the administration would now want to make can only be cosmetic. In comparison, Delhi and Chennai have also grown, but the authorities have at least managed to maintain a semblance of logic in this growth, resulting in cities which are, if not admirable, at least functional. Bangalore used to be one of the most attractive cities in India, because of the lovely climate, tree-lined avenues, quiet, organized suburbs and a cosmopolitan population. Now only the cosmopolitan population remains, under immense regional chauvinistic pressure. I think I can safely say that the city of my growing years can only be a memory.