Oasis is the name of the new swanky and slick shopping mega mall that’s sprung up on the corner of Koramangala 80 feet road and Inner Ring Road intersection. It’s quite strategically located, on one of the busiest crossroads of Bangalore, also a prime residential area.
Drain view apartments: Multi-storey buildings along the storm water drain (pic: Samuel Jacob)
Just behind the mall on a gentle gradient is the Shinivagulu Tank Bed (S T Bed) residential layout. Not so long ago when humans were kind, it used to be a tank bed. In 1989, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), converted it into a residential layout. Some 300 sites were plotted on the tank bed and sold off to an emergent middle-class of the city. Pushed by this demand from a burgeoning urban population, many more tank beds have been converted to layouts in the city.
Today the ST Bed area resembles a cacophony of houses, shops, offices and commercial units. A huge 40 ft wide open storm-water drain winds its way through the layout. The roads are checkered with potholes, pavements are non-existent and the only open spaces are the ones left undeveloped by site owners. There’s one park and one playground (the latter developed by Mantri builders for the layout — presumably as a goodwill gesture).
"If I start listing out the problems of this residential layout it may take a few pages," says Anantharam, Secretary of the S T Bed Residents’ Association. "First of all the site should never have been a residential layout," says Ammu Joseph who is a resident here and a well-known journalist. Being a reclaimed tank bed it’s low-lying and flood prone.
"You dig 5 feet and you get water here," says Anantharam. "In April 2001, we witnessed the worst floods in this area and water entered our houses," he says. After the 2001 floods, a secondary smaller drain was built to direct flood waters into the storm drain. This partially solved the problem for the residents.
The ST Bed layout is a classic example of how environmentally sensitive lands get gobbled up by growing urban populations. It also highlights the inability of urban development bodies (in this case Bangalore Development Authority) to plan and execute sustainable models of urban development.
In simple terms, the natural gradient of the Koramangala valley of which ST Bed is a part, enables water to drain via wetlands into Bellandur lake downstream. This natural flow has been disturbed by short-sighted, unplanned and ad-hoc development of the land over the years leading to flooding and severe drainage issues for all those who stay along this belt.
According to BDA town planning chief AV Rangesh, it would be difficult to say without verification if environmental factors were taken into consideration for the layouts which were formed 15 – 20 years ago but the current layouts do focus on these factors.
Living by the drains
Another peculiar aspect of this layout is that houses have been built touching both sides of the storm-water drain which passes through the layout. "We had no say in the allotment of the plots. This was the site that BDA allotted to us," says Ammu whose house touches the drain. Ammu’s husband and well-known artist S G Vasudev has been at the forefront of an initiative to get the drain covered. Another well-known artist M F Husain’s house is on the other side of the drain.
With the drain passing so close to their houses, the air quality in and around their houses is affected. The storm-water drain is one among the four such open drains that service Bangalore city and all along its path, industrial effluents and household sewage also get released into the drain at various points.
Metal artifacts in Ammu’s house are black in color corroded by fumes that emanate from the drain. "If this is what the air is doing to the metals, you can imagine what it must be doing to us," says Ammu.
In the 90s, residents filed a writ petition in the High Court against the nuisance of the drain. They asked for the drain to be covered. As a result of the petition, the govt. came up with a Rs 110-cr re-modeling plan for the open drains passing through four valleys of Bangalore. The drains were to be deepened wherever possible and side walls raised by a meter. A part of this work has been completed. "It has helped ease the problem a little," says Anantharam.
Vasudev and other residents of the layout proposed a creative solution to the open drain problem. Among other things, the proposal suggested covering of the drain and using the space as a sculpture and mural garden with space for walkers, joggers and senior citizens. Both Vasudev and Husain could do murals here and also encourage other artists to turn this space into a cultural and social asset for the city, it said. A plan on how to execute this was also prepared. This proposal was highlighted in a letter written by Vasudev to the then Chief Minister S M Krishna, in Aug 2003.
Monthly meeting of the S.T.Bed RWA members with public officials (pic: Samuel Jacob)
The government however has remained non-committal to this proposal. In response to the letter, the then Municipal Commissioner’s reply outlined various projects being undertaken to control flood and drainage by the BBMP and the Bangalore Water and Sewerage Supplies Board (BWSSB) including re-modeling of the drain, but ignored the proposal to cover the drain. However, a section of the drain near the National Games Village nearby had been covered, Vasudev’s proposal noted. The proposal also estimated the cost of covering the
approximately one kilometre of the drain that passed through the layout, which worked out to Rs 2 crores.
Chasing unwilling contractors
Meanwhile, 18 years after the layout has been formed, the smaller roadside drains that are supposed to carry the rain water to the storm drains are still being constructed. "Only 30 per cent of the work is complete and the Karnataka Land Army (KLA) which has been given the task of building the drains stopped work many months ago due to non payment of it’s bills by the Corporation," says Anantharam.
The roads were first asphalted in 1994. That lasted one year. It was again repaired in 1996. The BDA handed over the layout to the BBMP in 1998 and with it also the onus of maintaining the roads and other infrastructure. The BDA maintains that it provides all necessary infrastructure for a layout. "We provide the basic infrastructure like roads, water, drains and electricity for the layout," says BDA Public Relations Officer (PRO) K. Puttuswamy. "Once this infrastructure is built we handover the layout to the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagar Palike (BBMP). Then it’s their responsibility to maintain the layout, he adds.
In 2001 the BMPP carried out some repairs of the roads and later again in 2003 after Vasudev’s letter to Krishna. "The problem is also that the roads don’t last more than a year," says Anantharam.
"No regular contractor is coming forward to execute the civic works in this ward for the last three years," says Anil Kumar, Secretary of the federation of residents’ association for Ward 68 under which ST Bed falls. The federation which calls itself ‘Forward 68′, is the umbrella organization of 12 residents’ associations in the ward. "As a result, the KLA was given the contract, though at a better rate and more attractive terms. In spite of this they have stopped work for the last nine months," he says.
"Bills worth Rs 65 cr have been pending with the BBMP Engineering department for the last many months," says KLA General Manager (Works) Venkatesh Murthy. "Some query or the other is raised," he adds. "Once these are cleared we will resume the work," he says.
The BBMP, on the other hand, maintains that KLA is responsible for completing the work. It’s officials in a meeting with the residents’ federation on Nov 3rd, pleaded their inability to take up works in the ward since it was already with the KLA. "If the work is withdrawn from the KLA and given to us we can execute it immediately," said Vijay Kumar the Assistant Executive Engineer of Ward 68.
Residents are caught in this impasse between KLA and BBMP. The meeting witnessed fiery exchanges between residents frustrated with the state of the roads in their layouts. "Meeting after meeting the BBMP promises to do the work, but nothing happens," said one resident. "Potholes have become craters and people’s lives are endangered but we hear only some random figures and excuses," said another.
"We do promptly execute the work wherever the required sanctions and work orders have been issued," says Vijay Kumar. "Only our shortcomings are highlighted. The actions are never given credit," he regretted.
The federation has been persistently chasing various civic bodies to get issues redressed. Members meticulously record, document and present the issues faced by the ward in the meetings. "Monthly meetings are being held between the federation representatives and officials responsible for this ward, regularly for the last three years," says Kumar.
The going is real tough, admits Kumar, though small successes help. Recently, a sewage blockage and overflow problem was resolved by installation of a wet well in Ashwini layout nearby to collect the sewage from Ejipura and the layout and pump it to the Challagatta Valley. This was done after follow-up with the Bangalore Water and Sewerage Supplies Board (BWSSB) officials.
"Ashwini Layout did not have Cauvery water till 2006," says Kumar. That came only after a long-drawn battle with the BWSSB. "Finally after laying the pipes they did not release water until nine months to protect some contractors of the local corporator who had been collecting money from residents for supplying water," says Kumar who is also Convener of the Ashwini Layout Residents’ Association. "The residents had to take to the streets before they agreed to release the water." he adds.
Organizations like Forward 68 are the only hope that citizens have when stalled by indifferent civic authorities and corrupt peoples’ representatives. But are only the civic authorities and politicians to blame? "We are to blame too," says Kumar. "Politicians are interested only in vote banks and many of the middle-class residents in the layouts don’t use their voting power," so why should he listen to us.
On the other hand, the demand for prime space is unceasing and construction of houses and commercial structures goes on unhindered in the area. "What was meant for 300 houses now accommodates 2000 in and around the ST Bed area and trend now is to build multi-storey structures," says Anantharam.
What was once primarily residential is today a prime commercial area also. It’s difficult to make out whether you are in a residential zone or a commercial one. "The priorities of different classes of people are different," explains Anantharam. Because of this "it’s very difficult to totally ban economic activity in any layout," he admits even if it is in violation of rules.
"We don’t take up bye-law violation issues now," says Kumar. This is a touchy issue and creates conflict within the members of the associations. "What are the authorities who are supposed to check this doing anyway," asks Kumar. The flip side of ignoring this issue, is the pressure this unbridled economic activity has put on civic infrastructure designed for a much lesser density in these layouts.
S T Bed may not be a unique case of ad hoc approach to urban development that the government follows. It has become the norm today in a city which prides itself as the hottest destination for global companies.