Bengaluru faced severe loss of lives and livelihoods in the first half of 2021. But the city has been slowly getting back on its feet, showing a semblance of normalcy in the second half of the year.
Here’s a roundup of key developments in the city in 2021.
Second wave of COVID
The year started off with the false cheer of having brought COVID under control, but cases began to mount in March. Towards April end, Bengaluru was seeing over 20,000 cases per day. The rate kept climbing and almost went into a carnage through April, May and June.
Being unprepared, the city faced an acute shortage of drugs, vaccines, oxygen and oxygen beds, with citizens dying for want of medicines and hospital treatment. Multiple helplines, along with instances of communal politics, complicated matters.
Even as Karnataka government requested higher oxygen allocation from the Centre, the allocated quantities fell far short. Volunteer groups worked round the clock to help patients access oxygen and beds. The number of bodies put the city’s 12 crematoriums under pressure, with each getting about 20 bodies a day. However, when the second wave hit its peak during April-May, the test numbers in Bengaluru Urban district were reduced to 30,000-40,000 per day.
Despite the weaknesses of the city’s public healthcare system, BBMP allocated a budget of only Rs 336 crore to its health department for 2021-22. While the pandemic resulted in upgradation of the city’s PHCs, BBMP’s other health facilities remained inadequate.
Preliminary results of a serosurvey BBMP conducted in early August showed that over 75% of the sample population had developed antibodies against COVID. Another BBMP survey found that diabetes was the most prevalent comorbidity in Bengaluru which would increase the risk of complications from COVID.
By August the government started preparing for the third wave of COVID, though it did not materialise. The year ended with the first Omicron case of India being found in Bengaluru, and then spreading across the State, totalling to 43 Omicron cases as of December 29th.
The lives of migrant and informal workers were thrown off-gear once again during the second COVID wave. Fearing a repeat of the horrors of the first lockdown, many migrant workers had left the city before the second lockdown started on April 27th. However, many stayed, hoping it would end soon.
As the lockdown was extended in phases, informal workers – both local and migrants – were left in the lurch. Many lost their jobs and struggled for food. Volunteer organisations came forward to support these segments temporarily. However, the cumulative impact of COVID infections/deaths and job losses since 2020 had pushed these groups into poverty and reduced their resilience. Though the government promised a relief package for several segments of informal workers, many found it hard to access.
BBMP elections were not held this year despite demands from various civic groups. Hence the city did not have an elected Council this year. The 2021-22 BBMP budget was relatively low at Rs 9,288 crore, compared to the recent annual budgets of Rs 10,000 crore or more.
The state government set up decentralised Ward Disaster Management Cells (WDMCs) under the BBMP on May 7, as per Section 6(8) of the Ward Committee Rules, to deal with COVID in a decentralised manner. This was later changed to the Decentralised Triage and Emergency Response (DETER) programme. However, by the time the programme became operational, the city had already seen a large number of casualties.
Given the emphasis on COVID management, few policy matters pertaining to Bengaluru were put forward this year. The government proposed the BMLTA (Bengaluru Metropolitan Land Transport Authority) Bill, which was opposed by prominent civic groups. Karnataka legislature passing the controversial anti-conversion Bill (Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill), led to several protests in Bengaluru.
COVID waves and lockdowns hit public transport services heavily. Even in March, when the city had recovered from the first COVID wave, BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation) was facing a loss of Rs 1 crore per day and running far fewer trips compared to pre-COVID times. With BMTC struggling to pay salaries, its staff went on strike for days. While transport experts assert that BMTC cannot survive without State funds, a long-pending demand, BMTC is planning to take a loan of Rs 700 crore from an international lending agency.
In October, BMTC launched its first electric bus. The aim was to induct a total of 90 electric buses by December.
To achieve targets under the Karnataka Electric Vehicle and Energy Storage Policy, BESCOM set up electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at 74 locations in Bengaluru, with 136 charging points. It plans to set up 300 more charging stations in collaboration with BMRCL (Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Ltd), BBMP and apartment RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations).
Namma Metro services got an extension from Yelachenahalli up to Silk Institute in January. BMRCL also started the construction of its much-awaited ORR (Outer Ring Road) line connecting Silk Board to Kempegowda International Airport, this year.
In November, BBMP received the ‘Star Municipal Leadership Award’ instituted by the Earth Day Network, for restoring 18 lakes.
But many lakes remain in dire straits, and so does the city’s stormwater drain network which channel excess rainwater into lakes. The clogged and encroached stormwater drain network led to flooding in November. That month, the city recorded over 120 mm rainfall, almost eight times the usual rainfall in November. Many parts of the city were flooded, including housing communities like Kendriya Vihar in Yelahanka from where residents had to be rescued.
This September, the CAG published an audit report on stormwater management in the city. The report revealed that a large proportion of the city’s stormwater drain network has gone missing over the past century, and that the existing drains are not maintained as required. The report also found many irregularities in the contracts given and payments made for stormwater drain works.
Given the criticism about the poor state of stormwater drains, state government approved BBMP’s proposal to build concrete retaining walls around 88.5 kms of drains, at the total cost of Rs 962 crore. According to the BBMP, this would free 58 low-lying areas from floods, but ecologists said the project would in fact lead to faster run-off and hence cause flooding. Earlier in the year, BBMP, with other government agencies, had initiated the K100 (Citizens’ Water Way) project to rejuvenate the stormwater drain network between Majestic and Bellandur lakes.
This year, the Karnataka High Court passed several orders for the protection of lakes and stormwater drains. In an order in June, the court ordered the state government to set up Lake Protection Committees at the local body, district and state levels. Court also ordered that the state government could not enter into MoUs with any corporate entity to revive lakes. Even though the order mentioned only corporate entities, BBMP stopped renewing MoUs with citizen groups that have been protecting lakes as well. Some of these groups then approached the court to get clarity on the order.
In another PIL, the High Court gave orders to protect trees that would be felled for government projects, especially Metro rail projects.
Up to two million school children in Bengaluru are exposed to dangerous air during their school day, causing risk of asthma and other chronic health impacts, found a report by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) and Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), published in April. Another report by C40 cities found that air pollution in Bengaluru, which is already three times above WHO guidelines, is likely to double in the next decade if the union government expands its coal fleet as planned.
Learning levels dipped drastically with online classes, especially in Bengaluru’s government schools where a large proportion of students had no access to smartphones or laptops. Only the small section of high-end private schools were able to hold online classes effectively, though learning gaps were reported even from these schools due to the lack of direct interaction and peer learning.
The closure of preschools and daycares affected the learning and development of younger children. College students also reported hassles with online learning and exams.
In the second half of the year, offline classes resumed for different segments of students in phases.
Building collapses, apartment fires
Several low-rise multi-dwelling buildings collapsed this year, not only due to the rains, but also because many of those had not been built as per construction standards and regulations. The ACCE (Association of Consulting Civil Engineers), Bengaluru, highlighted the need to strengthen building bylaws, in a walkathon to Freedom Park. Following the building collapse incidents, BBMP identified 404 dilapidated structures in a survey and said these would be demolished if required.
Fire safety in apartments became a concern after two incidents this year. In September, a fire broke out in an apartment near Bannerghatta Road and killed a mother-daughter duo. November saw another fire in an apartment near Electronic City.
Pothole-ridden roads, Smart City roads
Although the government claimed that Rs 20,000 crore had been spent on improving Bengaluru roads in the past five years, they remain in abysmal condition. Several deaths due to pothole-related accidents were reported this year, and an FIR was filed against a BBMP official in one case. Residents of many localities also held unique protests such as ‘pothole pooja’ to draw attention to dangerous roads.
While Bengaluru Smart City Ltd is attempting to complete the redevelopment of 36 roads in the Central Business district, the case of Commercial Street drew a lot of flak. The road, redeveloped at the cost of Rs 5.5 crore, was damaged when the area received rains the very next day after inauguration.
The need to maintain social distancing during COVID prompted the government to consider pedestrian-friendly initiatives, such as pedestrianising Church Street temporarily and introducing more cycle lanes.