Why India's Silicon Valley Is Sinking
“Slept in Bangalore, woke up in Venice.” This post by a Twitter user exemplifies the disaster that stuck east Bengaluru by way of record rains over the last three days starting Sept. 4.
Knee to waist-deep water on main roads, bikers and car drivers struggling to negotiate surging water, vehicles and owners stuck in the middle of the road being shifted on JCBs, boats instead of vehicles on the roads, families rescued from luxury villas or slums and transported in tractors, swanky cars like Bentleys nearly fully downed on apartment basements—all became everyday scene over these three days in these eastern parts of what many call Silicon City. These pictures have sadly come to represent Bengaluru not just in India but in many parts of the world. There was more disaster waiting—a 23-year-old woman died of electrocution as she slipped and fell on a live electric wire. According to IMD, the rains may continue over the next few days.
It is not just these three days that the drowning city was hit by endless rains—it witnessed massive showers last week too. And Monday’s rain was the third highest rainfall that the city received in a single day in the last 38 years in the month of September. Check these figures: the city was pounded on Sept. 12, 1988 and it resulted in a massive 188 mm rainfall; on Sept. 26, 2014, it received 132.44 mm and on Sunday-Monday night, it got 131.1 mm in a matter of 10 hours.
The crumbling infrastructure, especially in the technology hub, has left many on the verge of losing hope in the city.
Why has Bengaluru come to such a pass? Is there any escape from this? And why eastern part of the city—home to some of the world’s most well-known IT companies—repeatedly become the epicentre of the disaster?
It is a combination of factors that is responsible for this mess. And don’t blame the rains—other parts of Bengaluru were pounded by rain too. But then they didn’t experience the kind of civic breakdown that the east did. Possibly because of better planning in those slightly older areas and of course, corruption was not so rampant then.
The main culprit for the current muddle is the encroachment of lakes as well as raja kaluves (storm water drains) to build residential colonies and commercial buildings, massive concretisation, and unscientific and near-complete lack of foresight in planning. Add to this corruption at every level in the government and at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), which is the body to accord all sorts of clearances for the construction. And to top it all is the nexus between the politicians, officials and builders. Corruption is so widespread that the state contractors’ association wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi a year ago alleging 40% needs to be kept aside to pay as bribe to take up any projects in the state.
The current rains—rather its impact—has certainly sullied the image of Bengaluru as a city of future and a global city. The nature has completely exposed its ability to tackle floods of this kind. That almost every IT company is situated in this area added to the bad publicity heaped on the city. Varthur, Marathahalli, Sarjapur, Whitefield, Bellandur and situated slightly away the Manyata Tech Park—among those areas which house IT Corridor—bore the brunt of the rain fury.
Bengaluru is home to over 15 lakh employees, besides some 30 lakh in indirect employment in the IT, IT-enabled services and business process management sectors. According to a reply furnished to the Rajya Sabha by the government recently, software exports from Bengaluru for 2020-21 was Rs 2,04,648.96 crore or close to 40% of country’s exports.
From mid-1990s onwards, as IT corporates started their march to Bengaluru, the east saw massive construction of offices and apartment complexes. Builders, officials and politicians thrived as they feasted on the IT boom. How many stuck to rules as the governments looked the other way is anybody’s guess.
As said earlier, one of the main reasons for this part of the city getting flooded is the lake encroachment. There were about 60 huge lakes some five-six decades ago. Only a handful have remained now. Earlier, there was a network of canals which connected each of these lakes allowing easy flow of water in case lakes were full. While many lakes have been converted into housing layouts and commercial establishments, the canal networks no more exist.
The raja kaluves have been encroached upon and buildings have come up on them. This, thanks to the nexus. The result is flooding.
Bengaluru, like most cities has this unseemly policy of “Akrama-Sakrama”. Under this, government from time to time regularises unauthorised colonies and buildings on payment of fine. Thus, with fear of law not being there, the culprits indulge in irregularities with impunity.
The IT companies are said to have taken a hit of Rs 225 crore in one day on Monday. With most of the IT firms returning to work-from-office norm, hundreds of employees were on way to their offices but got stuck and could not reach their respective work places. Following this, most firms issued advisories asking their staff to work from home. One of the companies advised its staff: “exercise caution, review the situation in the area and plan your travel to office with discretion.”
The tweet of ed-tech platform Unacademy's CEO Gaurav Munjal was a mirror to the situation. Fortunate to get a tractor to shift his family and pet dog as his residential colony was flooded, Munjal shared a video in this regard. He tweeted: “Family and my Pet Albus has (sic) been evacuated on a Tractor from our society that's now submerged. Things are bad. Please take care. DM me if you need any help, I’ll try my best to help.”
As JCBs and tractors were involved in rescue operations, former Infosys director and chairman of Aarin capital Mohandas Pai told a TV channel: “This is a total failure of governance.” He blamed the BBMP for “complete breakdown of the system”.
As Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai took a tour of affected areas and announced measures, sanctioned funds to take up works like installing sluice gates to the lakes which breached, he and rival Congress indulged in blaming each other for the pathetic state that the city is in.
Will this disaster force the IT majors to shift their offices from Bengaluru? While the civic infrastructure and government’s response to the flood has undoubtedly dismayed the IT captains, the idea of any company bolting from the city is far-fetched and looks unlikely. The wealth of talent available and a salubrious climate throughout the year—never mind the current bout of rains—will nip any thought of `escape from Bengaluru’ idea fructify.
BS Arun is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.