Restoration of SWDs key to city’s survival

Silk board junction during a rain season. DH Photo.

Storm water drains (SWD) were known earlier as Rajakaluves. These structures are unique to Bengaluru. Unlike most other cities in the world, Bengaluru has no perennial river.

Arakavathi, Suvarnamukhi and Kumudavathi are only seasonal streams. Therefore, since 1537 when Kempegowda established Bengaluru, lakes were constructed. His son, Immadi Kempe Gowda, and grandson established more lakes. This was followed by the Marathas, Wodeyars, Tipu Sultan and the British.

With an elevation of 3,000 feet, Bengaluru slopes on all directions. A cascading system of lakes was established with 30-feet-wide Rajakaluves, dug from one lake to the next, taking the excess water till the last level of lakes, thus storing the 800mm normal annual rainfall in nature’s most effective Rainwater Harvesting System. The SWD is, therefore, the crux of the city’s water supply over centuries.

However, what has been lovingly built over the past five centuries, Bengaluru has managed to destroy in 50 years. One of the biggest tanks, the Dharmambudhi Kere, expanded by Kempe Gowda, is now the Central Bus Terminus, ironically named after Kempe Gowda, making him turn in his grave. The government itself breached at least 43 tanks and constructed stadiums, colleges, offices and Golf clubs. This encouraged greedy citizens in forming private lake “Layouts”, some of the MLAs affixing the title Layout to their names!

The SWDs are the channels which connected the famed ‘thousand lakes’ of Bengaluru, forming an integrated system. Within the BBMP area of 780km² there is a length of 857 km of SWDs. But, these vital SWDs have been totally neglected since the two Municipal Boards of the Bangalore City Municipality and the Cantonment were merged into form the Corporation of the City of Bangalore in 1949 and 70 councilors were elected from 50 wards. The city’s population in 1951 was 7.8 lakh and it is now 112 lakh.

The lakes will survive only if the SWDs exist to take the overflow of water from the higher level lakes to the lower lakes. As the SWDs are destroyed, even with two inches of rain, the water flows onto the roads, which become canals. Worse, the SWDs are used even by the BWSSB to let in domestic sewage so that each remaining lake in Bangalore Urban Revenue district (of its original 937 according to Revenue Records of Villages) stores domestic sewage, apart from industrial effluents, and none of the lake water is fit for drinking.

In 2010, a Master Plan was prepared for the restoration and remodelling of the damaged SWDs at a cost of Rs 4,158 crore. This was shelved by the Government and two years ago, a paltry Rs 800 crore was sanctioned to take up this work, obviously in politically important wards. But, it is not realised that restoration of SWDs is not just removal of encroachment, which itself is a huge task, but more importantly involve desilting, widening, deepening, constructing masonry walls, box drains, culverts, shifting of sewage from the SWDs, etc. This is a mammoth task and government’s sanctioning of Rs 800 crore or so is like offering popcorn to the hungry elephant. 

Two years ago, the BBMP with fanfare started removal of encroachments on SWDs under the High Court directions but was stopped in its tracks when properties of political and film personalities were encountered. Recently, the government has initiated prosecution proceeding against 20 senior officers for permitting important persons to encroach upon SWDs.

Citizens of Bengaluru do not realise that restoration of SWDs is the key to restoration of lakes which in turn is necessary for the survival of Bengaluru. There are 25 lakh tenements in BBMP’s population of 112 lakh according to Census-2011 of which the BWSSB’s water and drainage connection covers only 40%. The rest depends upon borewells and according to the study of NITI Aayog recently, Bengaluru will run out of groundwater in just two years.

Not only that. The 60% population which has no drainage connection, produce 128 grams of night soil per capita daily, which is 800 tonnes per day and 3 lakh tonnes per year. Most of this human excreta finds its way to the lakes which is why the Land of a Thousand Lakes has now become a Land of a Thousand Sewage Tanks. The sewage does not simply sit in the tank beds but percolates into the groundwater and into the borewells.

Bellandur and Varthur are burning. Waiting in the queue are Byramangala, Yele Mallappa Chetty, Kaggadaspura, Yemmlur, Iblur and sixty more. Bengalureans have not realised the seriousness of Bellandur burning.

In Karnataka, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Pollution Control Board came into existence in 1974 and the lakes are burning since 2017. Bengaluru Metropolis requires a higher level governing body to survive, not the dysfunctional BBMP.

A city dies when its lakes die.

(The writer is a former IAS officer who headed a task force on recovery of public lands)

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