Blunder down under

Blunder down under

Mimicking the chaotic tangle of electric, telecom and television cables above, the ground under Bangalore’s roads is even more messy with sanitary, water, OFC and power lines criss-crossing in absolute abandon.

Deep under the rugged, dusty, traffic-clogged apology for a road, the sewage water inched laboriously, surrendering reluctantly to the dicates of gravity. Two feet above the sewer pipe lay the main water line, precariously close to another leak. Wrapped in multi-colour hues, the Optic Fibre Cables lurked beneath the sewer lines dangerously close to piercing through for a free-ride. The gas lines were just round the corner, all set to take a deep, five feet plunge into Underground Bangalore.

It is a maze down there. A bizarre concoction of pipes and cables, manholes and valves, leaks and contaminations. Mimicking the chaotic, wired mishmash of  electric, telecom and television cables overground, the underground in its inaccessible depths gets even more messy. The pipelines criss-cross in absolute abandon, the OFC cable just out, only to dig deep into sewage lines. Century-old pipes lie low, forgotten and unrecorded.

Draining out the City’s sewage through a mammoth 4,267 kilometres of sewer lines, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) is a behemoth by design. Add another 4,667.29 kms of water pipelines, and it gets even bigger, murkier, and predictably unwieldy. But the Board cannot afford such excuses, as it struggles daily with a gigantic litany of complaints and repairs, new installations and old maintenance.

In the city’s new BBMP areas, BWSSB is busy lowering new sewage lines under the Karnataka Municipal Reforms Project (KMRP). But deep under Core Bangalore, lies pipelines even of 1889 vintage ! Overseeing BWSSB’s nine divisions, 28 sub-divisions and 104 service-stations, the Board’s Engineer-in-Chief, T. Venkataraju knows that history well. “The British era pipeline network covered 20 sqkm of the City. Between 1889 and 1934, three cast iron pipelines of 15 inch diameter supplied Arkavathy water from the Hesarghatta reservoir to the Cantonment area through the Combined Jewel Filters (CJF) in Malleswaram,” he recalls.

That was only the beginning. Once Cauvery water first reached Bangalore in 1974 -- supplied through a 100 km, 1.2m diameter Mild Steel pipeline-- all the way from the TK Halli reservoir, it was time for the City’s underbelly to be injected again with a massive network of new lines. The network grew as the Cauvery II Stage waters gushed into the City in 1982. Eleven years later, the third stage brought more water, preparing the ground for the Fourth Stage First Phase in 2002 and the Phase II last year. In tune with the City’s massive population growth, its drinking water supply had to keep pace. Its underground pipeline network had to widen, spread out and get complex.

Laying 3,000 km of sewage lines in the new BBMP areas was no easy job for BWSSB. The mammoth excavators dug through narrow, unplanned revenue layout lanes, cutting old CMC water lines, and even newer PVC pipes laid under the Greater Bangalore Water Supply (GBWAS) project. Apparently, the Board had no records of its own water lines laid a few years ago. But Venkataraju had a solution: “The PVC water pipes should have been encased in GI pipes. When the excavators touch them, the noise would have alerted the drivers.”

Lack of coordination:

In the heart of the City, the old pipelines often caught BWSSB and the BBMP on the wrong foot. Lack of coordination between the two agencies was one obvious, glaring reason. This came tellingly to the fore five years ago, when the BBMP was in a hurry to complete the Cauvery Junction Underpass with its magic box technology in a record time of three days. The Palike engineers dug into an old BWSSB pipeline, running water gushed out, and the project was delayed by over a month.

Yet, the old, corroded, defunct lines will remain buried deep. “Almost 10 per cent of the pipes underneath are non-functional. But removing those lines will cost us much more than leaving them there,” contends Venkataraju.

That might look reasonable, provided BWSSB knew where those lines were. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, the Board could pinpoint its new lines now, even those being laid in the new BBMP areas. Its GIS section is tasked with exactly this job, updating the sewage lines on a map once a work order is completed. However, tracking the British era lines is an obvious wild goose chase!
Alongside the sewer and water lines, lies an astounding tangle of electric and OFC cables. As the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (Bescom) informs, nearly 60 per cent of the City, particularly the inner core, is powered by underground cables. BESCOM officials vouch for the long life expectancy of these “durable” lines. That claim rings hollow in peripheral Bangalore, where sewer line-laying often leaves a dangerous mishmash of severed UG electric cables.

Poised to shake up this cobweb of utility lines is the 73-km City Gas Distribution (CGD) network, an enormous system of natural gas pipelines coming all the way from Dabhol, Maharashtra. The lines have already been laid along the Outer Ring Road. But the real issues would surface once the intra-city network takes shape. Shifting of utilities would prove the biggest headache. The obvious reason: Lack of pipeline location records.

Promise of Tender SURE:

Offering a well-planned, comprehensive and scientifically designed alternative to all this underground mess, Bangalore City Connect and the State Government had  launched a unique road improvement initiative called Tender SURE (Specifications for Urban Roads Execution). The design had a well-defined hierarchy of roads based on the utilities, both overground and underground. While the road had clearly demarcated lines for light and heavy vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians, the underground had the one missing element in Indian roads: Permanent Utility Ducts.

The Ducts were designed to ensure seamless, uninterrupted flow of the five critical utilities of stormwater, sewage & drinking water, gas & power and telecom lines. In this precision-planned scheme of things, road-cutting was definitely out. The utility lines were placed under the footpath on either side of the road, thus negating the need to cut across. “There is a duct for every single utility, complete with access chambers for repair and maintenance. Any agency can access its utility line without disturbing the other,” explains Swati, the project lead from India Urban Space Foundation.

Under Tender SURE, the once decrepit Vittal Mallya Road in the heart of the City was chosen as a pilot, and underwent a complete overhaul. In 18 months, the 400 metre road that once lay in utter neglect as a seven-meter bituminus stretch, morphed in style as a worldclass lane. Six more City roads in Bangalore Central Business District (CBD) are destined to undergo the same change, revolutionising their underground pipeline network. Allotted Rs. 200 crore in the 2012-13 State Budget, the project is set to upgrade Residency Road, Richmond Road, Cunningham Road, Commissariat Road, Museum Road and St. Mark’s Road. But thanks to its funds-starvation, the BBMP plans to modernise 45 City roads will have to wait.

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