Saturday, July 13, 2024

Mint Explainer: Can Bengaluru prevent more deaths like Bhanurekha’s?

Can Bengaluru prevent another tragedy like that of Bhanurekha, a 22-year old woman employed by Infosys, who drowned after her car got stuck in a flooded underpass on May 22? As the city mourns her death, it is forced to confront harsh truths about its deteriorating infrastructure, which contrasts sharply with its reputation as a rich metropolis and leading tech hub.

Throw a stone in Bengaluru and you’ll probably hit an urban thinker who has long called for massive upgrades to the city’s outdated infrastructure and the rescue of its shrinking lakes, which are disappearing in the face of severe encroachment.

Climate scientists warn that the region must prepare for more frequent and intense storms. Karnataka’s share in India’s flood-related deaths surged to around 8% in the past two decades, according to a recent analysis by The Hindu. But how prepared is Bengaluru to actually implement even the simplest solutions to these problems?

Monday’s tragedy was caused by runoff from severe rains combined with strong winds and a blocked drain in the underpass, according to the Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagara Palike (BBPM), the city’s civic body.

Following Bhanurekha’s death, the BBPM said it has hired the Indian Institute of Science, a public-sector research institute in Bengaluru, to conduct a complete assessment of the city’s 18 underpasses.

While the BBPM worked with traffic police to direct traffic away from the flooded underpass on Monday, it is clear that these precautions were insufficient to prevent the tragedy. According to some officials, the occurrence was not unpredictable. Speaking anonymously to The Hindu, a senior traffic officer revealed that the underpass routinely floods “even with light showers”. Simply barricading the area is insufficient – the drainage system must be restored, the person added. Another anonymous senior engineer at the BBPM told the newspaper that no efforts have been made this year to desilt the drains in the underpass before the monsoon, which is expected to begin next week.

These lapses reveal a disregard for essential upkeep even after the city attracted unwanted global attention last year, when torrential rain submerged its streets, causing widespread disruption and forcing many residents to flee their homes in boats.

The most straightforward way of reducing floods is improving drainage systems. However, jams from the city’s wastewater and street runoff frequently overwhelm Bengaluru’s sewage pipes, many of which are decades old. They were built for a smaller, cooler metropolis and are unable to cope with heavy rains.

Most remedies to this problem – such as proactive unclogging of drains, replacing narrow, old pipes with bigger ones, and increasing green cover for rain absorption – are mandated by law. In fact, the National Green Tribunal requires all government-built structures, including flyovers and underpasses, to not just have drainage facilities but also harvest rainwater. The city’s refusal to adopt these steps is strange, particularly given the significant annual budget for sewer renovations.

The BBPM spent roughly 455 crore in the past three years to create 63 kilometres of drains, according to estimates tabled in the state assembly last year. In other words, it has spent about 17 days and 7.2 crore to develop each kilometre of a drain. Despite these huge investments the city still has nearly 500 kilometres of clogged sewers, according to official estimates presented in the assembly. The unofficial estimates are likely to be much higher.

After last year’s floods, the BBPM was awarded an additional 350 crore to flood-proof Bengaluru’s IT corridors, with a primary focus on rebuilding lost links between lakes and reducing urban garbage runoff. But even without this funding, the BBPM is one of the wealthiest municipal bodies in India, so money isn’t the issue.

Last year its public works department, which is meant to maintain government buildings and unclog drains, received a whopping 7,103.53 crore, or about 64% of the city’s entire budget. Despite having abundant funds the city continues to struggle with clogged sewers and crumbling infrastructure, calling into question the effectiveness of the government, the civic administration and the city’s future as a tech hub.

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