The Meteorological Department this week bestowed upon Bengaluru an ignominy that most old-timers would never have thought possible: a forecast, day-after-day, of scorching temperatures hovering around the 38 C mark. This, after the city has been struggling under similar temperatures for over three weeks in a summer season that many contend started way too early.
Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata have been accustomed to uncomfortable temperatures during multiple months in a year but Bengaluru was not called the air-conditioned paradise for nothing. Naturally perched at over 3,000 feet above sea level, the city has always shared the characteristics of a mountain town. Nestled in the centre of the Deccan Plateau, it captures winds blowing in from the rich Western Ghats to cool the entire region.
And then, there was the rain. Even in the peak of the summer, the city had been blessed with an automatic rain-triggering device that would make characters in the movie Lagaan happy. A streak of two days of 35 C heat and the trigger would be activated — unleashing evening thunderstorms to cool the whole place down.
Newspaper editors would be waiting to unlock their favourite word of the season — lashed — to splash a three-column front-page article with headlines like “Rains lash the city to bring welcome relief”. Pictures of residents caught unawares and drenched in the rain would complete the story.
This season, however, there has been no rain, even as temperatures become more and more unbearable. Worse, there appears no end in sight!
So, what changed in just a few short years? Is it El Nino? Or global warming? As much as we would like to throw up our hands and say, “We’re not responsible”, the truth is that factors such as these have existed for decades. But Bengaluru somehow weathered them all (no pun intended). There is yet another factor at play that not many like to talk about and fewer take responsibility for — massive urbanisation.
Bengaluru’s population today is estimated, unofficially, to be 108 lakh. In 1981, just 35 years ago, the Garden City had a population of 29 lakh (Indian Census). In 1991, this went up to 41 lakh, at the same time Bengaluru was getting established as an important technology centre.
In 2011, the population had more than doubled to 84 lakh. In four short years, between 2011 and 2015, the city grew to more than twice of what it grew in an entire decade between 1981 and 1991. Even Bengaluru couldn’t keep defending itself against such population growth, as migrants come into the city by the thousands each day. And, again, there appears to be no end in sight.
The sprawl of the city has spread to all corners. A running joke among residents is that the four pillars that founder Kempegowda had once established as marking the corners of the city, now sit smack in the middle.
Traffic commutes routinely take two hours each way. Trees are being cut down mercilessly as workers make room to expand severely congested roads. One recent estimate said 75 per cent of the city’s mature trees have been destroyed.
Greedy landlords continue to overbuild in what used to be leafy neighbourhoods because zoning laws are non-existent and the few that do exist are not enforced, in return for bribes. Malleshwaram, one of the grand old areas of Bengaluru was so proud of its heritage that most of its thoroughfares were named after trees (Margosa Road and Sampige Road).
Today, heirs of single family residences, which occupied 120 x 90 plots, have sold out to apartment builders who squeeze in 36 families into a high rise building. The irony is that these descendants do not often live in Bengaluru. They cashed out on their capital gains and now comfortably live in pristine Canada, Europe or the US.
When former Infosys executive Nandan Nilekani ran to represent South Bengaluru in 2013, he often touted his service as a leader of the Bengaluru Agenda Task Force that would qualify him for high office. But it was extremely poor foresight of people like him that imperilled Bengaluru’s future.
IT titans at the time forgot that everything, from a network to a city, is only as strong as its weakest link. Sure Wipro, TCS and Infosys built stylish campuses with overflowing gardens around the city’s corners; efficient-energy buildings and water fountains created great copy for annual reports and marketing brochures.
But these so-called leaders never realised that they do not control decisions about the weakest link — public infrastructure such as housing, water, sewerage, power, roads, schools and hospitals — and continued to build, helping create urban sprawl.
Executives who travelled miles to western cities, never learned how other countries planned their cities; nor did they use the power of their positions to influence public policy. For example, in the US, mega metropolises like New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston are not the state capitals. Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities like Albany, Sacramento and Austin are, by design taking government business away from already cluttered metro areas.
Even in the mid-1990s, when executives saw that governments were unwilling to usher in urban planning, they kept building development centres and offices. Their focus was never the good of the city but next quarter’s earnings reports.
The sad story is that the beauty genie of Bengaluru can never be corked back. Foolish urban planning has destroyed one of the greatest cities that humans ever built. Because no matter what gifts Mother Nature bestows on us, humans have shown time and again that they are mighty capable of blowing it all away.