In March 2014, a few months after a Congress government under then chief minister Siddaramaiah assumed office in Karnataka, the residents of an apartment complex built by a prominent builder in south-east Bengaluru received a rude awakening one morning. A demolition squad stood at their gates.
The builders of the then 12-year-old Sobha Garnet apartment complex, Shobha Developers, and others, had been accused by revenue officials for the Bengaluru North region of encroaching on the Iblur lake and reducing the lake area from 18.6 acres to around 7.32 acres.
The residents of Sobha Garnet, Sun City and other residential complexes on the shores of the Iblur and Bellandur lakes near the Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru (which is currently in the news on account of flooding after the heavy rainfall in Bengaluru on September 4 and 5) were unaware of the allegation against their builders.
Two days later, the Sobha Garnet Apartments Owners’ Association, and 46 others, approached the Karnataka High Court and obtained a stay on the unannounced demolitions.
The politics of the development of Bengaluru as an Information Technology hub since the turn of the century — especially the real-estate infrastructure that houses IT parks, SEZs, and top IT firms – is back in focus following the recent flooding.
The present BJP government headed by Basavaraj Bommai has accused previous Congress regimes of allowing large-scale and indiscriminate takeover of lake beds and stormwater drains by some of Bengaluru’s most prominent real-estate groups.
The Congress has on its part suggested that it has been in power in Karnataka only for five of the last 16 years, with the rest under the BJP.
Bengaluru’s worst-kept secret though is that politicians cutting across party lines are closely linked with the big builders involved in creating infrastructure for the IT sector in the last two decades. This is by very often ignoring land use norms, and at the cost of lakes and stormwater drainage systems that are at the heart of the city’s salubrious weather.
Over the past two decade, names of several top Karnataka politicians, their families or associates have come up for direct or indirect links with real-estate firms, including allegations against BJP leaders like former CM B S Yediyurappa, Congress leaders D K Shivakumar and K J George, and JD(S) leader and ex-CM H D Kumaraswamy.
The recent flooding of parts of south-east Bengaluru — a key IT corridor — has again put the focus on the politician-builder nexus and is likely to figure in the Assembly session starting on Monday.
The NGT prescribed norms of restricting construction activity in a 75-metre range from the periphery of water bodies, 50-metre range from the edges of main stormwater drains, 35 metres from secondary drains and 25 metres from smaller drains, have not been followed in a large number of the older constructions in the IT corridor (which is replete with lakes).
The coming elections for the 243-member Bengaluru city council — after a delay of two years – has also added political heat to the issue of the deterioration of the infrastructure in Bengaluru.
On Sunday, Shivakumar, the state Congress chief, announced the creation of a ‘Better Bengaluru Committee’, headed by former Bengaluru in-charge minister Ramalinga Reddy, to devise a plan to improve the city in the event of the Congress coming to power in 2023. “We will formulate a plan that will aid in reclaiming Namma Bengaluru’s lost glory,” Shivakumar, who was the state urban development minister from 2002-2004 when several real-estate firms emerged to become big players in the sector, vowed.
Siddaramaiah, the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, who visited some of the rain-affected regions last week, has announced that he will raise the illegal constructions issue in the Assembly session. “When our government (2013-2018) was in power, we identified 1,953 cases of stormwater drain encroachments and cleared 1,300. These documents are in the custody of the government and the CM and ministers must stop feigning ignorance and examine these documents,” the Congress leader said, in a reaction to CM Bommai’s accusation against Congress governments.
Siddaramaiah also pointed out that the IT corridor region where flooding has occurred has has BJP MLAs for several terms in the last few years, including Mahadevapura (MLA Arvind Limbavalli), Bommanahalli (Sathish Reddy), and K R Puram (Byrathi Basavaraju).
Blaming the Congress governments, Bommai, who has been in charge of the development of Bengaluru since 2021, including when Yediyurappa was CM, has said: “The flooding has happened because of maladministration, and the totally unplanned administration by the previous Congress government. They gave permissions left, right and centre – on the lakes, tank bunds, in buffer zones.”
He also reasoned that not entire Bengaluru but two zones were affected, particularly Mahadevapura. “It has 69 tanks and all are overflowing, the second reason is that all establishments are on a lower level to the lakes, and the third reason is that encroachments have happened,” he said.
For IT companies and other firms, behind Bengaluru’s emergence as India’s software hub, that is little consolation. In a letter to CM Bommai on September 1, the Outer Ring Road Companies Associations (ORRCA), which represents IT and banking firms in the area, estimated a collective loss of Rs 225 crore due to the flooding following rains on August 30 alone. The city received more heavy rains through the first week of September.
There has been an outcry from several business leaders. “Sir pl help Bengaluru, our streets have debris, garbage, drains are blocked… Does all this need more money or better governance? Our Metro is behind schedule, There is total mismanagement, Pl review our Major projects,” business leader T V Mohandas Pai said a few days ago on social media, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a letter to Pai, a former BJP member of the Bengaluru city council, N Ramesh, has suggested that the IT sector was not unaware of the large scale violations by builders. “… a large number of the 79 tech parks falling under the jurisdiction of the Outer Ring Road Companies Association, more than 250 companies under the Electronics City Industry Association and more than 150 companies around the International Technology Park in Mahadevapura have encroached on stormwater drains and their buffer regions,” he claimed.