Did Infrastructure Failure Cost Karnataka Coast Dearly?

  • Rains have played havoc on the Karnataka coast, but much of the damage in cities like Mangaluru could have been averted if there was sound infrastructure in place and the authorities were better prepared.

Karnataka’s coast has been constantly in the news this summer. And the reason is, the city has witnessed a couple of things for the first time in decades. While a fortnight ago it was the saffron wave in the state assembly election, the full moon saw Mangaluru under deluge. For the first time in three decades, the city witnessed flooding that left the future ‘smart city’ paralysed.

Swarajya spoke to those affected by the floods, those who helped in rescue efforts, the authorities, as well as those in charge of planning the city’s infrastructure. Mangaluru seems to have failed in infrastructure building and preparedness.

The twin districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi witnessed incessant rain for over 48 hours early this week. But that is no news. The coastal districts witness incessant rains every year, with the monsoon lasting for over five months, from mid-May to October. But this time it was the combined impact of the cyclone Mekunu and the early onset of the monsoon that left citizens puzzled as to why the authorities didn’t see what everyone else in the city did.

The authorities cannot claim that they were prepared as the floods were a clear indication that not much attention was paid to the drainage system that would send the rain water to the sea.

The storm water drains were over-flowing. The roadside drains were absent on most roads that were concretised in the past five years. In many areas, the roadside drains did exist, but construction work on them had gone on to a point before it was abandoned mid-way.

Two lives were lost in landslips, five houses collapsed, 43 houses damaged, of which 12 are beyond repair, hundreds of coconut palms uprooted, over a 1,000 heads of livestock missing and presumed perished, and around 1,200 vehicles submerged. The total loss is estimated to be in excess of Rs 100 crore, according to the preliminary estimation carried out by the newly elected members of the legislative assembly U T Khader (Mangaluru), Dr Bharat Shetty Y (Mangaluru North), Vedavyas Kamath (Mangaluru South), and Member of Parliament Nalin Kumar Kateel.

“We have jointly demanded from the government a sum of Rs 100 crore immediately and, depending upon the further losses being estimated, we may ask for a similar amount later. The damage has been extensive to public property. Many shops where many people were eking out a livelihood have been flooded, mobile phone shops, grocery shops, tailoring shops, petty shops, cobblers, electronic goods shops, and over 600 houses were flooded in all the three constituencies,” Kateel said.

The city’s central section in Mangaluru South constituency suffered great damage as huge stretches of road have been concretised without leaving any scope for rainwater drainage. Main roads like the M G Road, which has high-rise buildings on both sides, had drains that connected to the stormwater drain earlier, which have all disappeared or exist only in sections serving no purpose.

“I am not happy at the estimation of the district administration, which has put the losses at Rs 20 crore. I have told my party workers to visit every area and extend help to the people who have incurred property losses,” Kamath said.

But why did a future smart city drown?

What led to the deluge despite there being several signs and weather reports predicting heavy rains because of the cyclone?

“We were preparing for the monsoon based on its date of arrival, but rains arrived three days earlier. According to the MET (Meteorological Department) office, the monsoon arrived three days earlier due to the depression in the Arabian sea. The first wave of monsoon arrived in full swing, resulting in this deluge,” says Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kannada Shashikanth Senthil.

But Mangaluru is no stranger to early monsoons. Mango showers generally grace the coast by mid-May and hence, unpreparedness is not understandable. And the chief of city planning agrees. “There was a cyclone, but that can’t be an excuse for the lapses in the infrastructure work in Mangalore,” says architect and Mangaluru City Corporation consultant Dharmaraj.

In the rush to concretise the roads, the city corporation did not take up stormwater drains, culverts, and underground water channeling; all the storm water is now flowing on the roads and settling in the low lying areas. “Our house in Kodialguthu area behind the Empire Mall was worst affected. We were lucky that the fire brigade was equipped with boats and we were taken out safely from the neck-deep water. But most of the residents in this area have lost their electronics, household goods, and many valuables,” said Purushottam, a resident of Kodialguthu.

Stormwater drains, sewage water

“Two huge buildings have come up in this area [Kottara cross]. They have blocked the natural stormwater drains with a small outlet at the spot where the drain entered their property, resulting in a blockage. This is a place where three stormwater drains come together to form one big drain that opens into the Bangra Kulur main drain,” said Jagannath, a resident of Kottara cross. Wetlands within a 2km distance from the sea have all been occupied to host large buildings. Wetlands hold water in the monsoons and release it in the summers. But most of these wetlands are now seen sporting large structures, some of which are also sinking, owing to the mushy nature of the soil, and have thereby clogged the natural facility for rainwater drainage.

In many areas, the flood has led to sewage water mixing with the water in the wells and other water sources. The district administration has asked people in such areas not to use the water and assured supply of water to them until the problem has been sorted.

“My salon was dunked in 5m of water. Since the stormwater drains are also used as open sewage drains, my shop was drowned in the sewage mixed with storm water, rendering my furniture and all that was in my shop unusable. I have made makeshift arrangements to open the salon with available resources,” said Keshav Bangera, who runs a salon.

In many areas, sewage mixed with storm water had entered homes. People alleged that the Mangalore City Corporation allows stormwater drains to carry even sewage water, as many areas in the city, particularly in the low-lying areas, are not connected to the sewage pipeline network.

But why has Mangaluru lacked the smarts with respect to its infrastructure? It boils down to planning, or rather, the lack of it.

Drains have been constructed on the basis of what the architects ‘deem fit’, for they, in their defence, say there is no data available for the same.

Lack of topographic data

Mangaluru is called the city of seven hills. But sadly, one cannot spot many hills today as some of them have been razed to the ground. And that, explains a member of the the Association of Consulting Civil Engineers (ACCE), is partly a factor for the inadequate infrastructure planning in the city.

In the past, the water from uphill regions in Mangaluru would flow through the natural stormwater drains into the fields, which would act like a catchment area, hold the water, and then drain it into the sea. Unlike the smaller drains, the fields can accommodate a greater amount of water. During the course of urbanisation though, the hills have made way for construction.

“The entire topography of the region has changed. Which means the natural course of water is no longer the same. But whatever topography data we have is more than hundred years old. The contour map and the topography data available is from around 1890, which is more than hundred years ago, based on the surveys done in the British era. Despite repeated attempts to get various agencies to try and get a survey done, we have not been able to ensure latest data on the topography, nor furbish a contour mapping of the city,” the ACCE member explained.

So, though the city has grown a hundredfold in the last 100 years, the infrastructure planning has to rely on data which is over a century old.

Politics and lack of cooperation

Lack of funds as well as diversion of it to different projects have resulted in areas having roads but no drains. Local politics and lack of cooperation have also seen drainage work being left incomplete. People are unwilling to let go of small portions of their land to accommodate drains despite being compensated. Some have even gone to court stalling the work in progress. The result is that drains have been made only in certain areas and not connected to the large drains. Local corporators compete for funds to be allocated to their areas too. Which is why there are areas that either have roads or drains but rarely both.

But all is not lost, believe the locals who have seen individuals and organisations take charge of the situation and rescue people in flood-affected areas, providing food and shelter. “The changed political atmosphere in the region is surely a ray of hope as most of the leaders who have been elected are young faces who will want to prove their mettle,” say the locals. One sure hopes so.