Hariharan Chandrashekar* looks back at a Bangalore that was, even as he keeps a wary eye on the City she could potentially be. This column is part of the debate at InsideYourCity, the Distinguished Lecture Series. Make time for a lively (and lovely) coaster ride into the past — and the future — with this Series and the monthly InsideYourCity talks. Register for free — all you’ve to do is click here.
A friend of thirty years called a month ago. He said something that startled. The old part of Bangalore — around Chickpet, Kumharpet, to the fringe around Tharagupet and Minto Hospital — which is no more than two square miles and about 200 years old has a challenge you would not believe is possible.
The very good news is that the groundwater table is between 80–120 feet, sometimes even as little as 60 feet. Which is not surprising considering that it is a natural bowl and has water from the rest of the flanking areas enriching it on all sides.
The bad news, he said, was that the water could not be drawn and used, for it was both biologically (sewer sort of waste) and chemically (coming from pollution of various kinds) contaminated so badly that it’s hazardous.
A lot of water but not anything you can drink — all of it so highly contaminated even if so tantalisingly so close under your feet.
About twenty years ago another alarm bell was sounded by city authorities after water quality reports around Hebbal showed traces of mercury, lead and other metal oxides. So how did that come about? Just north of what is now the Hebbal flyover on the right is Esteem Mall. Then you’ve Colombia Asia and an old Kirloskar factory which has turned an office. Next door at one time was Amco Batteries. A factory that kept dark and somber company with the peaceful souls of the gentle Parsee folk buried at the Tower of Silence. The harsh case of the vulture was a familiar sound in those years when nothing existed past what was Hebbal lake sprawling both sides of the messy flyover that now smothers one entire part and has left what seems likes a placid pool of waters but as dangerously hazardous as it looks beautiful through the panes of your air conditioned car.
But those who have tested the waters know that you can’t drink a drop of it. It continues to carry residual contamination from lead, mercury and a few other metals that seeped into the soils — a legacy from Amco batteries time long after the unit was sold and a mean cluster of multi-tiered and faceless boxes for apartments sprung up about 7–8 years ago. The soil contamination has made groundwater undrinkable for over a square kilometre.
So you’ve a situation again in this northern and now bustling fringe of Bangalore where there’s a seeming abundance of water and you can’t drink a drop of it. Every single liter of water for homes and offices in this large unseemly sprawl around Hebbal is imported by tankers. Recharging the groundwater aquifer makes no sense for humans, for you can’t drink it anyway. Water treatment here doesn’t demand just the sewage treatment for biological contamination but the twice as expensive effluent treatment for metal oxides that’s usually employed for industrial water. But who cares? Or who owns these challenges of the city?
In 1980 the city ended at about the point where the Hebbal flyover begins. There would then be the 80 feet wide highway to Bellary or Hyderabad.
A good long 8 km after would be the satellite town of Yelahanka that had come up as part of the city plans of the 1970s to decongest a city. Kengeri was the other satellite town to the south-southwest of the city, again cut away from the main city by a good 10 km.
In a city that then hosted two million people, about ten per cent were settled in these two satellite towns. And hereby hangs another tale that we shall delve into in our next part in this series on The City & You.