In Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, issues related to city’s unbridled growth froth up

The city with a thousand lakes is faced with a massive pollution problem that has seen some of its largest lakes frothing up and even catching fire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 10:01am

What do you do when water catches fire? That’s exactly what Bangaloreans are scratching their heads over – the water in their lakes is catching fire, and nobody knows how exactly to put the flames out.

For a city that once boasted close to a thousand lakes, this is something of a problem.

Bangalore or Bengaluru, India’s Garden City, a quiet backwater once known as “The City of Lakes”, has been losing perspective lately. It’s once beautiful, temperate, lake-filled landscape has stumbled into something of a drunken stupor, frothing around the edges.

A snow-like froth has been bubbling from several of Bangalore’s lakes, making them look more like an enormous fuzzy bubble bath. But anyone nearby these lakes now needs to cover their mouths and eyes – because that froth is a toxic cocktail of untreated chemicals and sewage. Whenever it rains, wind carries the flammable foam into the city.

To make things worse, various incidents in which lakes – including the city’s largest lake – the 890-acre Bellandur – have been catching fire as a result of chain reactions; nearby garbage mounds are set alight, the blaze lighting up in nearby weeds. In January this year, 5,000 soldiers were called in to fight a blaze that broke out in Bellandur lake. How to deal with such fires is a question that has been perplexing residents and firefighters alike.

A 2016 issue of Current Science magazine, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, released a report saying that unplanned development in the city would make Bangalore uninhabitable within the next five years.

Though the report didn’t spark panic, it certainly shook the media up a bit.

The problem in Bangalore has, in part, been caused by India’s ambitious goals to push itself into the 21st century in great haste.

The city, internationally known as India’s Silicon Valley, has created a buzzing ecosystem of start-ups and venture capitalists, plus a host of small industries, all of which have been pumping their waste out into the waters completely unchecked

The city, internationally known as India’s Silicon Valley, has created a buzzing ecosystem of start-ups and venture capitalists, plus a host of small industries, all of which have been pumping their waste out into the waters completely unchecked. A 2016 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and Frost & Sullivan estimated that Bangalore generates 92,000 metric tonnes of e-waste annually. It’s therefore little surprise that the city’s sewage systems have collapsed as a result.

And yet, Bangalore-based architect and urban-designer Naresh Narasimhan, who was behind the design of Infosys’ sustainable Bangalore campus, believes the doomsday predictions about Bangalore becoming uninhabitable are exaggerated.

“A lot of the current problems are because of unbridled growth, and the city lacks the resources to respond,” says Narasimhan. “The lakes are not the problem, the drains carrying raw sewage into them are, and a lack of civic literacy is [also] to blame. The problem won’t ever be fully solved, but it will get better in time as people get educated.”

Narasimhan, who is currently working on creating Bangalore’s first pedestrian-oriented street – Church Street – a project that will help eliminate time spent sitting in the city’s infamous traffic, compares its issues to New York’s Hudson River of the 1980s. “[It] was a stinking sewer,” he says, “and today people are fishing in it, so anything is possible, it only requires collective will.”

However, it may be Bangalore’s new cosmopolitan flavour and taste for explorative thinking that may ultimately help save it.

The problem won’t ever be fully solved, but it will get better in time as people get educated
Naresh Narasimhan, Bangalore-based architect and urban-designer

One of Bangalore’s finest minds is Dr Susmita Mohanty, the woman behind India’s first private space start-up and a designer of future systems for space exploration and habitats. But even she’s gone from looking skywards to focusing down here on Planet Earth with her fourth start-up, Earth2Orbit Analytix.

Leveraging satellite and other forms of data with machine learning and artificial intelligence to deliver actionable intelligence to solve social, business and environmental problems is all part of the company’s remit. “The far-reaching goal here is to respond to climate change and find ways to make our home planet more habitable and sustainable,” says Mohanty, adding “space can play a vital role in monitoring and understanding the effects of climate change.”

The city is no stranger to technology. While Mohanty’s start-up takes advantage of Earth-observation satellites and big data to collect and analyse global and historical information about our planet and it’s changing climate, other start-ups in the city are utilising tech in different ways.

While local lakes burn, people can’t drink the water. A new start-up called NextDrop has created a transparent, online marketplace that connects locals with tankers that will deliver fresh water to their doorsteps through sharing water delivery information with fee-paying subscribers. This eliminates what can often turn into a days-long waiting game for clean water for many households and businesses.

NextDrop aren’t the only players in the business of making life better in Bangalore – the city has a start-up ecosystem valued at US$19 billion, with hundreds of start-ups entering the market annually, trying to solve various problems. The city’s Earth Startups meet-up group, which says it believes in impact entrepreneurship, has well over 2,000 active members. “We have enough creativity and brain capacity to come up with solutions to conserve and live with nature,” reads the organisation’s statement.

“It’s all fixable,” says an optimistic Bangalorean discussing the city’s flaming water bodies, “it’s not like it’s a plague of locusts.” Nonetheless, the battle to save the lakes of Bangalore is not over yet.

This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores and by invitation