UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the extreme rains this summer a “monsoon on steroids”. The reports have highlighted the fact that vulnerable countries are not the main drivers of global warming. Pakistan, for example, accounts for no more than 0.5% of global carbon emissions, but 33 million people have been affected by heat waves and heavy rains this year, with authorities predicting secondary disasters such as epidemics and food shortages.
But this narrative tends to focus primarily on monsoons and torrential droughts, and excludes how rainy events interact with local political and economic factors – especially those related to property capitalism and corruption. My research suggests that this mixture can also have disastrous effects.
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Rapid economic gains encouraged risky property moves
Bangalore, formerly known as Bangalore, is the “Silicon Valley of India”. English-speaking engineers lead India’s tech industry, and a nationwide call center workforce provides low-cost services to hundreds of multinational corporations based in Europe and America. Indian policy makers are actively promoting the city’s ‘IT/BT’ (information technology/biotechnology) economy – and this has had an outsized effect on the local housing market. White-collar workers have helped make Bengaluru’s property sector one of the most profitable in the country, but also largely unaffordable for the majority of the city’s working-class residents.
Residential and commercial development in the city has a long history of agrarian castes and class power relations – meaning that feudal landowners were able to take advantage of rapid urbanization by converting farmland and wetlands into urban real estate. The hilly and rain-fed Deccan region is crossed by centuries-old lakes and wetlands (keres) connected by a gravity lattice of streams and canals (Raja Kaluves). Technically, the government owns the area in and around these canals, known as the kharab-B land (literally, wasteland). For all intents and purposes, however, anyone with the right connections and muscle power can claim and build on this land.
Developers and land brokers have thus been able to grab “free” parcels of aquatic land, aiming to cover waterways and storm drains and resell the land, often informally and without the required permits.
City engineers I spoke to explained that residents often don’t know their homes are sitting on or blocking a storm drain. The developers leveled the land and covered the drains with mud, thus increasing the area for sale. This is how an area becomes floodable.
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Through this process, developers have built both high-end apartment buildings and IT parks, as well as substandard developments without municipal infrastructure, largely for lower-class buyers and tenants of the city. The Karnataka government itself legally drained and concretized dozens of wetlands and canals throughout the 20th century for sports stadiums and other public projects. This has encouraged private developers to follow suit, despite efforts since the early 2000s to ban lake conversion and conserve wetlands.
The “land mafias” took advantage of these agreements
Over the past decade I have researched informal urbanization and the real estate ‘mafias’ that run the (wet)land and water markets of Bengaluru. It’s not necessarily about armed gangsters – instead, the term describes the close collaboration, colloquially known as the corrupt “link”, between bureaucrats, builders, landowners and other intermediaries involved in the transactions urban real estate in flood-prone areas. areas.
It’s an approach to land development that has become common in much of the world: developers literally create property from water. In Bangalore, even moderate rainfall can cause lake overflows that overwhelm the city’s stormwater drainage and flood streets. Residents of these areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding – and subsequent government efforts to deal with flooding.
Watchdog groups say government development councils are actively sanctioning development on sensitive lake lands by circumventing environmental and infrastructure clearances. When activists and lawyers uncover violations, officials legalize the plans after the fact. Other critics say the ‘land mafia’ are working at the highest level to thwart fines for breaking the rules and to pay politicians and judges to rule in favor of developers.
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The urban poor pay the price
The city government was quick to announce a campaign to remove encroachments after Bengaluru’s latest round of flooding, which usually results in the demolition of the homes of poorer and less politically connected groups. With its roots in colonial law, the term “encroachment” in India describes unlawful encroachment on government lands, including lakes and wetlands. In the aftermath of the wave of economic development since the early 1990s, when the Indian government pursued increasingly liberal policies to spur economic growth, officials are strategically avoiding encroachment removal efforts targeting the wealthy and directing them rather towards less politically connected groups. This results in the demolition of slums and homes inhabited by Dalit workers (oppressed caste), slum dwellers and migrant workers. He effectively calls these groups, their actions, and, indeed, their personalities, illegal “encroachments.”
But land grabbing and land development is largely an organized process involving powerful private and government organizations – not India’s urban poor. Analysts point out that global corporations and developers have created Orion Mall, Bagmane Technology Park and Mantri Special Economic Zone, all located in areas with increased flood risk. These kinds of projects couldn’t have happened without the involvement of government officials, and their luxury promoters are rarely punished for encroachment.
There’s a parallel here in terms of the response to this week’s disaster: much of the media attention in India has focused on flood-related losses in the city’s tech corridor, with less coverage the plight of some 1,500 nearby slum dwellers who need shelter and assistance after their homes were flooded in a second round of heavy rains.
The disasters of summer 2022 point to the inequalities of global climate change at the national level. Bengaluru’s story highlights the unequal nature of climate-related culpability and vulnerability at the local level. It also tells us that local and national efforts to address flood risk will benefit from a better understanding of how climatic factors intersect with the history and political economy of property capitalism.
Malini Ranganathan (@maliniranga) is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. She is co-author of the next “Corruption Plots: Histories, Ethics, and Audiences of the Late Capitalist City(Cornell University Press, 2023).