How Bengaluru forgot its geography and what it means for its residents

Raj Bhagat Palanichamy reiterates the importance of considering the city’s topography in its planning, while pointing out that this aspect was completely ignored while Bengaluru grew haphazardly from the 1990s

Updated - March 12, 2024 02:44 pm IST

Published - February 23, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Bengaluru cityscape.

Bengaluru cityscape. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Raj Bhagat Palanichamy has been obsessed with geography ever since he was a child. “I was the state’s topper in Geography, History and Civics,” he says at a recent talk focused on Bengaluru’s geography, held at The Bangalore Room, Indiranagar.

Admitting that he is lucky to have a career in a field of study he loves, Palanichamy, Senior Programme Manager, Geo Analytics for Sustainable Cities & Transport program at WRI India, says that he sees the world around him through the lens of geography. “It is one way to see or picturise things,” he says,  “Every aspect of life - religion, politics, economics, social situation - has a geographical linkage to it.”

Raj Bhagat Palanichamy

Raj Bhagat Palanichamy | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Madiwala and Malayalees

He makes his case by asking the audience to identify an area in Bengaluru that is home to many of the city’s Malayalees. “Madiwala,” says an audience member, which Palanichamy agrees with, pointing out that there are numerous reasons why the community clusters there. “What you can notice is that an ethnic group, even within a city like this, which calls itself cosmopolitan, still has a geographical link to it,” he says. “Geography is not just about the earth. There is a geography to culture.”

He also brings up the Tamil writer Tho. Paramasivan, whose book, Alagar Kovil, analyses the Kallazhagar temple near Madurai, focusing on the relationship between the temple and the various caste groups who had settled around it rather than its history, rituals, mythology or architecture. “I was very much a tech guy, seeing everything in numbers and codes. He (Tho Pa) played a big role in transforming the way I see geography,” he observes.

Palanichamy feels that geography is important because it serves as a bridge between the natural and social sciences. “It is not about using science and technology for a living. I have to understand what is happening over there,” he says. “Every policy I am going to influence has a cultural aspect to it. I wield a lot of power, and I should be responsible.”

Despite geography’s tremendous impact on our lives, he points out that we forget its importance. “We are disconnected from geography,” he rues.. He believes this myopic attitude towards geography has far-reaching consequences, particularly in Tier 1 cities, including Bengaluru. “In Tier 2 cities, you can see the earth somewhere, whereas here (in Bengaluru), you touch dust, not soil,” he says. 

Truck with Tamilnadu registrations were set fire on Mysuru road  after the Supreme court order on Cauvery water sharing issue between Tamilnadu and Karnataka in Bengaluru on September 2016.

Truck with Tamilnadu registrations were set fire on Mysuru road after the Supreme court order on Cauvery water sharing issue between Tamilnadu and Karnataka in Bengaluru on September 2016. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K

A city in maps

Palanichamy likes maps. Using his impressive cartography skills, he elaborates on Bengaluru’s geography, how it affects the city and its residents and why it needs to be considered while developing the city. “There are hundreds and thousands of stories you can tell about Bengaluru through maps,” he states before delving into one of them: its topography and why forgetting about it has proven to be a costly mistake. 

Exhibiting a cross-section of various cities and where they stand elevation-wise compared to Bengaluru, Palanichamy points out that the city is located in the heart of theMysoreplateau at an altitude that is greater than 97% of Indian cities. “Bangalore is technically a hill station. There are very few cities (both in India and internationally) at this elevation,” he says. 

This unique topography has positive and negative effects, in his opinion, especially when considering urbanisation. For instance, Bengaluru’s perennial water problem is partly a function of its topography. While part of the city lies in the Cauverywatershed, being at this height means you have to pump water upwards. “The more people you have to accommodate, the more you have to pump. So, how much can you urbanise?” asks Palanichamy.

In the same breath, he also talks about the politics of theCauvery water-sharing issue and how the water allotted for the city is simply not enough for it. “You are allotted only a certain amount of water, and the allotment is only for the western and southwestern parts of the city. But it is (also) required for the eastern and northern Bengaluru, which are the growing parts of the city,” he says. 

Fire personnel evacuate residents of flooded Rainbow Layout, due to Halanayakanahalli Lake breach after heavy rains, on Sarjapur road in  2022.

Fire personnel evacuate residents of flooded Rainbow Layout, due to Halanayakanahalli Lake breach after heavy rains, on Sarjapur road in 2022. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Other issues

Palanichamy also talks about how urbanisation affects markets in and around the city, how our desire for unseasonal vegetables affects the water and vegetation, and why valleys abound in plateau regions. He appears to be unconvinced by the oft-repeated belief that all flooding issues in the city can be simply traced back to the destruction of its once-vibrant network of lakes. “I hear everyone talk about the cascading network of lakes, but I don’t like that way of defining it,” says Palanichamy, who believes that this so-called network was incidental, not planned.

In his opinion, while people often talk about the lakes in the city when it floods, they have forgotten about the city’s valleys and how rampant urbanisation has played a huge part in this perennial issue. For starters, the city of Bengaluru has grown exponentially compared to the rest of Karnataka, he says, using a nighttime map of the city to drive home his point, with Bengaluru clearly the brightest by far, going by the amount of light picked up by satellites. “Previous census says that the next city in Karnataka is ten times smaller than Bengaluru. It is a huge difference, very skewed,” he says.

Unbalanced growth

Palanichamy then delves into the history of the city’s unbalanced growth, pointing out that Bengaluru initially comprised mostly just the fort, pete area, and cantonment. However, the city expanded in the 20th century with several public sector enterprises coming in, and then eventually exploded due to the tech revolution between 1990 and 2016.

“This was the peak period of Bengaluru’s growth,” he says, adding that the growth has happened in all directions, mostly driven by the market. “What has it respected? Nothing,” he says, pointing out that unlike in planned cities like Los Angeles in the United States, which have a downtown filled with skyscrapers and suburbs around the edges, high-rise buildings in Bengaluru have mushroomed arbitrarily depending on the availability of real estate. 

Again, using maps as well as geocoded photographs, he showcases the consequences of this unplanned development.  He lists out some of the locations in the city that have experienced intense flooding over the years, and points out that it is mostly a function of these areas being built in valleys.

“We have forgotten that we have to be careful about (constructing) in low-lying areas,” he says. “These big projects in Bengaluru often disrespect not only Bengaluru’s topography but also its existing infrastructure,” he argues. He reiterates the importance of considering the city’s topography in city planning. “The valley is the most important thing, and we are totally ignoring it in our conversations. Put this topography map into the planning, and it will be sorted out,” says Palanichamy. 

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