On 26th May 2016, I made an appeal outlining a 3-point program for this monsoon “Let us send some rain water to our lakes” by clearing the storm water drains that carry precious rain water.

“Great idea!” but..”easier said than done”, “clearing drains is not as simple as spot fixing” 

Those were some of the reactions. It made me even more determined to try harder, to get things started, to understand practical difficulties better. I’m a software engineer by profession and learned over the years that without a working prototype no one will give you a chance for your great ideas. Will people come forward to get down and get dirty? Is it practically feasible to clear a drain?

The biggest decision to be made was ‘where’. After considering a few options from people that responded to my article, I zeroed in on my own street – Nataraj Layout Main Road in JP Nagar 7th Phase. Why? It is the most important downstream road that leads to the lake which already has a nice inlet built in for rain water to come in. I know every inch of it. Most importantly, the drain is blocked and there is no way water is going into lake as things stand.

The preparation

I started making calls and meeting people from Wednesday, probably made about 10 calls, met 15 people from my neighbors (many of whom I’ve never interacted with before!), shop keepers, BBMP engineers, construction workers (with a request to borrow their equipment), local RWAs, and friends that are likely to join me, to show their support if not for anything else. I spent a couple of hours on social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp to connect with people and encourage them to bring in their own friends etc. 

Things started falling in place by Thursday evening, when I met the ward assistant executive engineer and showed him pictures of the street and the drain and pitched the idea of BBMP partnering with local volunteers to clear the drains leading to the drain. They were initially skeptical but engaged me in a conversation with good intent and generally agreed that this is a good thing and will do whatever they can to support.

I came to know that the ‘tendering’ process is currently on to ‘clear the storm water drains’ and will commence in ‘a few weeks’. I asked for support in terms of their men and equipment, a tractor to remove the silt and stuff from the drains. I was told they will be there on Saturday morning. Feeling positive about BBMP involvement, I called a few folks again and reminded them of the plan and got commitment to join with some equipment.

The action starts

Come Saturday morning, for a while it looked like it is going to rain, but I suppose the rain gods figured it is better to wait till the drains are clear! By 9 am a handful of local folks gathered at the designated spot and got to know each other. The BBMP men did not show up and a few calls later, couple of folks showed up, the contractor, the supervisor. Still no sign of the promised workers or the tractor.

Lessons learnt!

1. Know your neighbors : Do not hesitate to speak to them. They already know you even if you never interacted! They are willing to help. No one wants to ‘lead’ but happy to join if they see the point. You will be surprised how interested they are in solving local problems.

2. BBMP :  BBMP is our friend. Making the initial connection might be hard, but it is easy to speak to them and work with them. They are under great amount of stress and understaffed among many other things. The ward engineer is the key contact that you need to make friends with.  Meeting him/her in person in their office is a good start.

3. Downstream : Geography is important. Spend some time walking the streets and identifying the drains that deliver the most ‘bang for the buck’!  Clearing a drain that doesn’t really go anywhere may not be a good use of our time. If there is no lake,consider digging few of harvest pits along the way to recharge the ground water.

4. Active Citizens United :  There are many civic minded, active citizen leaders in our town working on public issue. Every street, apartment complex has one. Reach out to them and get them excited, and good things will happen.

5. Awareness : Do not under estimate the long term positive effects of awareness you are creating. With the neighbors, passers by,  kids, BBMP officers, and all those friends that are happily hitting ‘Like’ from 10,000 miles away 🙂

We got started anyways, not willing to waste precious volunteer time. Finallly they showed up around 10 am. For the next couple of hours, we went after the low hanging fruit (!) and cleared whatever we could. The professionals (BBMP gang men) got into the act as well and found it a new experience to work alongside kids and residents.

It was great fun for the kids to use the shovels, rakes and pick axes and discover all kinds of creatures in the process. A pictorial blog on the treasure we found is here. Once you shed the initial inhibition, the natural urge takes over, to clear the obstacles and the sight of the drain floor inspires you to keep going!

There were a few challenges as some building owners treated the drain in front of their homes as personal garbage dumps, filling it up with really hard material. It took few more calls and pleas and threats and emotional blackmail to get them to deploy their own workers to work on the drain that they themselves ruined. (Side story: One of the officials told me that they can issue a notice to such owners, but within couple of hours they will receive a call from ‘you know who’ to withdraw! The notice will simply ask them to clear it to pay a nominal fine, but will never get enforced due to ‘interference’).

There were a couple of commercial establishments on the street — The Mango Tree Restaurant and Balan Farm Convention Center. One Mr Suresh, who runs both these joined us with his family and even deployed his workers to help. They took ownership of a large stretch and made it squeaky clean in no time. In fact, I am convinced that this is the model “everyone must keep a segment of the drain in front of their home/ business clear” that will work over time. Adopt a (part of) drain! Catch the rain!

Together we win!

The local BBMP machinery showed up, a little surprised to see so many residents getting down and dirty and convinced that this is not some show off party, connected with local residents. They were promptly presented with many other issues of the area! Their presence got the poura karmikas of the area to join in as well, and they managed to get some plastic and green waste out before the tractors swooped it up.

At some point there were so many BBMP officials that I was reminded of ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’. The BBMP Executive Engineer told me that one of the key reasons for potholes is the clogging of the drains as the rain water has nowhere else to go and seeps under the asphalt. The husband of the local corporator showed up as well toward the end, and that will be topic of another article!

All in all, it was an amazing experience, connecting with and bringing local residents out to the street, interacting and partnering with the folks at BBMP, to clear the storm water drains along the Nataraj Layout Road leading to the Puttenahalli lake. We had participation from Nataraj Layout, Brigade Millenium, L&T South City and the side streets. The RWAs of Nataraj Layout and Changam Raju Layout also marked their presence, and promised more numbers in the next few days.

Heartfelt appreciation for all the volunteers that showed up:  Bharathy, Jayaprakash,Usha Rajagopalan,Tara Krishnaswamy,Sapana Rawat, Sai Prasad, Vignesh, Nandha Kumar,Anil,Prasanna, Vynatheya, Vijaya, Suresh (Mango Tree) along with his wife and son, Chandu, Deepan, Kiran from VFC – Volunteer For a Cause,Swamy, Raju, Ravi, and my kids Abhi and Snigdha, Yashas, and few others for spending your precious Saturday morning caring about the drains! I am sure all of you enjoyed the experience as much as I did and the sparkling clean sections of the drain made it all worth it.

Catch every drop you can

There is more work to be done before the water finds its way to the lake without any obstacles, and we are going to stay on this case until that happens. BBMP officials promised continued support and I intend to work with them and hold them accountable. Before we did the activity, I counted 10 obstacles to the lake, now I count 3.  

Every drop of rain water is precious and when we have a beautiful lake (Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust) it is our duty to ensure it finds its way to the lake. I hope you find this interesting and inspiring enough to make a start in your own area! 

Our city is blessed with great weather, plenty of rainfall and hundreds of active citizens, quietly making a difference in their own way, in some part of this mega city. My appeal to all of them, once again, is to set aside the next three weekends of June and focus on storm water drains and rain water harvesting. If there is a lake, great, if not, perhaps we can dig harvest pits in various locations to charge the ground water.

Think global but ACT LOCAL! BBMP is your friend! Let’s catch some rain this monsoon!