Planning for debate

I thought I’d begin my blog on Citizen Matters with the question: does the citizen really matter? Recent experiences in Bangalore suggest that they do not, especially in the context of public policy.

The ongoing brouhaha over the Bangalore International Airport (BIAL) is only the latest example of the total lack of transparency and complete disregard for citizens’ rights to information and self-determination that mark planning (if any) for the city’s development. This aspect of the issue has received far less attention so far than more obviously emotive ones such as inadequate infrastructure for effective connectivity. Although reams of newsprint have been devoted to the airports controversy, I can remember only one article, Tale of two airports by A. Ravindra and Ashwin Mahesh (The Times of India, 10 March 2008), that highlighted the importance of public debate on the subject and its relative absence until the eleventh hour.

While concerns about connectivity and exclusivity have dominated recent discussions, only lately have questions about air traffic control received due attention – thanks mainly to ATC professionals and aviation authorities. I had flagged the issue a few months ago in a brief piece on air safety (Bangalore Mirror, 10 December 2007), pointing out that the BIAL website does not provide many details about ATC facilities and suggesting that I was probably not the only traveller who would appreciate more information, not to mention reassurance, on this and other valid concerns. But it was only when the reported lack of ATC preparedness threatened to delay the opening of the new airport that this vital issue began to receive some public airing.

And even now most citizens are in the dark about how air traffic is going to be managed with three ATC facilities (attached to HAL, BIAL and the Air Force base at Yelahanka) soon dividing up the skies above Bangalore. And what these multiple centres of authority will mean for both safety and congestion (read flight delays).

Why is it that even at this stage nobody seems to be offering or demanding a White Paper on the airports imbroglio (and, for that matter, on the equally controversial Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor) so that citizens have access to all relevant facts, as well as the arguments advanced by the various warring sides, within one authoritative and easily available document? It is clearly difficult for informed public opinion to emerge and for citizens to be in a position to intervene constructively in public affairs in the absence of comprehensive, credible information.

That is, of course, merely the first step. We all know what happened to citizens’ inputs on the Comprehensive Draft Master Plan – 2015, the progenitor of the Revised Master Plan approved by the state Cabinet in June 2007. As several citizens’ groups have pointed out, the RMP disregarded both public and official feedback on the draft CMP unveiled in 2005. Several sections actually contradict the recommendations of the advisory committee set up by the state government as well as the opinions of hundreds of citizens who took the time and trouble to respond to the draft. This clearly made a mockery of all tall claims to a consultative process.

Yet the RMP, which represents the latest official attempt to "plan" Bangalore’s future growth and development, has serious, long-term and, it turns out, largely negative implications for the city. What’s more, it obviously reflects neither expert nor public opinion. Surely the city’s beleaguered residents have a right to ensure that there will be no further deterioration in the quality of their lives?

Policy decisions made in secrecy, with little or no public information or debate, are likely to be ill-considered and ill-advised. Often such policies are eventually withdrawn in the wake of public outrage and outcry (witness the Sakrama scheme and possibly, soon, the imminent CVS property tax system). At the same time, policy decisions taken and enforced with no public input tend to increase frustration, cynicism and disinterest in public affairs among citizens who justifiably feel that they have no say even in matters that directly affect their daily lives — despite living in an avowed democracy. None of these outcomes can be good for life in the city (not to mention the health of our democracy).

I remember what an urban planner told some of us years ago, when environmentalists and concerned members of the public were protesting against the take-over of wetlands near Koramangala for the construction of the National Games Village. According to him, the government has a legal obligation to hold public hearings before initiating any project that involves changes in the city’s development plan. He said that what citizens ought to be doing is to assert their right to information and insist that the authorities follow due process before taking any action on such matters, as well as major infrastructure development projects. As he pointed out, there is little point in opposing a development when it is virtually a fait accompli. What is required is an insistence on prior information and consultation so that public intervention can be meaningful and effective.

Those were the days before the Right to Information Act, 2005. Now that the RTI is in place it can conceivably further strengthen citizen action to ensure that the public has access to accurate and timely information about major plans and projects.

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