Can Bengaluru teach other cities to say ‘no’ to bad planning?

The recent large-scale protests against a proposed steel flyover in Bengaluru has been in the news nationally. Could this large scale mobilisation of people in the cause of sustainable urban mobility be a trend-setter?

‘No’ means ‘No’… ‘No’ in itself is a complete sentence, it does not need further explanation.

This now-famous dialogue from the movie Pink has been resonating across Bangalore over the past weeks as citizens from all walks of life have come together, in various ways, to vociferously assert their objection to a steel flyover that will connect the heart of the city, Basaveshwara Circle, to Hebbal. The 8.5-km flyover will purportedly ease the commute to the airport in a city chronically besieged with traffic woes, a claim that not many seem to have bought into.

The rejection has not entirely been without explanation, though. From lack of planning and inclusivity, to scant disregard for heritage and environmental impact, and even deficits in transparency, a variety of reasons have been cited by large sections of civil society that have come forward to reject this idea that is envisioned to benefit an exclusive few who travel to the airport.

Protests against the flyover

The idea of this particular flyover goes back to the days when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in Karnataka. The project got an official stamp during the Siddaramaiah-led Congress regime in the 2014-15 budget speech. In July 2016, sensing the strong opposition of the citizens, urban planners, engineers and environmentalists, the government had put it on hold but by September, media reports indicated that the project was very much back on the anvil.

But if the project had met with opposition earlier, the city has been boiling over since its reported resurrection. On Sunday, October 16, 2016, close to 5000 citizens came out on the streets, standing together hand-in-hand to form a human chain, holding a placard to say NO to the flyover.

Pic: Shree DN

Pic: Shree DN

The links in the chain constituted representation from eclectic walks of life. From celebrities, to long time civic activists, to the homemaker with her child, everyone seemed to be raring to convey their angst and rejection of this ill-conceived and ill-planned quick fix solution to mobility issues in the city.

One such citizen, Ramesh Srikantan first heard of the proposed flyover in newspaper articles written two years ago – around October 2014. “Many of the newspapers which are now critical of the issue initially lauded the project,” he recollects. But Bangalore, well known for its culture of adjustment has been abused way too long, he feels.

“There is too much complacency and for a long time the civic authorities have been basically getting away with murder. There seems to be very little accountability for civic projects and essentially every one of them has been a poorly planned disaster – from Hebbal flyover, which is not designed for merging traffic, to Yeshwantpur flyover, where there is a huge jam every morning, to the mother of all Bangalore disasters – the legendary Silkboard Junction,” rues Ramesh.

There were others like engineer and civic enthusiast Sanjay Vijayraghavan who explained poignantly, in a piece written days before the protest, why he would be joining. Lamenting among other things the absence of a vision and a plan for the city, Sanjay wrote “Think about it. None of us would go about building our own homes without a well thought out plan and without consideration for factors like water and ventilation and lighting and flow of people and energy. We would certainly not agree to build it as per the contractor’s or architect’s specification without our requirements factored in. After all, we are paying! Why should we be willing to accept such an approach for our home, this great city of Bengaluru?”

Open letters, ‘no-votes’ and support across the seas

The movement against the flyover project has been relentless. A letter addressed to the Governor of Karnataka was submitted at the Rajbhavan by citizens protesting against the steel flyover on October 21, 2016.

Infuriated and frustrated by the government stance that said 73% of citizens (219 out of 299) had voted in favour of the flyover project, a group calling itself ‘Citizens for Bengaluru’ has gone all out to substantiate and prove the real sentiments of a majority towards this project. Over the weekend of October 23rd-24th, they organised a public opinion collection drive, with sealed ballot boxes placed in different public spots. Citizens against the project were asked to register their ‘no-vote’ by putting it on a slip of paper and dropping it into the polling box.

Expert panel discussions, consultations, viral video campaigns and tree vigils have seen the engagement of thousands in the cause. And not just from the city itself. Bengaluru-born-and-bred professional Shashank Rao tracks the developments keenly from the distant US where his work has taken him. Not so long ago, Shashank had been actively involved in the anti-corruption movement ‘Corruption Saaku!’ and had come in close contact with social change leaders in the city.

Still in close touch, he follows the current stir through them and designs cartoons, posters and memes to popularise the premise of the ongoing movement. “I trust we are heading in the right direction,” he says, “through a multi-pronged awareness approach in mainstream media, people participation in campaigns, public education on the project, communication to our elected representatives and legal formalities to ensure accountability.”

The rise of a movement?

This huge outpouring of citizen sentiment is unique for a reason. Our cities are now used to seeing candle light vigils against human and gender rights issues, or even the occasional anti-corruption or anti-inflation rally, but it is perhaps for the first time that the cause of sustainability and civic planning has caught the urban imagination in such a big way.

In rapidly urbanising India, the share of problems faced by our cities is mammoth, mostly arising from unprecedented migration, unplanned growth and the infrastructural challenges that these typically create. From waste management to air quality to mobility issues, sustainability gaps are glaring and obvious. But even so, dialogue around these issues have largely been restricted among expert groups or select civil society groups, many of which are seen working in silos.

Given this historical trend, it is well worth asking the question if present-day Bengaluru is in fact paving the way for more serious and sustained citizen engagement in civic issues and if this can bring out a much larger change in the long run.

It is not as if other cities have not raised their voices in matters of civic infrastructure and sustainability. In Mumbai, the controversial Pedder Road flyover was scrapped in the face of stiff public opposition, most notably that voiced by living legend Lata Mangeshkar. In December 2015, hundreds of Pune residents hit the streets against a proposed road widening by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) that would destroy over 2,000 trees besides creating more traffic issues. More recently, in September 2016, over a hundred Gurugram residents were seen congregating to protest an upcoming CNG station in the locality, which was expected to aggravate the already grave traffic situation.

There would be other examples as well, but more often than not, citizen movements or protests have been sporadic and restricted to neighbourhood-specific issues. One of the reasons for this could be the systemic deficiencies themselves.

As Raj Cherubal, Director of Chennai City Connect, an initiative that brings together various urban stakeholders outside the government onto a single platform, says, “Unless a city has the official capacity to plan and communicate those plans to the citizens, engagement can become frustrating, since you can’t see much real progress. Today we are all in reactive mode because of this. The system proposes something – good, bad or ugly – and we all have to react. Most people will not have the time and energy to keep looking out for issues to react to. The current outpouring in Bangalore is heartening, to see so many citizens stand up to bad projects. I sure hope this will continue.”

But is this momentum really likely to sustain itself? Ramesh Srikantan points out, “It would be good if there is more citizen involvement in local issues. It seems to me that this particular issue has captured the imagination of regular upper middle class Bengalureans, so one can hope that that would be enough to sustain the momentum. The unfortunate thing is that while these people may oppose it strongly, they do not form a significant vote bank, so the government at some level does not care for them. Ironically, at another level, the project has been designed for them, that is for people going to the airport.”

Can citizen movements for sustainability flourish in India?

Madhav Pai, India Director for the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities and also Director of Embarq India, says, “Transportation is not a linear problem, amenable to easy solutions. The demographic character of Bengaluru ensures that there are a lot more people who have the exposure to the debates and dialogues around sustainable mobility. Technology is a huge enabler.  It is also unmissable that traffic congestion in the city has reached a stage where it is a grave irritant for a majority of the people, every day of their lives. It is perhaps the extent of the problem that has made citizens explore it in depth and be emotively aroused by the campaign against a poor solution.”

Having said that, Madhav feels that a blanket statement that suggests other cities are not engaged enough in issues of sustainability or sustainable mobility in particular, may not be fair.

“Cities are not made for cars; to prioritise that is to limit the biggest public spaces in a city to a minority among the public — the more the number of people who realise that, higher will be their engagement in issues such as these. And a number of Indian cities are in fact waking up to that. Look at the Raahgiri movement that was initiated in Gurgaon in 2013 and has since spread to a number of cities — major streets are closed to automobiles on a particular day of the week, during a particular span, and opened up for recreational and community activities,” he points out.

Besides effective citizen engagement also requires certain systemic conditions to be fulfilled. Acknowledging the fact that Bengaluru has been one of the leaders when it comes to people’s participation in civic issues, Raj Cherubal points out, “As India becomes more urbanised there is bound to be more pressure on the public to respond to urban concerns. But here too the dialogues have to be based on facts, data, global trends and advancements in sustainability, inclusivity, and other ideas. Data and analysis in such large urban areas is not easily available and that is where the city government needs to have the capacity to identify options, undertake cutting edge analysis, etc. It is unfair to expect citizens to do this as it takes a lot of effort, funds, coordination – even after all kinds of crowdsourcing innovations.”

He also emphasises the impracticality of citizens having to engage with multiple, disparate government departments and agencies “You need a city level organisation that does integrated planning among all these and other relevant agencies. Today, that is missing,” he says.

The latter could however be a reality for Bengaluru if the broader mobility plan is implemented. The city was supposed to have a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) that would envision and execute the plan for the city and coordinate between various agencies such as RTO, Metro, buses and other modes of transport, leading to decongestion of the city traffic.

That body, however, was never formed and as the government fiddled with band-aid fixes, mobility issues made life really miserable for the daily commuter. To the extent that the flyover proposal appears to have just led to the snapping of all tolerance, causing thousands, irrespective of their backgrounds and motivations, to band together and ask:

  • How long will you go on building more and more flyovers and keep shifting traffic from one point to another?
  • Where is the larger mobility plan for the city?
  • What will Bengaluru look like 20 years from now?
  • Can we see a plan on the table and then see how this flyover fits that plan?

The fight against the steel flyover seems to have a long and arduous road ahead. The latest development has been the imposition of an interim stay order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for four months. A media report suggests that the government may be open to consultations, but the project is far from being scrapped.

But to quote once again from the judge’s verdict in Pink, a beginning has indeed been made. As India marches ahead on the irreversible journey towards more urbanisation, one can only hope that other cities will also awaken to the possibilities of participation.

Shree DN, Associate Editor of Citizen Matters Bangalore also contributed to the story.

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