Public consultations mandatory for BDA projects; for others, citizens seek court intervention

Are all government agencies required to hold public consultations for their infrastructure projects? How much say do citizens really have?

Over the years, Bengalureans have protested against a number of infrastructure projects that they believed went against public interest. For example the protests against the proposed elevated road corridors in 2019. Or the recent protests against metro construction on All Saints’ Church land.

While the protests mentioned above were successful, many others were not. Citizens often are unable to get government agencies to listen to their concerns. In many cases, they become aware of the details of a project only when construction starts.

But public consultations at multiple stages are mandatory for public infrastructure projects as per the Karnataka Town and Country Planning (KTCP) Act, 1961.

As per the Act, the BDA (Bangalore Development Authority) is required to hold public consultations every time it prepares the city’s Revised Master Plan (RMP). The RMP, valid for the next 10 years after approval, specifies the city’s land use zoning, road and traffic patterns, areas marked for public use or future development, etc.

While the RMP would include major upcoming projects, the KTCP Act requires BDA to hold separate public consultations before they start work on individual projects.

Following are some key provisions in the Act to involve the public in the city planning process.

Preparing the RMP

  • First, BDA has to make a ‘declaration of intention’ to prepare the RMP even before it starts its land survey. BDA should then publish a notice of this declaration in the gazette as well as in one or more local newspapers, calling for suggestions from the public within the next 60 days.
  • A copy of the map showing the areas included in the master plan should be made available to the public at BDA or BBMP offices.
  • Once the public suggestions come in, BDA should consider and incorporate these in the draft plan as it seems fit.
  • Once BDA sends the draft plan to the state government, the latter can make changes and return it to the BDA.
  • BDA should then publish the draft plan and reports by notification, and give 60 days for the public to file objections.
  • BDA should consider the objections and resubmit the plan to the state government, with recommendations for any modification as per citizens’ objections.
  • State government can then approve the plan, though it has the authority to accept or reject BDA’s recommendations.
  • BDA will then publish the approved final master plan and reports, and display these in its offices.
Draft planning map of the city displayed by BDA at a public consultation in 2017
The draft planning map of the city displayed at a public consultation BDA held in 2017, for preparation of RMP 2031. File Pic: Akshatha M

But citizens have strongly criticised BDA’s preparation of the RMP and the way it holds public consultations. For example, there is no transparency on whether BDA is considering a public suggestion at all, or why it accepts/rejects a suggestion. In many cases, BDA has not considered citizens’ suggestions at all, says activist Kathyayini Chamaraj. Besides, the KTCP Act allows the state government to make changes in the plan ignoring BDA’s recommendations, she adds.

In any case, BDA should not be planning for the city, argues Kathyayini. As per the 74th Constitutional Amendment of 1993, metropolitan areas like Bengaluru should have a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) to prepare a development plan for the region. Members of the MPC would comprise elected representatives from local bodies in the region and officials from multiple government agencies.

Read more: Why Bengaluru’s planning process is against the spirit of our Constitution

Bengaluru currently has an MPC, but it’s dysfunctional. Hence the BDA, which has no elected representatives, continues to prepare plans for the city. RMP 2015 and RMP 2031 (now withdrawn) had been stuck in legal quagmires because of this.

Consultation for individual projects

Individual public interest projects are categorised as ‘town planning schemes’ in the KTCP Act. Such projects include construction and modification of roads, bridges and buildings, reclaiming low-lying areas, building drainage and sewerage facilities, lighting, water supply, etc.

  • Like in the case of RMP, the BDA should publish the declaration of intention to prepare a town planning scheme. A copy of the plan showing the area to be included in the scheme should be open for public inspection at the BDA office. The state government can also order the BDA to prepare a draft scheme for any project.
  • BDA should prepare and publish the draft scheme within 12 months from the declaration of intention. The draft scheme should contain details of the land and the purpose for which it will be used, description of all details of the scheme, and a cost estimate.
  • Once BDA publishes the draft scheme, any person affected by the scheme can write, within a month, to the BDA with his objections. BDA can modify the scheme after considering these objections, and only then send it to the state government for approval.
  • If the state government approves the scheme, it will also specify where the final scheme should be displayed for public inspection.

Holding individual officers liable for avoiding consultations

In 2010, the Karnataka High Court ordered that the state government and BDA should comply with the Sections 29, 30, 31, 32 and 34 of the KTCP Act. These sections mandate that the BDA should seek objections from the public before finalising individual projects under town planning schemes.

The order came in a PIL filed by the NGO Environment Support Group and others against the BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd) taking over a portion of the land in Lalbagh for Metro construction. The order also specified that any official who did not follow these provisions would be held accountable.

However, public consultation remains a contentious issue.

For example, when the steel flyover project was planned in 2017, no public consultations were held initially, says Tara Krishnaswamy of the collective CfB (Citizens for Bengaluru). “Then we ourselves held a consultation where around 11,000 people voted and almost everybody said ‘no’ to the project,” says Tara. “Then the government was forced to say that they would hold public consultation over email. And then they claimed they got some 200 emails in favour of the project.” However, the government ultimately had to drop the project due to widespread protests.

Read more: Citizens write letter to Governor on steel flyover

What about projects not under the BDA?

The KTCP Act defines BDA as the planning authority for Bengaluru, and mandates it to hold consultations for projects. But when it comes to implementation, many projects are handled by other agencies like BBMP and BMRCL. What happens in such cases?

“Sometimes they do hold consultations, but it’s not a very structured process as mandated by the law,” says Alok Prasanna, co-founder of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru. He adds these agencies are not required to hold public consultations as per their respective laws (such as the BBMP Act).

Given that different agencies work in silos and have separate laws governing them, there is much confusion around holding public consultations. Kathyayini says the MPC could be a solution to this problem since it would integrate multiple agencies.

However, for now, activists are using the KTCP Act and court judgements to push government agencies to hold consultations for all projects in the city. “It is mostly court judgements that make agencies take citizens’ comments on board,” says Alok.

So what’s the solution?

Even for projects for which BDA holds consultations, there are several issues. While there is little transparency in what BDA does with public suggestions, another issue is that the consultations are not done on a scale that corresponds to the size of the project. For example, a major road project may have participation of just 200 people, or suggestions may be accepted only by email. In addition to low participation, such exercises exclude marginalised groups who are usually the most affected, says Tara. It’s usually the influential or middle class segments who are able to get their voices heard.

So, can public consultations be effective at all?

Tara suggests that the government should evolve guidelines for a bottom-up public consultation process, especially in the case of large projects affecting multiple wards. “In the case of small projects at the ward level, the ward committees are anyway supposed to have a budgetary discussion and to supervise works,” Tara points out. “For large projects, corporators should be designated to get inputs from their respective ward committees. The top five suggestions from each ward committee should then be prioritised, and escalated to the zonal and constituency levels.”

The ward committees can reach out to vulnerable groups – like slum residents or street vendors – to participate in the meetings. This way, wider participation is ensured, everyone is aware of what is said at the meeting as the minutes would be available on the BBMP website, and there would be transparency on whether the inputs are considered later, says Tara.

Kathyayini says there are already provisions for the MPC to create guidelines on ward-level public consultations. But this has not happened given that the MPC is not functional.

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