The desire of citizens for effective governance has enabled a stunning victory for the Congress, the current government in power. But are they in danger of losing the goodwill placed in them by the people? For instance, the latest suggestion to allegedly ease the globally notorious traffic congestion in Bengaluru is to create double-decker flyovers along the proposed metro lines so that private vehicles go above the metro. If there is a metro along the route already, where is the need for a flyover above it? Is this not a reversal of the idea of elevated corridors, which was put on the back burner when the tunnel roads idea was proposed?
The tunnel roads, which is currently on the back burner, or the elevated corridors are being planned at a cost of above Rs. 50,000 crore. However, both are facing much opposition. Experts believe it is not possible to use the Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) model for such projects given the high cost to the contractor, and the government itself will have to fund it.
Ineffectual, costly projects
What economic justification can there be to create underground tunnels or elevated corridors, above the metro, that will carry about 1,500 people per hour. The Metro already has a carrying capacity of 60,000 people per hour and the suburban rail about 90,000 people.
Meanwhile, a Climate Action Plan is being proposed for Bengaluru. Its aims and objectives will definitely be contradictory to the idea of tunnel roads and elevated corridors!
Is decongestion the aim of these costly projects or is the aim to serve the ever-hungry 20-lakh private car-owners of the city for signal-free roads? If decongestion is the aim, civil service rules would require a government official opting for these most uneconomical decisions to be penalised for causing loss to the government. One would like to see the cost-benefit analysis of these projects to see how they are being justified as well as their environmental impact and cost.
Congestion tax, which is a sure way of reducing congestion, is to be considered after 25 years, if at all, as per the government. And the paradox is that it is the newly-constituted Bengaluru Metropolitan Land Transport Authority (BMLTA) that is supposed to develop the Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) for Bengaluru through extensive consultation of all stakeholders. Is this tunnel road project or the double-decker flyover, part of the BMLTA’s CMP, prepared through due process?
Suggestions for better utilisation of resources
Why not create these tunnel roads to fulfil the long-pending demand for the circular suburban rail, which would be the real solution for easing congestion. It is heartening that recently newspapers have announced that the railways will be taking up the circular rail for Bengaluru.
What other better things could be done with the Rs. 50,000 crore to make Bengaluru and the rest of the state more liveable? Here are just a few examples:
A Rs. 106-crore 300-bed multi-speciality hospital built by BBMP in Govindarajanagar Assembly constituency stands tall but unused due to shortage of doctors and specialists. Meanwhile, there are several wards in Bengaluru without a single Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC) and in most areas one PHC doctor rotates between three PHCs.
It is significant that the High Court has registered a suo motu PIL, based on a media report that there is a shortage of 16,500 medical professionals in government hospitals/PHCs across the State, in addition to a shortage of PHCs and medical infrastructure in rural areas.
The High Court noted that there is a deficit of 723 doctors, 7,492 nurses, 1,517 lab technicians, 1,512 pharmacists, 1,752 assistants and 3,253 group D employees.
Incidentally, it is being reported that 6,766 medical and PG students have registered for compulsory rural service. However, the State is unable to recruit all of them as the number of vacancies in rural areas is allegedly only 1,897.
Given the above situation in urban areas, why not employ the 1,354 MBBS graduates and the 2,245 PG students, who have not been accommodated for compulsory rural service, in urban PHCs? It is estimated that all that is required for accommodating all those who have applied is Rs. 290.4 crore, which amounts to just 0.6% of Rs. 50,000 crore.
The expenditure to set right the above anomalies in health care would be entirely justified as Karnataka has allocated only 4.9% (Rs. 14,761 crore) of its total expenditure towards health in its 2023-24 budget. This is less than the average allocation of 6.3% for health by all states, as per an analysis of Karnataka’s 2023-24 budget by PRS Legislative Research (PRS).
There is also a decline of 1.1% on the state’s health expenditure when compared to the expenditure of 6% in 2021-22. Allocating the required budget for health care would not only help the poor, who are currently falling below the poverty line, while trying to meet their health needs, but it would also contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
There is another suo motu PIL pending in the High Court where the issue of poor infrastructure in government schools of Karnataka in violation of RTE Act norms, especially of toilets and drinking water, has evoked the wrath of the court. Here too, the 2023-24 budget has allocated just 11% (Rs. 33,271 crore) of its expenditure on education as per the analysis by PRS Legislative Research, which is lower than the average allocation of 14.8% for education by States in 2022-23. It is also a reduction of 1.4% from the revised estimate of 12.4% expenditure made in Karnataka’s budget for 2022-23.
The High Court has also enunciated the importance of education by asking the government, “Have you ever seen Ambedkar without a book in his hand?” But sadly, the government has reduced the annual scholarships to construction workers’ children by the Building & Other Construction Workers’ Welfare (BOCWW) Board by 75%.
The scholarships had been modified and raised to a decent level as per a directive of the High Court. They have now been reduced, for instance, from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 1,100 for classes 1 to 5; from Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 1,250 for classes 6 to 7; and from Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 1,350 for class 8. This has been done while the Board is sitting upon Rs. 7,000 crore unspent funds.
The reason being given is that the scholarships should be on par with scholarships of other departments. If other departments are being niggardly and are giving peanuts to marginalised children for enabling them to fulfil their Fundamental Right to Education, the solution is to raise the scholarships in the other departments to a decent level and not indulge in a race to the bottom.
Child care allowance is a necessary component of social security, which should be adequate enough to enable a child to have a decent standard of living as per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). In no way can that be assured with only about Rs. 1,100 to Rs. 1,350 per year. So here is another area where money earmarked for the tunnel or elevated roads can be put to better use.
Doubling the current expenditure for health and education from the current 15% (11% plus 4.9%) to the recommended level of 30% of expenditure by doing away with the road projects would provide to all the seven crore people excellent facilities for free health care and education, the prime components for a decent life.
For a clean environment, it was in 2012 that the High Court ordered that every one of the 198 wards of Bengaluru should have wet waste processing facilities ‘within three months’ so that they become ‘zero waste wards’. And there would be no need to transport waste out of a ward. Instead of giving effect to this High Court order, the paradox is that the State government wishes to relocate even the few existing waste processing plants further away, outside Bengaluru city, because local populations around these plants are complaining about the stench. In what way is transporting waste up to 50 or 60 kilometres out of the city compatible with the proposed Climate Action Plan or SDGs?
Experts have confirmed that there are technological advancements that could help bring down the stench from these plants. Along with that measure, would not providing free bio-gas to the residents around these plants, from the bio-methanation of garbage, win their support for it?
A decentralised wet waste processing unit in Kallapu, Ullal, has shown that the total space required for the management of wet waste of 500 kgs, servicing about 500 houses in the ward, is just 600 square feet.
Meanwhile, there are plans by the government to erect a 250-metre tall skydeck, which would be the tallest viewing tower in India. 8-10 acres of land (4,35,600 sq ft.), in the heart of Bengaluru, are to be identified for it. In that case, why is it difficult to find 1,35,000 sq. ft. (600 x 225) for putting up wet waste processing units of 600 sq. ft. in each of the 225 BBMP wards?
No reports on Brand Bengaluru
There is also the outlandish suggestion being made to bring Kanakapura, which is located around 45 kilometres from Bengaluru, under Bengaluru Urban district on the ground that this would grow the wealth of the landowners in Kanakapura ten-fold. So, are we reducing governance to a business enterprise? With Bengaluru bursting at the seams already, having reached its carrying capacity and unable to provide basic rights to even water and sewerage, how sustainable is expanding it further?
Though several alleged public consultations have been held on Brand Bengaluru and more than 70,000 suggestions have been received from enthusiastic citizens, no reports are available on the Brand Bengaluru or urban development department’s website on what these suggestions were and which of these is being accepted or rejected. Are the citizens expressing the need for any of the above top-down plans?
Our neighbouring state as an example
Rather than going to Singapore to study its tunnel roads or double-decker flyovers and make top-down plans, the concerned authorities should go to our immediate neighbouring State of Kerala and see how they are empowering local self-governments, both urban and rural, with guidelines and tool-kits to embed local Climate Action Plans and Disaster Management Plans into their Master Plans.
They are also enabling community-led groups to prepare bottom-up plans to eradicate extreme poverty, make Kerala garbage-free by 2024, and localise SDGs. These local groups are being empowered to address the crucial issue of employment by developing micro-enterprises, providing jobs and social security and making Kerala a compassionate society that cares for the very last person.
A change in this direction may help to retain the goodwill shown by citizens to the current party in power.