Need to make Bengaluru a 15-minute city: Rajeev Gowda, Lok Sabha Congress candidate

The Bangalore North INC candidate plans to reduce carbon footprint and build blue-green infrastructure for the city's betterment.

An election campaign in this gruelling summer has been an exhausting exercise even for the most seasoned politicians. Rajeev Gowda, the Congress Party candidate for Bangalore North constituency, admitted as much. But he says, it also highlights the urgency for the measures to combat climate change and his plans for the constituency, should he be elected. 

After more than two decades in politics, the former Rajya Sabha MP is all set to fight it out for a Lok Sabha berth for the first time.          

We caught up with the former professor of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) at his residence to speak about his party manifesto, his plans for Bengaluru and the challenges of collaboration between civil society organisations and the government. And, of course, the politics of elections. 

Excerpts from the interview:  

This is your first election campaign as a candidate. How has the experience and the response been so far?

It has been very exciting, somewhat exhausting. When we are doing a padayatra in the heat, I don’t want to wear a cap because I want people to see me. So, the heat does take its toll. In the last two elections, there was a ‘Modi’ wave, which I don’t see in this election. There is a silent anti-incumbency, which isn’t overt because people are fearful. And this election comes close to the state election which was won by us. Of course, there are people who said they voted for the Congress in the state and will vote for the Prime Minister at the Centre. My job is to neutralise that sentiment. I could have taken the route of the Rajya Sabha, but this is my personal freedom movement, given my family’s history in the Indian freedom movement to ensure India remains a democracy.

Rajeev Gowda
Bangalore North constituency candidate, Rajeev Gowda. Pic: X/@rajeevgowda

Your manifesto had reintroduced the Nyay scheme from 2019, which previously promised Rs 72,000 and now promises Rs 1 lakh as a direct benefit to poor families. Rahul Gandhi has also promised a national socio-economic census to figure out how many families will come under this gambit. You have announced the scheme, but have you figured out its cost or how it will be paid for?

You should also think about the benefits. In the last ten years, we have seen the prices of LPG cylinders, fuel and other essential commodities double, while the incomes of the people haven’t doubled. The Prime Minister loves to talk about our fastest-growing economy, but under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, 80 crore people were given free food grains in 2023. This inequality persists and we need to alleviate the stress from those who need the benefits the most. The Karnataka government had, therefore, announced the five schemes — Shakti, Annabhagya, Gruha Jyothi, Gruhalakshmi and Yuva Nidhi. This is the social safety net. We are upping the game with the national manifesto. These measures are expensive. But just like in Karnataka, we can afford this. We already have a database of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families and ration cards holders, from where we can start.

You spoke about the welfare schemes presented by the State Government. There are only two ways to pay for it — increase your revenue or increase your borrowing. We have already crossed the mark of 1 lakh crore debt and our State budget this year has a revenue deficit. In order to bridge this gap, the state government has announced a steep increase in property taxes based on the guidance value of one’s property. In Bengaluru, this is going to hit the middle class the most, especially in the older areas of the city…

When I was vice-chair of the Planning Commission (State Institute for the Transformation of Karnataka), I had put my foot down about this. Bengaluru is also a pensioner’s paradise. How are people going to pay? So, we did put a cap of 20% on the property tax. But, those who don’t pay property taxes need to be brought into the net. However, I am not sure about the guidance value being the appropriate measure. Previously, it was on the rental income. We are all concerned about it and I certainly am concerned about how to deal with it.

How do you answer the charge that this is irresponsible governance?

Is it responsible governance to let people starve or stay unemployed? To let one set of people prosper while the rest find it difficult to make ends meet? We are going to have to make it work.

I will now delve into Bangalore specifics. The manner of urban development has been abysmally bad here. Your constituency has especially been challenging. You have spoken about 15-minute cities, the blue-green cities. Can you elaborate on this and the vision you have? 

We haven’t had a master plan for years now…[which Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) does] I know! We have to change that. What is urban sprawl today? Take ten thousand acres of farmland, which may not be fertile and turn them into residential sites. This is not the way to grow a city sustainably. What we need are 15-minute cities. Earlier, it was about having a mix of commercial and residential establishments in a locality. Going forward, we need to mix educational, health care, entertainment and sports facilities — all of them in a hub with middle density housing around it. We need to move away from individual housing units to multiple dwelling units, which will have less of an environmental footprint. The density will allow for better public transport and other amenities — a better quality of life. That is what we really need.

The State government has brought in rules to ensure that apartments with more than 120 units have to mandatorily have an STP, also ensuring that older apartments which did not plan for this are not penalised. This kind of housing allows for amenities to be incorporated, which people with single dwelling units will demand from the government.

There is scope for rainwater harvesting, greenery, double piping for greywater usage. If you reimagine housing, it has a much larger impact. If one reimagines planning in this manner, wherein it just takes 15 minutes for residents to walk to the hub of a locality, then we will be able to minimise vehicular stress. You will also minimise the number of people travelling across the city. When it comes to the ever-increasing demand for housing, we have partly been saved by private builders, but that comes at an economic cost. But, not enough attention has been paid to the blue green aspect. 

What is the blue-green aspect you speak about? 

The blue-green aspect is to respect nature, to enhance green cover, to protect our water bodies — the lakes and rajakaluves that we have inherited. A lot of them have been destroyed and we have to find a way to revive them. The old water pathways are changing because of the paving and buildings. We have to be proactive while planning for climate change challenges — if there is heavy rain, how do you prevent flooding? How do we harness our natural terrain to allow us to harvest that water? The previous Siddaramaiah government did an amazing job with the KC Valley and Hebbal-Nagavara projects.

Bengaluru was ground zero for a serious water shortage in recent times. What do you think can be done to ensure this can be reversed?

We pay a very heavy price for our water in Bengaluru. We get our water from Cauvery and everywhere I go, I get more demands for it. But the truth is that there is only so much Cauvery water available. We cannot manufacture it. My question to people is always — “How do you manage the water that is available?” Are they doing any rainwater harvesting and ground water recharging? This must be done even in our individual homes. Each of us has to do our part. But of course, we need to control the revenue sites and that will require some significant push against forces like the builder lobby, but we can persuade them.

Do you think people in Bengaluru have a sense of over-entitlement to water and other resources?

Yes, in some ways they do. That’s because people have not thought about their roles in preserving water. These are basic needs of any society and the assumption is that the government will provide it. Yes, we will provide it, but we need to work on this together. The government and citizens need to be partners, especially when it comes to water and waste management. 

Read more: Will prioritise ORR, suburban rail: Mansoor Ali Khan, Congress candidate, Bangalore Central

If you have to give me three points to ensure water security for Bengaluru…

-Water harvesting through our network of lakes and rajakaluves on a governmental scale. Every place, which has greenery needs to be used as a recharge area

– Double piping wherever possible for better management of water

– The big lakes, which have been drained to be desilted, need to be filled with treated water and this has to be done fast

-We need to protect our water sources from contamination. The Vrishabhavathi river has been foaming since my college days 

-We have been addressing the problems of Bengaluru but we also need to think more positively; because living is also about the quality of life, not just surviving. Beyond the Chowdiah Memorial Hall, we have no significant common cultural and social spaces in North Bangalore. So there is a lot of work to do.  

Mobility has also been an issue. Your government came up with the elevated corridor and now they have come up with the idea of tunnelling to build roads in Bengaluru. Apart from private vehicles, are you not looking at other sustainable modes of transport? 

I have been a huge supporter of the suburban rail and public transport, which I myself use. I sometimes walk home from nearby metro stations. But crossing the street, navigating disappearing footpaths is a problem. 

The Congress Party has always talked about local governance. There have been successive governments led by both the BJP and the Congress in the State, yet there has been no conduct of municipal elections. Can we expect them soon? 

We should be able to hold these elections immediately after the Parliamentary Elections. 

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