Road-widening for whose benefit?

The violence of development-induced displacement, which until now was only a distant phenomenon affecting unknown tribals in the Narmada Valley or faceless farmers in Nandigram, is now being experienced by Bangalore’s citizens — a result of the government’s decision to widen more than 200 roads to decongest Bangalore’s traffic-clogged roads. Placid middle-class citizens from all over Bangalore suddenly find themselves in the unfamiliar roles of activists, holding placards and shouting slogans.
While these urban citizens are beginning to understand the decades-long debate raging in the country on the current paradigm of development and the victims’ resistance to the resultant displacement without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), the government appears to be blissfully oblivious of these debates. This is evident from their blind hope that by throwing pamphlets about TDRs (Transferable Development Rights) into the compounds of residents, their job is done and that lakhs of people will voluntarily displace themselves and allow the government to go ahead with its grandiose scheme.

Public interest?
A minister recently stated that road-widening is in ‘public interest’. One would like to know how this ‘public interest’ has been defined and determined. In its essence, the rationale for road-widening appears to be somewhat like this:  the modern-day cavaliers are coming charging on their steeds — sorry, no — the yuppies and nouveau riche are driving their Honda motorbikes or BMW cars down the narrow road and want to reach their home 15 minutes earlier — perhaps to watch the gala opening of the IPL or FIFA or some such series on their flat-screen TVs. But all these trees and people are in their way: the huge rain-tree giving shade to the cobbler; the pavement-dweller under his plastic sheet, the tailor in a shop bequeathed to him by his grandfather, the tenant running a grocery shop and the sales-boy working there, the retired gentleman in his small home built with his life-time savings, etc.

So, to accommodate the speedsters, the tree has to be cut and all the others have to pronto abandon their earnings, shops and homes and make way for road-widening. The shop or home-owners may leave clutching pieces of paper called DRCs (Development Rights Certificates) but the rest go empty-handed.

Officials are conveying the impression that TDRs are the only choice. But this is not true as accepting TDRs is voluntary and persons not opting for it have to be compensated as per the Land Acquisition Act. Slum-dwellers living for decades on certain roads are also being forcibly evicted without rehabilitation to widen roads. Forced eviction without prior informed consent and fair compensation is against the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which India has ratified.

That authorities have not made the Karnataka Rehabilitation Act of 1987 or the National R&R Policy of 2007 applicable to this project, though it is going to displace lakhs of people, shows their indifference to human rights and national and international commitments. But if BBMP gets a World Bank loan for its road projects as contemplated, it will have to mandatorily implement the World Bank’s Operational Directive (OD) 4.30 on Involuntary Resettlement which requires full compensation for those relocated, making TDRs, which do not reflect true market values, wholly inadequate.

The government seems to believe that the desire of the rich for the luxury of driving their private vehicles is ‘public interest’ and that this should override the fundamental rights of lakhs of others to their livelihood, security of tenure and hard-earned property. The recent widening of Bellary, Seshadri and Palace Roads, without cycle tracks and lanes for buses as required under the National Urban Transport Policy, proves that only the private purpose of private vehicle owners is being served and not the public interest. If the true cost of R&R is figured in, the costs of road-widening far outweigh the benefits, if any.

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