Recreate B’luru with public imaginaries, involvement

DH PHOTO/ Ranju P

Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s decision to subject the proposed 100-km elevated corridor advances meaningful and informed citizen participation in urban planning and governance. His assurance came after public outcry over issuing tenders for the project based on a rushed Environmental Clearance. Importantly, the promised consultations would be focused on mobility for all, by prioritising public transport. The elevated corridor, in contrast, is mainly about accommodating private transport.

Bengaluru’s traffic congestion remains a bugbear of its economic viability and socio-ecological sustainability. Phase 1 of the Metro, built at a cost of about Rs 17,000 crore, supports about five lakh trips daily. The 6,500 BMTC buses support 45 lakh trips daily, but there is weak support to expand its networks and bolster its infrastructure. There clearly is a massive gap in demand and supply of an effective and affordable public transit system, forcing about half the 1.3 crore people of the metropolis to rely on private vehicles. This strains the weak infrastructure, clogs roads, increases frequency of accidents, and is now causing an health epidemic due to high stress and air and noise pollution. 

The city has about 80 lakh private vehicles, and clearly there is no space for them on its broken roads. The proposal to build out of the congestion by constructing elevated corridors is bound to fail as studies reveal that by the time the mega project is completed, it would be clogged. Besides, this will result in devastating the city’s green roads, raze hundreds of private and public properties, destroy the city’s innate character and thousands of informal livelihoods. Social impact studies volunteered by ‘Bus Prayanikara Vedike’ reveal that the corridor will irreversibly devastate the core city’s thriving economy, social character and environment. Tree loss in the core city cannot be compensated for by planting hundreds elsewhere.

Civil society advocacy groups and experts have argued over the decades that Bengaluru must first develop a mobility plan, prioritising investment that promotes safe bicycling and walking as transport options, building seamless interaction between bus and the Metro networks, and ensuring that ride quality is good on all roads. 

Instead, the prevailing policies incentivise private travel, and this appears to be the case with even the recent Transit-oriented Development proposal by Bengaluru Metro, and a worrying promotion of road-widening as a solution to air pollution by KSPCB. Both incentivise the use of cars and motorbikes, and when combined with the corridor are a sure prescription to deliver a deathblow to the metropolis’ social and economic productivity. 

Reliance on para-statals such as BDA, BMRDA, KRDCL, etc., which are unaccountable to the public, to fix Bengaluru through their independent infrastructure projects has brought the city to this incredible crisis. In the process, constitutionally-mandated governance and planning bodies such as BBMP (involving Ward Committees) and Bengaluru Metropolitan Planning Committee, have been comprehensively sidestepped.  Instead, imaginaries of senior political and administrative leadership of state agencies are hard-engineered into the city. Public imaginations of building an inclusive metropolis find no place. This gap is exploited by a variety of consultants who promote lucrative mega projects, such as the elevated corridor.

The public has suffered over the decades for having believed in promises that do not deliver, and are now keen to reclaim the power of planning and governance. This is evident in ordinary citizens organising resistances against such poorly conceived mega projects. These resistances are promoting creative, low-cost solutions that speak to peoples’ genuine needs of building an inclusive metropolis in which all are safe and secure. Rather than respond to this public enthusiasm with sensitivity, engage with ideas sincerely, the response from state agencies has been hubristic. Chief Minister Kumaraswamy’s assurance, therefore, gives hope of the public shaping the city. 

Bengaluru should be proud of its active citizen involvement. In 1998, citizen protests saved Cubbon Park from being reduced to a hotel for legislators. Hasiru Usiru, a volunteer-led movement, worked to build mass consciousness to protect the city’s greenery. In reclaiming the city with the slogan ‘Namma Raste, Namma Jaaga, Namma Ooru’ (Our Roads, Our Space, Our City), thousands were mobilised to stop the BMRC from destroying Jayanagar’s Rose Garden Boulevard for commercial development, saved living heritage zones like Avenue Road from road-widening, and to push the Metro underground.

Actions to protect the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and street vendors emerged along with demands to regulate parking, introduce car-free zones, developing roads reclaimed from traffic as walking plazas and to declare parts of every neighbourhood as vehicle-free zones on weekends. More recently, Citizens for Bengaluru has demonstrated how an active citizenry could at once stop the unpopular steel flyover project and at the same time bring to focus the need to operationalise low-cost, high-utility suburban rail network. 

Groups like Critical Mass innovated and pushed for cycling rallies. The ‘slow crossing’ movement emerged to assert the rights of pedestrians over roads. Public spirited architects have stepped in to support, offering their skills pro bono. The judiciary also has stepped in to support such democratic processes and forced state agencies to comply with statutory procedures ensuring public involvement in decision-making.

Bengaluru is blossoming with an amazing array of intelligent, socio-technical interventions, based on imaginaries of collectives and distinctive communities in co-creating city spaces that are productive and enjoyable for all. The civic consciousness is not merely based on local concerns but speaks to climate change realities as well. 

It is necessary to reimagine Bengaluru based on citizens’ aspirations, not as an outcome of mystified proposals of technocracy. People’s voices are crucial to guide planning and governance and deliver real solutions. This can be the legacy of Kumaraswamy and serve as a model to inspire other metropolises. 

(The writer, an independent consultant and researcher, works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance)

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