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Bengaluru steel flyover project scrapped: Activists claim victory but govt decision largely political

Bengaluru can breathe easy. Their 812 trees are safe. That many were to be sacrificed at the altar of the steel flyover, a work of monstrosity that was to connect Basaveshwara Circle to Hebbal to improve connectivity to the Bengaluru international airport. The government has decided to scrap the project that would have cost Rs 1,791 crore.

Bengaluru's civil society can rejoice. After all, it had come out in large numbers — over 8,000 of them on a Sunday in October — forming a human chain, filing petitions, approaching the National Green Tribunal and the Karnataka High Court and using social media to spread the word against the environment and visual disaster. They ensured #NoSteelFlyover trended to say 'No' to what was touted as the longest steel flyover in India.

Much of Bengaluru and the Karnataka government were not on the same page on the steel flyover. The government believed it was a steal of an idea, essential to take care of traffic jams in a city where the average speed of vehicles is down to 13 km/hour. And that 2.68 lakh vehicles will ply on the flyover everyday. With 60,000 saplings proposed to be planted enroute, the government believed it would be enough to compensate for the loss of the existing green cover. The backers of the project say that the flyover, even though admittedly not great aesthetics, will not emanate dust and will be completed in two years.

Artists impression of the steel flyover in Bengaluru. News18

Artists impression of the steel flyover in Bengaluru. News18

Those against the flyover have argued that for the same amount of money, Bengaluru could have 3,600 km of quality footpath or 9,000 buses or 40 lakh bicycles or 200 km of suburban rail that can transport 15 lakh passengers everyday. Eminent Bengalureans like former Lokayukta Santosh Hegde have demanded that connecting roads from eastern and western parts of Bengaluru to the airport would be a better option. Entrepreneur Mohandas Pai has argued in favour of expanding the metro connectivity to 250 km from the present 130-odd km to reduce dependence on roads.

Environmentalists in Bengaluru say the flyover is a myopic idea because it will at best save 10 minutes of driving time. And the city that has lost 10,000 trees in the last couple of decades to road widening and Metro Rail work, cannot afford to lose more. This summer in Bengaluru, hotter than previous years, has already provided a harsh reality check.

Civil society got a shot in the arm when the National Green Tribunal and Karnataka High Court stayed the project. The Congress regime was not amused. It saw in the opposition to the project the hand of the BJP, using the citizens as a front. The reference was to the involvement of Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar who was in the forefront of the anti-flyover campaign.

If the Siddaramaiah regime indeed shelved the project because the citizens were against it, this protest can count itself as successful as the Marina uprising for Jallikattu in Chennai in January. But the fact of the matter is that the environment of Bengaluru was hardly a factor in the decision. It is the political environment that forced the government's hand.

The revelation of a diary from Congress MLC K Govinda Raj's residence last month in which handwritten entries pointed to alleged bribes paid to Congress leaders was the final nail in the steel flyover. BJP's Karnataka president and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa fired a salvo by accusing Siddaramaiah of having taken kickbacks of Rs 65 crores from the promoters of the project. This fitted in with allegations that the diary contained entries on payments worth Rs 1,000 crore made by Karnataka Congress leaders to the party high command.

The steel flyover project, the Bengaluru city Congress leaders realised was now a political hot potato, that could have an adverse bearing on their electoral prospects in the May 2018 assembly elections. They persuaded Bengaluru Development Minister KJ George to swallow pride and go back on the project and leave it to the next government to take a decision on it. They realised that should the project go ahead, the BJP will exploit the bribery charges to the hilt, compromising the winnable chances of the Congress candidates.

Strategy-wise, the manner in which the government approached the project was wrong. It reeked of political arrogance, coupled with lack of transparency and dialogue. The manner in which the environmental concerns of the stakeholders in India's Garden City were brushed aside, led to doubts if the steel lobby and big firms were pushing their agenda. The subsequent labeling of anyone who opposed the flyover as a BJP or an AAP activist on social media was seen as a way to bulldoze a citizen initiative.

The BJP, in contrast, played its political cards well. It rode on popular unrest against the project, making appropriate noises. With the Congress not putting out details of the project in the public domain, doubts were bound to arise whether the project cost was inflated to accommodate kickbacks. The emergence of the diary gave the BJP the ammunition to go for the kill. The Congress was on the back foot in public perception.

But is there an alternative to the steel flyover? While suggestions to improve bus and metro connectivity sound nice on paper, the fact is any alternative project will cost more and will need much more land, especially for road widening. The Devanahalli-Doddaballapur Information Technology Investment Region (ITIR) project for instance, needs 10,500 acres of land and Rs 21,000 crore of taxpayer's money. It is ironical that those who argue for saving the environment of Bengaluru do not think much of snatching away the land of farmers for the ITIR project.

The problem with the steel flyover controversy is that the political leadership did not think it was important to engage with the Bengalureans to find solutions. Political considerations finally led to the decision which means the ecosystem still does not include civil society as an equal partner.

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2017 16:39 PM

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