The 'Rs 65-crore received Steel bridge' entry jotted down in a diary allegedly belonging to Congress MLC K Govindaraj during an income tax raid was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. It shattered the Siddaramaiah government’s resolve to go ahead with the controversial Rs 2100 crore 6.9 kilometre-long steel flyover in the face of stiff opposition from the citizens of Bengaluru.
The idea for the easily accessible steel flyover from the heart of the city to the highway leading to the airport was conceived in 2010 and later mentioned in the Karnataka state budget of 2014. It received cabinet approval only in September 2016.
But the approval infuriated the citizens and brought them onto the streets in a mass protest. After days of sustained campaigning against it, they got together in October and formed a massive human chain along the proposed route of the flyover. This outburst of public anger which rapidly gained support from scientists, doctors, artists, media, intellectuals, theatre folk, students, families, etc shook the establishment. Pointedly, the protesters had formed a group, aptly named, 'Citizens For Bengaluru' and used all forms of social media to drive home their points against the proposed project. They brought in domain experts from other parts of the country to speak in forums against the steel flyover.
“It was important that we kept politicians and their agenda out of the equation,” said Prakash Belawadi, theatre personality, activist and founder of the movement along with Naresh Narasimhan, architect; Srinivas Alavalli, software industry; Priya Chetty Rajgopal HR professional; Tara Krishnaswamy, software industry and many others. Most of the protesters were old Bengalureans and they bridged the gap between English and Kannada speaking citizens. Suddenly the whole city was speaking the same language — against the steel flyover. It was a phenomenal display of people power; the likes of which Bengaluru had never seen.
“Politicians jumped into the fray but we needed to keep the protest on track and not let it get hijacked,” Belawadi pointed out. Narasimhan termed the government’s decision to cancel the project as, “Red Letter day for Bengaluru and for the rest of India”.
The Bangalore Development Authority, though, had a different tale to spin. They pointed out that only the contract was scrapped and not the project itself. Government sources told the media that the project would be back on the table when the Congress returns to power in 2018.
Probably anticipating this, Ashwin Mahesh, urban interventionist called it only "half a victory". He wanted the government’s position “to be formally recorded in the court process.”
Belawadi, who said every people’s movement needed a ‘break-out’ moment, identified the unearthing of the diary as one. “It just tipped the argument in favour of the citizens,” he added.
Most Bengalureans’ anger was against the senseless vandalism that the steel flyover would have caused. The government held that ‘only 800’ trees would have to be cut down but the social impact was expected to be far greater. The flyover would have scythed through the Bangalore Golf Course and laid waste hundreds of old, gigantic trees in its alignment, thereby changing forever one of the most scenic and beautiful parts of Bengaluru.
Worse, many experts held that the steel flyover was not required. This was confirmed when the government opened a secondary makeshift road to the airport during the recent International Air Show in the city. Suddenly 20 to 25 percent of the traffic along the Central Business District (CBD) and on the airport road disappeared.
Narasimhan pointed out that there were in all three roads to approach the airport. One of them required a small bit of land acquisition and the farmer concerned was willing to let go of it at the legitimate price (four times market rate as laid down in procedure). This road and another one needed to be freshly asphalted and street lighting fixed. These two roads would take away 30 to 35 percent of the traffic from the main airport road and CBD, he pointed out.
Suken Padmanabhan, second generation architect, hoped that the government would be sensitive to the needs of its citizens. “Why would I drive in this horrendous traffic if the government came up with a mass transit system? We need multiple modes of transport like in Singapore.”
The steel flyover had become a hot potato for the government. The perception was that money from this project was making its way to the party high command to fund elections in various parts of the country.
The many allegations had taken a heavy toll on the Siddaramaiah government and party. They had already lost the battle in the people’s court and the National Green Tribunal verdict, whichever way it went, would not have altered perceptions.
Considering that state elections are due next year and the general elections the year after, the Congress party was seen as losing the battle of perception while squabbling over this issue.
Additionally, they were attracting attention from every source, including Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate and it was turning out to be a major political issue. The BJP was selectively going after them. The feeling was that information was being leaked in a manner to keep the pot boiling.
The Congress thus decided to make a virtue of a necessity by claiming that they were scrapping the project. This would not only take the wind out of the Opposition parties’ sails but also give them boasting rights of “bowing to public demand.” They would now demand that the BJP government do likewise in the face of public protests.
But protest and its politics apart, what is in store for Bengaluru and its citizens?
There is no denying that traffic is a nightmare. One thousand five hundred new vehicles are added to the city’s roads every single day and infrastructure development has not kept pace with this explosive vehicle boom.
Many experts, who spoke at the various protest hearings, pointed out that the three access roads to the airport and the peripheral ring road would ease congestion substantially. But the mode to embrace would invariably be mass transit. The much maligned metro was one option even if the pace of construction has been infuriatingly slow and beyond acceptable deadlines. Suburban railways are another option and requires urgent attention. It needs minimal investment as most of the infrastructure is already in place. The city also needs a robust bus system which that takes into account last mile connectivity.
“BMTC must stop thinking in terms of profit. Get rid of their monopoly and allow private players, including Uber and Ola mini cabs to operate. BMTC’s monopoly is hurting Bengaluru,” said Narasimhan.
Srinivas Alavalli is already gearing up for the next battle that starts on 4 March, designated as the 'Bangalore Bus Day'. He wants Bengaluru to be a role model for public transport. After spending three to four hours in bumper to bumper traffic every day, who would want to dispute that?
Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 15:44 PM