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Bengaluru's steel bridge: Should IT hub say no to development at the cost of tree cover?

Bengaluru’s infrastructure projects have always been mired in controversy, with citizens and green activists crying foul until either the projects get scrapped or get implemented regardless of the protests.

This time around, it’s the proposed steel flyover to connect Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport Limited (KIAL) to other parts of the city that’s got everyone’s ante up.

Considered to be the longest flyover at a 6.72 kilometre stretch from the neighbourhood of Basaveshwara circle to the neighbourhood of Hebbal, the steel flyover is estimated to cost Rs 1791 crore and is expected to be completed in 24 months. The project will be executed by Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T) and Nagarjuna Ltd, with the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) overseeing it. BDA will acquire around one acre for the project.

What has got citizens and activists up in arms is not just the traffic snarls, that the project would entail on one of the busiest stretches in Bengaluru, but that 812 trees will be chopped off along the project’s corridor and some existing flyovers and underpasses would have to be demolished too. This has begun a debate on whether the project is required at all.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

BDA commissioner Rajkumar Khatri has sought to assuage annoyed protestors with assurances that 60,000 saplings would be planted in other parts of the city. BDA has also said that the steel structures would be pre-fabricated in the L&T factories and that traffic would get affected only during the last six months of the project cycle. Incidentally, this is not the first time that the Karnataka government is talking about a steel bridge, it proposed one in Central Business District (CBD) between Minerva Circle and Hudson Circle to ease traffic, but this never took off for the want of takers.

Firstpost reached out to RK Mishra, a member of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of both BBMP and BDA, who also worked on the preliminary feasibility report of the elevated corridors project. When asked whether the steel flyover was necessary at all, Mishra said, “The CBD to Hebbal/Esteem Mall stretch is extremely congested for three reasons. First, it is the only access to KIAL from South, Central and North Bangalore. Second, there is no other means of reaching the airport except by road -no Metro or Rail Connectivity. Third, the existing Hebbal flyover is not integrated with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) Elevated Expressway, hence it becomes a bottleneck. So, we certainly need additional road capacity from CBD till the NHAI Expressway. Since we can't widen the roads, we need to go elevated.

“Now whether we go steel or concrete is another debate and both have pros and cons. I don't see any issue with the Steel Flyover per se, but my concern is on the alignment. Taking the proposed route will cause chaos during construction, has strategic danger of being the only access route and of course will require demolition of some existing magic box based flyovers/underpasses which were built not so long ago.”

When asked why Bengaluru's civic authorities authorised projects and then went and broke them down for another one, Mishra said, “It is poor planning and waking up after the crisis has hit the panic button. Hence, we end up doing knee jerk projects like magic box based flyovers/underpasses and now this steel Flyover. The Hebbal Flyover Interchange should have been integrated with the NHAI Expressway and should have been planned for higher capacity with 4-6 lanes. But poor planning led to this chaotic situation. We are driven by projects and do no planning.”

When asked whether the metro was also not being planned on the same route, Mishra said, “Metro on this route could have been ideal. We had been procrastinating on the metro to the airport for way too long. With this steel flyover, metro on this route is dead forever.”

When asked to outline what according to him would be the best option for Bengaluru given that the green protests were also going on for the steel flyover, Mishra outlined what would work best for Bengaluru:

"They could have the Integrated Metro in the same Flyover (Steel or Concrete) as Jaipur has done or as is being done between Silk Board and Jayadeva, where same pillar has road at 5.5 Mtr height and Metro at 11 Mtr. But our planners are driven by short term quick fixes and no one guides long term planning.
We also need other access routes to KIAL. Proposed South and Southeast access roads from Nagavara (ORR) and Budhigere are stuck for long. These must be expedited.
Metro to Airport from East (KR Puram) and from West (Yeshwantpur) is a must and sooner the better.
Both KR Puram and Yeshwantpur are Railway Hubs too, hence Airport Metro from these makes logical sense."

Meanwhile, green activists in Bengaluru have been up in arms over the indiscriminate chopping of trees to make way for various development projects in the city. Recently, activists did a kind of Chipko movement to protest the chopping of 30 odd trees to make way for the Tendersure (the SURE stands for Specifications for Urban Road Execution) project on Nruputanga road.
The green activists were also not happy when Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) went and chopped 2500 trees for Phase 1 and planned to cut down 313 heritage trees for Phase 2. Although BMRCL said that enough trees as specified by the tree officer were planted, activists were not convinced, especially as public hearings for Phase 2 kept getting cancelled.

The Times of India reports that many of the trees facing the axe including the 812 trees for the steel flyover, were planted in the 80s by the then chief minister of Karnataka R Gundu Rao. Some 15 lakhs saplings were planted on roadsides and public spaces and it is to this sustained effort that Bengaluru owes its tree cover.

Firstpost reached out to Leo Saldana, campaigner of environment protection and coordinator for the Environment Support Group (ESG). He said, “any infrastructure project should have public consultation and the state government has given an undertaking to do so.”

According to Saldana, “the proposed steel flyover has been approved by the Karnataka Cabinet in patent violation of the order of the High Court of Karnataka in the Environment Support Group vs BMRCL case issued on 16 November, 2010. HC ruled that any urban infrastructure project in the State should be undertaken only in strict conformance with the provisions of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961.”

However, as Saldana said, “Not one of the provisions of the KTCP Act have been complied with by the BDA when announcing plans to start the steel flyover.” This was not only “a comprehensive violation of the applicable laws, but also is in blatant contempt of court.”

Saldana said that the Karnataka government was constantly proposing mega projects involving thousands of crores of investments, leading to the loss of hundreds of trees and causing massive public nuisance. “This steel flyover is a cardinal example of how the project is blatantly promoted to facilitate the needs of only those who are flying in and out of Bangalore. Never has the city or state governments ever invested similar interest, money and energy in attending to the needs of those who rely on affordable public transport or pedestrian and cycling needs, and ensure their safe passage in the city.”

So then, what is the way out for Bengaluru?

Can the IT capital of India, which is in dire need of proper infrastructure, really say no to development? Yet, when development comes at the cost of improper planning and at the cost of its precious tree cover, should its citizens allow it to happen?

Bengaluru’s planners never expected Bengaluru to burst at its seams and see such unbridled growth. Almost all five year Comprehensive Development Plans are already ancient and redundant even as they’re inked and unless the city’s civic authorities understand the intrinsic nature of the burgeoning city, a lot of taxpayer money is going to be spent on infrastructure projects which will soon have to make way for another upgraded, improved version.

And what is most important is that development must go hand in hand with conservation. Ideally every person should have eight trees in a city but it is estimated that Bengaluru has one tree for every seven persons and with a population of nearly a crore Bengalureans you can do the math.

Updated Date: Oct 06, 2016 12:38 PM

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