In October 2016, news reports began to emerge of protests by citizens’ groups in Bengaluru against a construction project proposed by the government of Karnataka. In September, the Congress-led Karnataka government had approved a proposal to build a seven-kilometre, six-lane steel flyover between Basaveshwara circle and Hebbal, in central and north Bengaluru. This was not the first time the idea for such a project had been floated. In 2010, the BJP-led state government had suggested a similar flyover, but the plan was later dropped. Then, in 2014, the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) considered the project again, but several urban development experts opposed its construction. Through these years, the project had been mired in controversy.
An existing flyover from Hebbal leads to the National Highway 7, which further connects to the Kempegowda International Airport. The airport, inaugurated in 2008, is located 37 kilometres from the heart of the city, and efforts to improve its connectivity have long been a matter of discussion between citizens, town planners and political parties. While an expressway on NH7 ensures that traffic beyond Hebbal moves smoothly on to the airport, the seven-kilometre stretch before it regularly sees bottle-necks, as the commuter traffic within the city merges with the vehicles headed towards the airport. According to the government, the flyover would ease the traffic along this route.
The Karnataka government reportedly called for tenders on the project in September 2015. In March 2016, the Economic Times reported that the government was considering bids on a tender for the flyover’s construction—estimated to cost it nearly Rs 1,800 crores and the city 800 trees. In late September, the government reportedly awarded the contract to the multinational engineering firm Larsen & Toubro. On 28 September 2016, the state cabinet approved the project. The cabinet decision prompted widespread civic outrage: several citizens’ groups began conducting demonstrations and protests, opposing the project on environmental and monetary grounds, and alleging that the proposed solution was not in line with the principles of effective urban planning. Many urban-development experts also criticised the project on the grounds that it would use steel, instead of more conventional and cost-effective building materials such concrete. The government however, argued in support of its decision to use steel, citing a shorter completion time as the reason behind its choice.
Following the protests, two Bengaluru residents, N Mukund, a member of the Citizen Action Forum, a civil-society group, and V Balasubramanyam, the former additional chief secretary of Karnataka, filed a petition against the flyover with the National Green Tribunal. On 28 October, the NGT stayed the project for four weeks, on the grounds that the BDA, the body responsible for overseeing its construction, was yet to obtain an environmental clearance for it. Since the NGT stayed the project in October, it has repeatedly extended the stay and adjourned the hearings. The next hearing before the NGT is scheduled for 30 January 2017. On 21 December 2016, Citizens for Bangalore (CFB), one of the prominent citizens’ groups mounting an opposition to the flyover, filed an application to join the CAF’s petition before the NGT, which the tribunal approved.
CFB began organising demonstrations in October 2016, employing the slogan “Steel flyover beda”—we do not want the steel flyover. The CFB’s opposition to the flyover is on environmental grounds, and because it believes that the proposed solution favours only those who use cars to commute. On 16 October, the CFB, along with other civil-society groups that had come together under the banner Citizens Against Steel Flyover, organised and led a human chain of over 5,000 people on the seven-kilometre stretch along which the government had proposed the flyover would be built. Sreenivas Allavali, a senior member of the CFB, said, “The project proposes to cut 812 trees for the construction of a flyover that is only seven kilometres in length. Roughly around 50,000 commuters travel to the airport using their own vehicles, while 5 lakh commuters use buses. Who is the government really making this flyover for and what is it actually solving?” Allavali added that the CFB’s opposition was not to the flyover alone; it aimed to address the state of urban planning in the city.