The Case Until Now: NGT To Hear the Bengaluru Steel Flyover Case Next On 30 January

The noted writer and actor Girish Karnad at a protest against the steel flyover proposed by the Karnataka government. Various citizens' groups have vehemently opposed the flyover, and cases against are being heard in the NGT and the Karnataka high court. PTI/ Shailendra Bhojak
27 January, 2017

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.

Many oppose the flyover on the grounds that it is only a temporary solution to the ever-increasing problem of traffic in Bengaluru. “Bengaluru has an estimated population of a little over one crore and 61 lakh registered vehicles, with 1,000 new vehicles being registered on a daily basis. [Compare that] to Bombay, whose population is around 2.4 crore with a little over 40 lakh registered vehicles,” Naresh V Narsimhan, a noted architect and member of the CFB, said. Since the number of vehicles was steadily increasing, Narsimhan explained, any road-based solution—which creates space for more vehicles, as opposed to promoting public transport or better urban planning—would only solve the problem temporarily. According to a report that the Citizens’ Action Forum submitted before the NGT, the daily number of vehicles crossing the Hebbal junction—where the proposed flyover meets the road heading to the airport—is 3,43,505, with close to 24,000 vehicles per hour during peak hours. The report estimates that by 2027, this number will rise to 5,62,500 vehicles per day, with a peak traffic of around 60,000 vehicles per hour.

Over the months of October and November, the CFB organised several awareness campaigns. It also held public lectures on topics such as Bangalore’s urban history, and the dangers of gravitating towards gigantism—constructing large, grandiose structures—in urban planning. Eminent residents of Bengaluru, who opposed the project, delivered these lectures: among them were the historian Ramachandra Guha, the entrepreneurs Priya Chetty Rajagopal and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, and Narasimhan.

The Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF) constitutes the other major opposition to the steel flyover. The NBF is run by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha and the vice chairman of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Kerala. In October 2016, the NBF challenged the constitutionality of the flyover project before the Karnataka High Court. In the case it filed, the NBF said the tender for the project was called much before the public consultation—a requirement for any construction projects under the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act—was held, in June. In early November, the BDA told the high court that it was not proceeding with the construction, following which the court agreed not to pass any orders on the case.

The NBF also published a petition on the website, addressed to the chief minister Siddaramaiah, urging his government to improve public transport in the city instead of building the flyover. The petition claimed that the flyover “would only add more fuel to the raging fire of traffic congestion in Bengaluru and hence needs immediate reconsideration.” It alleged that the public consultation held by the government was “farcical,” since no details of the project are publicly available. “The proposed steel flyover comes across as a strong signal from the government that they prefer to cater the private sector instead of giving public transport a much-needed push,” the petition states. At the time of publishing this article, the petition had received more than 37,000 signatures.

Since the protests began, the government’s response to the criticism of the project has remained unchanged: it has continually maintained that the project is a carefully considered, effective solution. After the cabinet meeting in September, during which the project was approved, Siddaramaiah reportedly said, “The decision to spend Rs 1,791 crore for development was not taken just like that. It was done after a lot of deliberation. When it comes to development of the city there will have to be a compromise on some things.” He added that the government would compensate for every felled tree by planting “10-20 saplings. Environmentalists must understand this.” Siddaramaiah also accused the BJP of politicising a project that the party had previously considered in 2010, when it was in power in the state.

The project also ran into trouble with the National Highways Authority of India, or NHAI. The proposed flyover will be connected to the national highway, which leads to the airport. In late November, the Bangalore Mirror reported that, in response to a query by Rajeev Chandrashekar, the central government had said that the BDA must obtain permission from the NHAI for the construction. According to the report, an NHAI official said that the BDA had not approached it regarding the project.

In January 2017, the CFB began collecting signatures from Bengaluru residents in support of the demand for the local-rail commuter service, on a petition addressed to the railway minister Suresh Prabhu. Narsimhan pointed out that the rail network could run along the outskirts of the city, and function as an alternate route to the airport. Despite the existing infrastructure to support such a network—the tracks would be those already in use by the central railways—no government in the state had taken the project forward. Allavali said, “Members of the government have accused us of being against development using the name of our project against us. This is why our campaign is now evolving from the ‘flyoverbeda’ to ‘railbeku’”—we want rail—“because that is a more cost-effective, environmentally sensitive and more inclusive method to deal with the issue of transport in Bengaluru.” By 15 January, the CFB’s petition had reportedly received over 21,000 signatures. Allavali told the Deccan Chronicle, “We have a specific three-point demand to the railway minister—connect the top ten key economic hubs via suburban rail to service the larger number of daily commuters, allocate budget for each of the above provisions in the next two years and work with the state government with clear time frames for commissioning these.” The CFB’s efforts appear to have had some effect: on 16 January, Prabhu and Siddaramaiah inaugurated an electrical train between Ramanagar and Whitefield neighbourhoods in the city. The two also signed an MoU for the local commuter rail system.

The citizens’ groups leading the movement have also faced criticism. A report published in the Indian Express in October 2016 noted that the movement against the steel flyover had resonated mostly with the city’s more affluent classes, along with resident welfare associations from areas that the construction of the flyover will impact. According to Gautam Bhan, a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Urban Settlements, the class composition of the movement against the steel flyover is “not unusual” for Bengaluru.

Bhan said that the primary criticism of the citizens’ groups opposed to the flyover is that they included “elite actors” who had “disproportionate influence.” He explained that members of these groups do not represent a cross-section of the classes that comprise Bengaluru. He added that traffic in Bengaluru mobilised the protestors more than other civic issues—issues of housing and labour rights, for instance, did not inspire similar concern among them. Bhan told me that the positive aspect of the steel flyover proposal was that it brought a large group of people together and started a demand for an improved and more inclusive public transport system. The flyover, according to him, was “a functional solution that failed to pander even to the elites that it was attempting to cater to.”

While the outrage concerning the flyover resonated with many in the city, some groups that otherwise oppose road-based solutions to Bengaluru’s traffic problems have not rallied behind the CFB movement. Among them is Vinay Sreenivasa, a member of a transport network called Hasiru Usuru and Bengaluru Bus Prayaanikara Vedike (BBPV), which have been opposing the widening of roads and the construction of the metro for over a decade. Sreenivasa said that one of the reasons the groups he belonged to had stayed away from the prominent movement opposing the flyover was the NBF’s involvement with it. According to Sreenivasa, Chandrashekar, the head of the NBF, has had “a history of selectively involving himself with some developmental issues in Bengaluru.”

When I first spoke to Sreenivasa in November 2016, he too was sceptical of the CFB’s mobilisation against this project because of its composition. According to him, many members of the CFB were vehemently opposing this project because it affected the localities they lived in. Otherwise, he said, they, too, contributed to the urban-planning issues that faced Bengaluru. “One of the leaders of the movement Naresh V Narasihman has designed the Brigade Mall complex. That project is a huge market place that attracts mainly private vehicle users in the city, so I am unsure about what has led to his opposition to the steel flyover,” he said. By late December, however, his opposition to the popular movement appeared to have softened. Sreenivasa said that he had met with members of the CFB and discussed the possibility of working together. “Both the BBPV and CFB have a common demand for doubling Bengaluru’s bus fleet and reducing the bus fares,” he said.

Observations recorded by Meera Rajesh, an environmental activist, who was at the human chain organised to protest the flyover in October, offer some insight into the contention Sreenivasa had earlier raised. Rajesh put together data on the mode of transport that protestors used to come to the demonstration. Of the 183 people that she interviewed, 71 percent had come by personal transport, which included cars; 12 percent walked to the venue, and only 3 people out of the sample surveyed cycled to the protest site. Rajesh told me that her intent was not to belittle the protest, but merely to assert that those that use private transport in the city had to be willing to question their habits as well. “I am also opposed to the steel flyover and I want to see this movement succeed. But one has to realise that such projects are a result of the number of already existing private vehicles in the city,” she said.