Imagine an elevated road scything through, and scything down, the shaded promenades of Lutyens’ Delhi, fording Rajpath, as its pylons demolish parts of the Delhi Golf Club, The National Gallery of Modern Art (formerly Jaipur House), the National Stadium, other iconic buildings, and hundreds of dense rai-jamun, or myrtle trees, legacies of the Raj that now define modern Delhi.
How about a similar elevated road smashing its way through south Mumbai, knocking off portions of the Brabourne Stadium, the Oval maidan, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and taking with it, among others, hundreds of fine mahogany and almond trees planted a few decades before I was born.
It is hard to imagine how anyone, government or people, would permit such defilement – don't forget Lata Mangeshkar's opposition was enough to stop the Peddar Road flyover in Mumbai – of buildings and trees nurtured over a human lifespan and etched in our collective cultural memories and conscience.
Yet, this is what the Congress' last government in a major Indian state has just cleared, in dubious haste, say local media, in Bengaluru: A 6.7-km long elevated road that will rip out the city's heart, all to speed a few thousand cars towards the airport for a limited time. The operative word is "towards" because this Rs 1,791-crore road to be built within two years atop what the government calls India's longest "steel bridge" will only ease a few jams and link up with a clogged intersection that marks the start of the highway to the airport.
This is not an unusual situation for urban India, defined by patchwork solutions and temporary reprieves. It is definitely not an unusual situation for Bengaluru, which is littered with badly-designed flyovers and underpasses that swept away trees and are now obstacles to traffic. What is unusual is the haste around this project (more on that later), and the permanent damage it will cause to an area that defines the city.
In no particular order, here is some of what the proposed bridge will damage or displace: Balabrooie (christened thus by Sir Mark Cubbon, a British-era city commissioner, after similar homes in his native Isle of Man in the Irish Sea) – a 150-year-old state guesthouse, which once hosted Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, home to many chief ministers and trees a century old; the Indira Gandhi musical fountain, among India's largest and most advanced; five holes of a 139-year-old golf course, a sprawling green lung in the heart of the city; the main planetarium; and more than 800 of Bengaluru's oldest trees.
Green cover lost
The loss of trees will be particularly damaging. Bengaluru has lost more than 50,000 trees since 2010, and there is now 0.1 tree for each resident, about a tenth of what it should be to absorb the carbon dioxide from the city's growing tide of vehicles – 1,600 are registered every day – I wrote recently in this column.
Anecdotally, anyone who has experienced Bengaluru over the past two or four decades – two to relative newcomers, four to older residents, such as I – knows that no fans were needed in May, that Decembers were close to freezing.
Trees have a widespread cooling effect, as anyone who drives by a park in warm weather can testify. In the tropics, a loss of trees affects rainfall, which could be up to 18% lower over India, according to this 2014 study by scientists at Bengaluru’s Divecha Centre For Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science.
Deforestation is evident nationwide, with 25,000 hectares, an area twice the size of Chandigarh, diverted every year for non-forestry activity, which includes dams, factories and roads. As IndiaSpend reported earlier this year, 23,716 such projects replaced forests over the last 30 years.
So, chopping trees is always a bad idea, especially in a burgeoning city like Bengaluru. The government insists it will plant 20 trees for each tree felled, but it emerges that these trees will be seedlings planted on the city's outskirts, leaving the city centre – which has already lost hundreds of trees to road widening and the Bengaluru metro – a hot house. Chopping trees and destroying the places that give the city its identity all for a smoother commute over 6.7 km for a few months before traffic again floods the elevated road is a really bad idea.
If this willful devastation wasn't bad enough, worse was the manner in which the elevated road was pushed through. Stopped in July this year after public protests and disapproval from experts, the proposal resurfaced this month and was pushed through the Congress' state cabinet almost overnight.
“The uncharacteristic urgency...has left everyone baffled,” commented the Times of India. Its sister paper, the Bangalore Mirror, was less circumspect, alleging: “The Rs 1,800-crore steel flyover project has a lot of players involved with their share of the pie already decided.”
Quite apart from the fact that this kind of political manoeuvring to the detriment of public interest explains, in part, why the Congress lost India, the steel flyover, if built, will establish a model for other states to rip into relatively pristine city centres.
Over the decades, Bengaluru has set many precedents for India. Some, mostly in the past, displayed the city's creative side, including meticulously-planned neighbourhoods, flower-bedecked boulevards, shimmering lakes, public-sector factories and their quiet, housing colonies, scientific research centres, the software revolution, pubs and app-based taxi services. Other precedents have not been as happy: the destruction of by-laws, trees and lakes, the loss of control over garbage and the abandonment of planning. Would a destructive new flyover really make that much of a difference?