When over 5,000 Bengaluru citizens joined hands on October 16 to form a human chain against a proposed steel flyover that will cut north from the heart of the city towards the airport, it was one of the first such demonstrations of people power in the city. Since then, a series of events have been organised to build support against the project.

This effort seems to have paid off, at least for the moment. On Thursday, the Bangalore Development Authority gave an undertaking to the Karnataka High Court, that it will not proceed with the project until the court examined whether authorities followed due process, and passed a final order. Earlier, on October 28, the National Green Tribunal had directed the state to stop the flyover’s construction for four weeks.

However, despite the development in the high court, a symbolic hunger strike by citizens coming up on November 6 is still likely to go ahead as scheduled.

The 8.5 km-long flyover which will cost Rs 1,791 crores to build is expected to lead to the felling of an estimated 800 of the city’s oldest trees. Its critics say that this extravagance to help a few thousand vehicles speed towards the airport will wipe out the last vestiges of greenery in a city that desperately needs more investment in public transport instead. Others say that one more flyover in Bengaluru is highly unlikely to accomplish what 32 others have failed to do – end traffic gridlocks. Questions have also been raised over the Siddaramaiah government’s haste to push the project through. The proposal was put on hold in July after protests but the state Cabinet swiftly cleared it in early October.

The anti-flyover protests have mobilised local residents – cartoonists, students, businessmen, lawyers, civic activists, tree plantation groups, environmental activists, cycling enthusiasts, suburban rail activists and residents’ welfare associations – as well as former Bengaluru residents living as far away as the US. These citizens and citizens’ groups have united under an umbrella called Citizens for Bengaluru that is helping build popular support against the project.

Birth of a movement

When reports of the project first emerged in the media in June, the Namma Bengaluru Foundation, a non-profit founded by independent Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, filed a Right to Information request asking for the project report, details of land acquisition, environmental impact assessment, public consultations, tender and work orders.

However, the Bangalore Development Authority, which is undertaking the project, refused to part with this information. The Foundation then filed Right to Information appeals and decided to move court too.

In October, executive search consultant Priya Chetty Rajgopal, architect Naresh Narasimhan, actor and activist Prakash Belawadi, software engineers Tara Krishnaswamy and Srinivas Alavilli – who also spearheaded the 2011 India Against Corruption movement – and a few other citizens concerned over the impact of the project on Bengaluru reached out to the Foundation. The group Citizens against Steel Flyover, which recently changed its name to Citizens for Bengaluru, was formed soon after. Since then, it has mobilised residents against the project by holding information and awareness drives using a strong media and social media outreach programme.

The technology factor

Sridhar Pabbisetty, Chief Executive Officer of the Namma Bengaluru Foundation, said technology helped connect a wide range of people against the project.

“There are people from USA and Japan who reached out to us asking how they can be a part of it,” said Pabbisetty.

Citizens for Bengaluru campaigners organised Facebook conversations, video campaigns, tweetathons and other events aimed at making people aware of the project’s shortcomings.

Besides organising the human chain, it also started a call-your-MLA programme to encourage people to register their protest against the project. A drive to collect votes against the flyover brought the campaign 41,848 votes as compared to the 219 pro-flyover responses the Bangalore Development Authority claimed to have received. A cartoon by illustrator Paul Fernandes – which took a dig at the project cost and cost overruns by depicting the proposed flyover propped up by tree trunks – set the tone for the campaign. Daily cartoons by Nala Ponnappa, a freelance cartoonist living in Bengaluru, took the core theme of sustainable development to more people through local newspapers.

Participants of the 'human chain' along Bellary Road in Bengaluru last month. (Photo credit: Shree DN).

The campaigners used the online messaging service WhatsApp to disseminate information and mobilise people for various events.

Core group member Priya Chetty Rajgopal said that a core team of people working on the campaign, interacted with citizens via WhatsApp groups that included residents’ welfare associations in areas along the proposed flyover. Along with campaign-related messages, news reports on the project were shared and discussed in these groups.

Coming together

Citizens involved in the campaign said that they signed up for different reasons.

Shashank Rao, a 27-year-old Information Technology engineer working in Idaho, US, helped out by making memes and illustrations containing targeted messages pointing to flaws in the project. “I'm primarily involved in breaking up the facts to the common folks,” said Rao. “I communicate the data. What better way than cartoons, posters and memes?”

One of the posters US-based Shashank Rao has been making to spread awareness about the shortcomings of the steel flyover project. (Image credit: Shashank Rao).

But why did he get involved in an issue that concerns a city he is thousands of miles away from?

Rao said that he had fond memories of what old Bengaluru used to be – of feeding deer at the sprawling botanical garden in South Bengaluru, running up to one of the four Kempegowda towers built centuries ago, rock climbing at Bugle Rock in South Bengaluru’s Basavanagudi, and playing gully cricket. He said that he still follows news from the city and was keen on having infrastructure projects in Bengaluru that are transparent and ethical.

Rudy Dixit, a businessman from Vijayanagar in Bengaluru, said that no flyover had solved the city’s traffic problems yet. He said that one of the main reasons he joined the campaign was due to the “sheer contempt shown by the government for its citizens, and the shortsightedness displayed in the project”.

Sathya Sankaran, a sustainable transport advocate, said that cities should be designed for pedestrians, and transport infrastructure should aim at moving people, not cars.

Sankaran said the awareness about non-motorised transport options in the city played a key role in mobilising people against the project. This awareness can be attributed to Cycle Day and Open Street events that have been held in Bengaluru over the past few years. On Cycle Days neighbourhoods are permitted to block off traffic on stretches of the road to allow people to cycle freely, and community events on awareness of environmental and other issues are held on the sidelines. Similarly, Cubbon Park, a popular centrally-located public space, was made free of vehicles on Sundays last year to encourage people to jog, cycle and walk in the area.

Children hit the roads with their cycles on Cycle Day in Malleshwaram, a north-western neighbourhood in Bengaluru, in August. (Photo credit: Facebook/Malleshwaram Cycle Day).

Ravichandar V, a member of Bengaluru Blue Print Action Group that the state government constituted in May to draw up a road map for the city's future, is a vocal critic of the steel flyover.

“A feeling of helplessness, frustration at the callous, insensitive attitude and arrogance of the government made people come out to streets,” said Ravichandar.

People’s politics

Despite the growing opinion against the project, the Karnataka government has been dismissive of the protests, saying that they are politically motivated. The campaigners deny this charge.

“Politics was present, though not at the invitation of the citizen’s group,” said Ravichandar V, referring to the involvement of the Aam Aadmi Party, Bharatiya Janata Party and Rajeev Chandrasekhar in the campaign.

While the Aam Aadmi Party was conceived during the widespread India Against Corruption protests in Delhi in 2011 and now rules the national capital with a growing presence in a few states, Chandrasekhar is the vice-chairman of the National Democratic Alliance’s Kerala unit.

Chandrasekhar’s involvement with the Foundation “was portrayed as playing politics”, said Ravichandar.

“When everyone knows the problems the city faces can be solved with political will, why is it not political?” asked the Aam Aadmi Party’s Vinod James, at an event hosted by the Citizens for Bengaluru team. He urged people to recognise the lack of political willpower in solving city’s problems.

“I’m not political. But I have no hesitation in seeking the help of every political party, including divisions in Congress party, to block this project,” said actor Belawadi.

The Foundation’s Pabbisetty underlined that people whose lives would be most affected by the construction of the flyover had a right to be heard even if they happened to be politicians. “Citizens have a right to determine the fate of the city,” he said. “They cannot be treated as bystanders in our democracy.”

He added that the project must be scrapped, and that the state government needs to consider all available options scientifically and objectively before picking solutions to decongest the area.

Sankaran, who works with Praja-RAAG, an advocacy group that has been advocating commuter rail for Bengaluru since 2008, underlined the importance of the people’s involvement in city affairs. He said that the government called the Praja group for a meeting soon after the human chain event to discuss the commuter rail issue and the feasibility of extending the proposed line to the airport.

The media has been writing about it for the last eight years, but “nothing is as powerful as people on the streets”, said Sankaran.

Meanwhile, campaign organisers are happy that a conversation has started in Bengaluru regarding the nature of transport options.

“The campaign has essentially energised the entire city,” said Srinivas Alavilli. “There is real discussion happening within Bengaluru, on what the transport options should be. We think it is an extremely healthy debate in urban governance, and it should be very positive for the long run, beyond the steel flyover.”

This story has been published through an arrangement with Oorvani Foundation/Open Media Initiative.