In Kundan Shah’s rambunctious 1983 satire, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, that takes on the rampant corruption in politics, the police, bureaucracy, news media and builders, the film director used the collapse of a “flyover bridge” near Gloria Church in Byculla, which he had shot a year earlier, to illustrate his point.
The Maharashtra government instituted a commission of inquiry appointed to inquire into the collapse of two pre-stressed girders there. Like many such official enquiries, it went nowhere.
In the macabre but hilarious film, two unscrupulous journalists stumble upon the body in a park of the corrupt Municipal Commissioner, D’Mello – no prizes for guessing the homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
The body disappears but the two find a gold cuff link. At the inauguration of an overbridge dedicated to the late D’Mello, they chance upon the second. They dig in the foundations of the bridge and discover the commissioner’s corpse, which sets off a slapstick chase with two rival criminal builders.
The collapse of the flyover in Kolkata, which has all the trappings of the involvement of venal contractors and politicians, is a telling instance of truth being stranger than fiction in some cases.
Mumbai has had its share of such collapses. The span of a bridge under construction for the first Metro line between Andheri and Ghatkopar collapsed in 2012, killing one.
A year later, another bridge under construction at the airport collapsed, killing three. Three Larsen & Toubro employees were arrested for negligence.
However, it is the very rationale of building flyovers over roads that should come under scrutiny after the ghastly Kolkata accident.
It is no secret that Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari is inordinately in favour of these projects. In the mid-1990s, when he was public works department minister in the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition in Maharashtra, he presided over the building of 55 flyovers in Mumbai at the cost of Rs 1,500 crores.
At a debate around then with two environmentalists, including this writer, published over a full page of a Sunday broadsheet, he argued that traffic would move more smoothly over a flyover, without any pesky traffic lights, and this would reduce pollution.
I responded by pointing out that the emissions per vehicle would certainly decline. But if the overall traffic increased as a consequence, a back of the envelope calculation would reveal that the total emissions would undoubtedly increase.
This is precisely what has happened with Mumbai’s flyovers, including one allotted to be built by a favourite builder called Jog, which greens dubbed the “Joke” flyover when the government proposed a shopping centre under it.
Traffic, comprising cars and two-wheelers, has burgeoned and is merely redirected to another bottleneck further away. Flyovers, like coastal highways and other mega road projects, are in fact their own worst enemy because they end up causing further congestion, not relieving it.
As Ashok Datar of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, argues, it makes no sense to build roads over roads or along rivers or other waterfronts.
On the contrary, Mumbai would be best served by building elevated railway corridors over existing local railway tracks, over which more than 7 million commuters travel every day. There is a snag in that existing road overbridges would have to be demolished and raised to accommodate these elevated tracks, but that is feasible.
The Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation has belatedly proposed a Rs 10,000-crore elevated track between Andheri and Virar. It was originally to run throughout the west of the city, from Churchgate to Virar, one of the busiest routes in the world, at a cost of Rs 23,000 crores. However, the third Metro line, from Colaba through Bandra to the Santa Cruz Electronics Export Processing Zone put paid to that.
On the east of the city, it is planning a similar elevated corridor between Thane and Bhiwandi for Rs 7,500 crores.
Public transport advocates like Sujit Patwardhan of the non-government organisation Parisar in Pune quote Hans Joachim Vogel, former Mayor of Munich, who presciently said as long ago as in 1970: “Each million we invest in urban motorways is an investment to destroy the city.”
Dubai has a Roads and Transport Authority but has not given up its love-affair with some 189,000 cars. Despite the Metro, there are innumerable clover-leaf and other highway junctions, which actually clog traffic, as cities all over the world should recognise.
If any country is infatuated with the car, it is the United States. But even there things are changing. Forty years ago in Milwaukee, highway designers planned to circle the central business district with an expressway that would touch part of the shore of Lake Michigan. Public opposition halted construction of this section. Milwaukee has now replaced the entire superhighway with a street.
After an earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco in 1989, it was considered an “act of God” – this rings a different bell in Kolkata – and California removed the freeway instead of rebuilding it. Portland and New York are similarly removing freeways.
In Aarhus, Denmark, a river running through the city was covered by a road. With public opinion weighed against this planning travesty, it has now been removed and the river restored to its pristine glory.
Exactly the same has happened in Seoul, South Korea. In the 1950s, recovering from the Korean war, the city saw a stream of migrants as the country embarked on its headlong quest for industrialisation and urbanisation, which eventually catapulted it to emerge as an Asian Tiger.
The Cheonggyecheon area had a stream running through the middle of the city which was filled up with concrete over 20 years, starting in 1958. A 5.6km-long, 16 metre-wide elevated highway was completed in 1976.
From 2003, the far-sighted Mayor in Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, embarked on a project to remove the highway and restore the stream, even by pumping 120, 000 tonnes of water daily into it from the nearby Han river.
The $900 million project was initially criticised but has proved popular with citizens and tourists as a recreation centre bang in the middle of the capital. The pedestrian-friendly project has reunited citizens with their cultural history.
Mayor Lee introduced reserved bus lanes to accommodate the 120,000 motorists that used the highway every day and cut the use of cars by a half. There has been a 3.6°C fall in average summer temperatures as a consequence. By 2007, 53 million people had visited Cheonggyecheon.
The example is cited all over the world as indicative of the new-found realisation among planners that roads, highways, flyovers and such projects are the problem rather than the solution to make cities better. As many as 15 freeways have been demolished since 2002 by Seoul’s planners.
In 2014, the Ahyeon overpass, which cost $7.5 million a year on upkeep and repairs, was replaced by another, greener, bus-only lane.
As the Guardian wrote,
“Seoul has decided to remove the structure, a symbol of South Korea's high-speed development. Originally built in 1968, the 1km-long highway was located close to a vibrant student neighbourhood in the city centre.”
In 1994, as many as 32 people were killed when part of the Seongsu bridge over the river Han subsided.
When Lee was elected South Korea’s president in 2007, the New York Times article about the election began by saying:
“The man chosen as South Korea’s next president in Wednesday’s election owes much of his victory to a wildly successful project he completed as this city’s mayor: the restoration in 2005 of a paved-over, four-mile stream in downtown Seoul, over which an ugly highway had been built during the growth-at-all-cost 1970s.
“The new stream became a Central Park-like gathering place here, tapped into a growing national emphasis on quality of life and immediately made the mayor, Lee Myung-bak, a top presidential contender.”
Other public transport visionaries have seen the connection between doing away with car-centric projects and replacing them with open spaces, convenient transit and pedestrian-and bike-friendly systems.
The two-time architect-Mayor of Bogota in Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, who is no stranger to India, worked wonders with the Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System or BRTS in his city. He ran – unsuccessfully – as his country’s President.
The “father” of the BRTS, Jaime Lerner, another former architect-Mayor of Curitiba in Brazil employed a unique arrangement to both promote his public bus system, which had the capacity of a Metro at a fraction of the cost, and get rid of garbage.
He encouraged rag pickers to bring their bags of garbage to collection points in the spaces below fly-overs and paid for these with bus tickets. A win-win system if ever there was one. But such schemes have no takers in Indian cities, with their tunnel vision in building ever-more flyovers and highways.