On Monday, the National Green Tribunal ruled that the Karnataka government’s steel flyover in Bengaluru would need environmental clearance. The Congress government in the state had earlier contended that no such clearance was needed since the project did not pose an environmental threat. But it had shelved the project just a week before the tribunal’s ruling, after the Bharatiya Janata Party alleged that Congress leaders had taken kickbacks to clear the project. The Opposition cited a diary recovered from a Congress leader’s house during an income-tax raid in March last year and alleged that the entries indicated that Rs 65 crores in bribes had been paid to senior Congress leaders.

The Rs 1,800-crore flyover, aimed at improving access to the airport, had been contentious from the time it was made public. Citizen groups had vociferously objected to the fact that over 800 trees would have to be cut to make way for it, and that too for disproportionately small gains.

Theatre personality Prakash Belawadi and architect Naresh Narasimhan were among the founding members of a group called Citizens for Bengaluru that coordinated citizen action against the steel flyover. Citizens for Bengaluru, according to them, is a platform for people working to engage with the government and make it accountable to citizens. Belawadi and Narasimhan do not consider themselves experts on all civic matters. Rather, they said, they act as facilitators and help the government harness local knowledge and expertise to address these problems. In conversation with Scroll.in, they spoke of how the movement against the flyover has energised citizen action in the city. Edited excerpts:

Citizens groups have won this big battle and got the steel flyover stopped. But this is not about one flyover or one road widening but really about getting the government to listen to what people want, isn’t it?
Prakash Belawadi: We don’t say this is victory. That is not a word that we want to use ever.

Naresh Narasimhan: And it is not an agitation. This is a movement to make Bengaluru a livable city, not just a transit city. Living in a city is not just about getting from one place to another. It is also about livability, which means a good quality of environment, multiple mobility options, accessibility of schools and markets in neighbourhoods, how we provide housing for less privileged people.

This is not a thing that started four months ago. We have been doing this for 20 years. We have had some minor successes and some failures have happened.

One of the most glaring failures is the Metro on MG Road and through Ulsoor – historic districts of the city. We blame ourselves for not opening our mouths and stopping the destruction of these neighbourhoods. But what has happened now is that multiple factors have come together. The traffic problem used to be the only topic of conversation in social gatherings. But issues such as increasing heat islands and the concrete jungle effect of Bengaluru are now starting to come up. This mindless destruction of trees for so-called development projects, plus the attitude of the government...

We have elected the government. The government should do what the people want and it has to stop saying it is giving money or providing resources to the citizens.

Belawadi: There is an attitude that is not restricted to Bengaluru or to any political party. The idea is that they win elections and then say they have a five-year mandate. The five-year mandate is to govern, not to do whatever they like – but that is their attitude. There is a feudal provider mentality. Bureaucrats say “see, we have given Rs 500 crores for footpaths”, but having footpaths is our right. Even today there was a bureaucrat asking “but how much do you consult [the public]”? The answer is: “As much as you can.”

Narasimhan: The real problem here is that the master planning of Bengaluru is a farce. It is controlled by a bunch of interested people who want to benefit in some way from it. There are multiple lobbies – I am not naming anybody. There are the usual suspects, but it is much bigger than that.

People who want to live here do not want to exploit this place for money but want [the government] to do what it takes to live here. What it takes to do business here comes next.

Naresh Narasimhan (left) and Prakash Belawadi.

The fight with the political class is about making money out of resources here. In the case of the steel flyover, if the corruption allegations had not come out, do you think the project would have been cancelled?
Belawadi: Whether the corruption allegations are true or not, we don’t know. We have never made such allegations from our side. Now, there were multiple entries [in the diary], many names were mentioned and all those have been identified. How come only the steel bridge became such a tipping point? It is because there was an agitation. It has resonance today because of the agitation.

Having said that, even if it happened for some other reason, we don’t care. This is not about taking credit. What we have now is a tangible citizens’ movement and nobody can deny that.

Narasimhan: It is an apolitical citizens’ movement. We have no alignment to any political party because we feel that all parties have the same feudal mindset.

The government seems to have shelved the project because the corruption allegations might mar election prospects next year.
Belawadi: If it was an election issue, they should have been worried about the agitation. The news spread in a big way across the country. But I don’t think they care about it that much. There is an attitude in politicians in Karnataka... This is the only big city in Karnataka with a population in excess of a million. Many of our politicians don’t care about Bengaluru because they get elected from elsewhere and the issues on which they get elected are not issues of Bengaluru. They don’t care if they lose in Bengaluru a little bit. They don’t see Bengaluru’s infrastructure and deteriorating air as election issues. It is a pity – they should. And that is where our job is cut out for us. We have to tell people in Bengaluru: “This is about your future, the health of your children, for a better life.” We should tell people, not politicians, that this is an election issue.

Narasimhan: Is it Bengaluru first or party first? If it is Bengaluru first, we will support anyone.

Are there politicians who put Bengaluru first?
Narasimhan: Increasingly there will be. There are already younger politicians who are beginning to understand this.

Belawadi: Young politicians from across parties are supporting us. If they can get together and find common ground on what is good for the city, then I think we will have won a major part of the battle by neutralising the political side to some extent.

Narasimhan: We are not saying that we know all about these things, and neither do politicians. Bengaluru is full of intelligent people and great institutions, but the government will go and consult some guy from Mumbai or Singapore on what to do in Bengaluru. We don’t want that.

Bengaluru is a 480-year-old city with a history of urban design, which worked perfectly till the 1990s. Things started going bad – and I am not blaming anybody for that – but because of this information technology boom, the city has doubled in population from the beginning of this century. You cannot deal with this using some 1970s fossil-fuel-era idea, saying that for congestion we must build flyovers or widen roads. This is not a city for cars but a city for people.

Belawadi: The government built the flyover to Electronic City [Bengaluru’s technology hub]. Vehicles zoom on the flyover only to get stuck at Silk Board. That is not the only case – you see it across the city. You need a network that will fix the mobility problem. A city-wide mobility strategy and plan is needed.

And that is not about moving cars but about moving people.
Belawadi: The National Transport Policy 2012 says “let’s move people, not vehicles”. A report of the Directorate of Urban Land Transport, of the government of Karnataka, says everything that we are saying – that pedestrianisation should be encouraged and de-motorisation has to happen.

Narasimhan: Bengaluru can take between 25,00,000 and 30,00,000 vehicles according to some studies, and we have about 65,00,000. You need to increase multiple public transport options. If you tell the government, they say, “we are doing Metro”. It’s not enough. We need to put many more buses on the roads, we need to cut the cost of bus tickets so that the common man can travel in it without even thinking. We need to question the monopoly of the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation, at least in peripheral areas, and regularise the so-called illegal tempo travellers used to fill the gap. Bengaluru’s growth has to be moderated and capped. Other cities, elsewhere in the state and around Bengaluru, should be developed.

Belawadi: And it should be done with a humane understanding. The poor consume less and they do not pollute the city that much. They live in the pollution that big consumers create. We must look after the poor because you are fouling up the city and the people who are cleaning up the city are poor people.

There are groups of citizens like you who have been doing this for 20 years and know what it takes to have effective citizen action. What kind of people are they? Do you think they are in it for the long haul?
Narasimhan: Bengaluru has had a long history of organisations working for the city, from street hawkers’ associations to slum development. It has been a bit of a silo structure where there has not been a forum for them to talk to each other. What the steel flyover has done is energise the entire city. Every resident welfare association and organisation working for the poor and the underprivileged is feeling a huge sense of empowerment. That is the fundamental takeaway from this.

Second, it has brought a sense of identity in terms of language. We have always used Kannada as the medium of communication and we want to make sure that this identity of the city stays. We are not saying that you must know the language to live here, but if you want to engage with the city, then you must be able to talk to everybody here. This is the first issue that will shrink the divide that has always been there between outsiders and locals in Bengaluru.

Nowadays, as Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, one of the founders of Citizens for Bengaluru says, “Everyone should move from being just a consumer of the city to being a citizen.” This has to be done as only citizens engage with the city.

A protest against the steel flyover that took place on a Sunday in October had people with 9-to-5 jobs coming out and taking a stand. Can we see these same people coming out again and again to effect more change?
Belawadi: Those 8,000 people that came out for the human chain – it was a moment of magic. It was a kind of inflection point. They came again to demand a suburban train system and better bus services, and against the tree cutting, and they will come again.

Narasimhan: In India now, if there is environmental degradation with corruption involved, it gets everybody’s goat. Whoever you may be and wherever you come from, it affects you.

When was the last time citizens in Bengaluru were energised like this?
Narasimhan: Two years ago, we stopped the demolition of the Balabrooie guest house [a 200-year-old British-era building that was to make way for a club house for politicians].

Belawadi: The Ramakrishna Hegde government in the early 1980s wanted to demolish the High Court building. There was an agitation at that time and the building was saved. We should have built a movement from that time. The IT revolution in Bengaluru distracted us because there was massive displacement of people. People sold their properties and moved to the suburbs. In that massive displacement, the old networks – as somebody said, there was a trellis of bonds – got broken. We are rebuilding that now.

Narasimhan: Bengaluru has got its pride back and we are on our way to co-create the future of our beautiful city.