Protests have started in Bengaluru against a proposed 100-km elevated road network that is supposed to connect the far ends of the city through its centre. Citizen activists are asking the Karnataka government to cancel the tender for the Rs 27,000-crore project on the grounds that there was no public consultation and due process was not followed. They contend that the project will not reduce traffic congestion or ensure inclusive mobility. Moreover, they point out, it will damage the environment.

The corridor is designed as a central loop of elevated roads around the heart of the city from which extend three sets of long arms, one running north to south and two going east to west. Some sections have connecting corridors between important roads and junctions. The sections where the elevated roads cross have multiple levels with ramps connecting main roads. Each elevated road has four or six lanes to enable traffic to move at up to 80 km per hour.

The corridor is proposed to be built by the Karnataka Road Development Corporation Limited, or KRDCL.

The activists do not believe the ambitious project will sufficiently improve the flow of traffic. “It is like putting a band-aid on cancer,” said Srinivas Alavilli, co-founder of the group Citizens for Bengaluru, which first came together two years ago to protest against a proposed 7-km steel flyover from the city centre to the airport. “We have nearly 50 flyovers in the city and three elevated corridors. If these are the solutions, then they have failed because we still have traffic problems. Transport research shows that if you create more road space, it will attract more vehicles, which is a worldwide urban phenomenon.”

Flyovers, activists say, only shift traffic congestion from one point along a road to another.

Map courtesy Karnataka Road Development Corporation

The activists are also worried about the environmental impact of the massive project. According to the draft feasibility report for the corridor, it will entail felling nearly 3,800 trees and trimming another 2,000. Some of these trees fall within the limits of the city’s iconic green lung, Cubbon Park. While environmental clearances are given to infrastructure projects on the grounds that the least number of trees are removed and they are replanted or translocated, this has not been followed in Bengaluru.

Another worry is about the construction activity and the debris left behind. “Only 50% of air pollution in Bengaluru is due to vehicular pollution,” said Alavilli. “The rest is caused by construction dust because the debris is not properly disposed of.”

Process problems

The State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority granted a green clearance to the project on March 2. Two days later, the KRDCL issued a tender for the first phase of the project, a 22-km north-south stretch, without holding any public consultation.

The Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act mandates four stages of public participation in urban planning and infrastructure development. Hearing a petition on the construction of metro rail in the city in December 2010, the Karnataka High Court had directed the state government and the Bengaluru Development Authority to comply with the public consultation provisions of the law in case there is a change in land use from what is specified in the Master Plan, a blueprint that lays out development projects and a regulatory framework for the city for the next 15 years.

“By and large, the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act has not been implemented, except as a ritual while drawing up the Master Plan and the plan is broadly violated,” said Leo Saldahna, coordinator of the non-profit Environment Support Group.

The elevated corridor project was not mentioned in the Bengaluru Development Authority’s draft Master Plan 2031. Neither was the responsibility of overseeing it given to the Directorate of Urban Transport, which was set up under the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 for just such a purpose.

Urban specialist Sujaya Rathi noted that transport planning in Bengaluru has been characterised by institutional fragmentation, inevitably leading to questionable investment decisions. “Urban transport is a function of your land use – where people stay, where they work and so on,” said Rathi, citing as an example Bengaluru’s ring roads, which in several places separate people’s homes from their workplaces. Designing these roads only for fast-moving traffic and making them signal-free renders the space unusable for pedestrians. Skywalks to cross the roads have been built at a few places and only recently, almost as an afterthought.

“There is no basic understanding of land use when proposing the projects,” said Rathi. “What we need is integration of transport and land use. The Master Plan should be complemented with a Comprehensive Mobility plan, to ensure land-use and transport integration.”

Social impact

Since getting the steel flyover shelved two years ago, Bengaluru’s activists have been advocating for better public transport – improving the city’s bus service by adding to the woefully inadequate fleet of 6,600 buses, enhancing last mile connectivity from the metro, operationalising the suburban railway – as they are inclusive and will benefit people who do not own or use cars.

Saldahna pointed to the damaging social impact of creating pedestrian-unfriendly and car-friendly infrastructure. “Sociologically, it is well-known that where there are projects like these, neighbourhoods get fragmented, social relationships break down and crime shoots up,” he said, citing the example of Seoul, which tore down its freeways after two decades because they were wearing out, damaging the environment and spoiling the view of the city.

On Wednesday, the High Court provided a glimmer of hope to the activists when it asked the state government not to go ahead with the project until the it disposes of a case related to the functioning of the Metropolitan Planning Committee . Citizens’ groups had moved the court alleging the government was not serious about constituting the committee, which is supposed to be entrusted with all development works. The next hearing of the case is on March 19.

However, the court’s directive may not have an immediate impact since the KRDCL has not yet started work and only floated a tender for the elevated corridor.

Meanwhile, Alavilli’s group and many other citizen activists are planning to hold a demonstration against the proposed project over the weekend.

“What we are saying is first get the metro done, get the suburban train done, see how many people are using them and then if there are still some areas where you need one or two flyovers build them,” said Alavilli. “But you cannot build a huge project that will create urban heat islands across the city, for which you will dig up the city and have construction dust and debris, without improving all the public transport options first.”

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