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Why Bengaluru badly needs a new governance approach

The new government needs to take a revolutionary step towards deep democratization and ground-up administration of the city.

by LEO F. SALDANHA for the Frontline

A traffic snarl at Mekhri Circle, in Bengaluru on November 6, 2022. For years now, severe traffic jams have become a defining characteristic of the city following rapid growth, overpopulation, and a spike in vehicle numbers. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

Within hours of the swearing-in of the new Cabinet in Karnataka on May 20, a squall and thunderstorm hit Bangalore central with such ferocity that all festoons and banners were ripped out and flung over the trees and bamboos of Cubbon Park. The place was a mess. The Meteorology Department had conservatively forecast rain, not a storm of such ferocity. In similar fashion, it warned there would be more thunderstorms in coming days.

The following evening, on the other side of Cubbon Park, 23-year-old Bhanurekha, employed in Infosys’ Hyderabad facility, was killed in the flood. The taxi she was travelling in attempted to cross a flooded underpass, with tragic consequences. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah immediately rushed to the hospital to console the grieving family. Neither had the Meteorology Department warned of such heavy rainfall nor was there any emergency service in readiness across the city to rescue those in danger.

Ribbon of chaos

This was a disaster waiting to happen, given how the city has been recklessly built and expanded over the past two or three decades. Open spaces in the core city, including old neighbourhoods filled with spacious bungalows, have been transformed into built-up areas amid skyrocketing land prices.

As a result, neighbourhoods full of life with kids playing outside are now gentrified. Massive high-rise housing and commercial structures are springing out of every nook and cranny, particularly across the peri-urban sprawl, and in a completely haphazard fashion. Horticultural farms and wetlands, once the pride of the region, are being ripped out and transformed into plasticised neighbourhoods for elite gated communities.

The absence of sufficient open spaces and essential education, health, and social services, combined with weak or non-existent public transport, has made peri-urban Bengaluru an unending ribbon of concretised chaos.

Toxic froth rises from Bellandur lake, in Bengaluru, on August 17, 2017. The lake is highly contaminated by discharge of sewage and industrial effluents, posing a public health hazard.  | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The current state of the metropolis has a lot to do with decisions taken when S.M. Krishna was Chief Minister in the early 2000s. He, like his predecessor H.D. Deve Gowda, who was Chief Minister a decade earlier, imagined a metropolis that would be “world class”.

Deve Gowda leaned on the Singapore government and the Tata group for ideas and the result was the so-called Tata-Singapore Technology Park that rose over beautiful and verdant farms to the far east of the city in Whitefield. Soon, the entire region’s green cover was stripped and ugly complexes of glass, concrete, and aluminium took over, supplying space to the never-ending demand for offices to support the explosive growth of the information technology sector.

Even the Bellandur-Varthur wetlands, critical to protecting the region’s groundwater and thus its drinking water, and which act as a sponge to absorb floods, were not spared.

Spectacle of stupidity

During the unprecedented rains in the 2022 monsoon, Bengaluru became a global spectacle of stupidity: the entire eastern part of the city was flooded. Thousands of young IT workers hung precariously on to road medians, or sat atop buses, or were stuck in high-rise offices until the flood waters drained.

Ironically, it was the farmers who lost their productive farmlands to make way for this kind of development, who came to the rescue with the tractors that they still held on to. Congested neighbourhoods populated by poor and working classes were flooded, destroying everything families owned. High-end gated communities were also flooded, and Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes cars floated around. The floods had wickedly turned into a class leveller of sorts.

“It may also just help if de-growth became a guiding light to Bengaluru’s transformation to sustainability and helped address the massive disparities of development seen across Karnataka.”

How is it that a city, which has been a perching ground and launch pad for mega corporations such as Wipro and Infosys and hundreds of tech companies that service premium lifestyles elsewhere in the world, is still stuck in the silliness of reckless land-use transformations and senseless construction? Especially when it has a long history of planned industrialisation and urbanisation, particularly in the post-Independence public sector era, when more than a dozen major engineering, electronics, defence, communication, and space research facilities came up without causing even a flutter of inconvenience to the old pette areas and suburbs.

The answer to this is complex. But it can be traced to key shifts in planning and governance policies that took place when S.M. Krishna was Chief Minister.

Managed by parastatals

Bengaluru has a long tradition of being managed by parastatals such as the Bangalore Development Authority. Since its creation in 1976, during the Emergency, the agency has developed dozens of residential neighbourhoods. As a result, local municipal governance institutions lost their planning and development powers.

Soon, the Bangalore City Corporation, as it was called earlier, was turned into a mere service provider. Just about every municipal service, from water, power, and public transport to roads and others, was administered by State-run parastatals.

On November 19, 1999, within days of becoming Chief Minister, S.M. Krishna yielded to pressure from the World Bank and privatised solid waste management in the city. This shift was pitched as an essential prerequisite to rid the city of waste and corrupt practices, and usher in world-class efficiency. The only major municipal service still within the domain of the municipality was thus handed over to the private sector.

In subsequent months, Krishna went further to sidestep municipalism. He set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), with leaders from the IT sector and chaired by Nandan Nilekani of Infosys. BATF was made a key instrument to oversee and approve the metropolis’ governance, management, and planning.

These steps were in abject violation of constitutionally mandated decentralisation of municipal administration and devolution of power to the municipality as the third tier of governance, as required by the Constitutional Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992, but that was a mere irritant to Krishna’s vision of delivering a “world-class” city.

Mega projects

A rescue operation under way after a car was submerged in the K.R. Circle underpass on May 21. Six people were rescued but Bhanurekha, a 23-year-old employee of Infosys, drowned. | Photo Credit: PTI

A tsunami of mega projects followed, guided by an elite and unconstitutional BATF. A new airport was proposed 40 kilometres north of the city, ignoring the S.R. Valluri Committee’s recommendations to locate it more optimally west of the city, with ease of integration with existing rail and road infrastructure, and also to support Mysuru, Hassan, and Tumakuru.

The controversial Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project was rammed through, crushing widespread opposition from farmers and environmentalists. In the process, the long-term plan to integrate the existing railway network to support Bengaluru’s public transport demands and develop a suburban railway was shelved.

Instead, the Metro was rushed through, based largely on the Delhi metro chief E. Sreedharan’s presumption of what was right for the city. Inner-city redevelopment was promoted on a “Tender Sure” model, diverting the city’s financial resources towards elite neighbourhoods. And then there was the widening of dozens of roads and building of flyovers to make room for burgeoning traffic.

Subsequent Chief Ministers followed on this trajectory. Yediyurappa, for instance, was keen on building a network of elevated corridors criss-crossing the core city to tackle congestion. And Siddaramaiah, during his first term as Chief Minister, allowed his Bangalore Development Minister K.J. George to promote a most controversial steel flyover that would allow legislators to hop over the worst traffic zones between the Vidhana Soudha and the airport. Both projects met with massive public resistance and reflected the didactic and divisive nature of the planning, governance, and development of the metropolis.

Urban woes: The transport mess in Bengaluru

After almost two decades of building the Metro and spending over Rs.80,000 crore of loan mone y (at least 200 per cent over estimated cost), only 70 km of it is functional. It is a poor public transport choice in a sprawling and radiating metropolis, indicated by the fact that only 5 lakh commuters use it compared to the 40 lakh who take the bus.

Reliance on private transport also continues to grow: the city of 1.5 crore people has over 90 lakh private vehicles and city streets are choked with slow traffic and parked cars. The bus fleet, meanwhile, is poorly maintained and its staff overworked. Even symptomatic relief through the creation of bus lanes becomes a mockery, with city managers adding lanes at great public expense only to tear them out a few weeks later.

The past few years have been particularly bad for Bengaluru as its immense energy to organically make life better for all is choked by a slew of classist interventions. Housing for the poor and support for the working classes is almost nonexistent.

Inflation, high fuel costs, unaffordable rents, increasing food costs, and unaffordable education and health services, have stressed the poor immensely. These factors have also now begun to hurt the middle class.

Bengaluru needs a new approach

Now, as Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar take control of Karnataka, Bengaluru will demand a lot of their attention. They can go down the same path as their predecessors, centralising control over the metropolis’ governance and administration, or take the revolutionary steps needed towards deep democratisation and ground-up administration. All of Bengaluru’s infrastructure projects promoted over the past two decades, which were designed on the model of building over the congestion, have only worsened commuting. It is so bad now that choosing walking and cycling, as was the tradition of this “air-conditioned” city, would be a death wish. Proactive action is needed to purge public spaces of the divisive symbolism that characterised the BJP’s systematic efforts to communalise local tensions and cannibalise the public commons in order to advance sectarian agendas.

Schools, hospitals, public health centres, libraries, and parks require a massive infusion of competence, inclusivity, accessibility, and infrastructure support.

The Indira Canteens, which made food affordable to lakhs of working-class families but were phased out by the BJP, need to be brought back. There are several such low-hanging fruits that can help build public confidence in Siddaramaiah’s government. Most crucially, however, he needs to step up deep democratisation and decentralisation in planning and governing the metropolis. This is critical to rescue the city from the slippery slope it is now on.

“All of Bengaluru’s infrastructure projects promoted over the past two decades, which were designed on the model of building over the congestion, have only worsened commuting.”

With climate change bearing down on the city’s infrastructure, causing havoc in the lives, aspirations, and livelihoods of millions, it would be a disaster to once again rely on ideas and imaginations driven by the aspirations of the rich and the influential.

It might also help if just de-growth became a guiding light to Bengaluru’s development, helping it transform to sustainability and helping address the massive disparities of development seen across Karnataka. After all, all districts deserve equal attention from the State government.

A good first step could be one that ensures a truly democratic Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, elections for which have been pending for almost four years now.

(Leo F. Saldanha is associated with Environment Support Group as an environmental and urban governance policy analyst. He can be reached on [email protected].)

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