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Week 7 Webinar Report: Securing Clean Air and Inclusive Mobility for Bengaluru

Week 7 of “Bengaluru’s Climate Action Plan: Making it Participatory and Inclusive”



Earlier this year, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) voluntarily committed that the metropolis of Bengaluru would take steps to achieve the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement: i.e., to take local action that would help the world contain global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

On the occasion of the 2021 World Water Day, Environment Support Group (ESG) commenced a webinar series to discuss and debate what it takes for Bengaluru to become a climate friendly metropolis. The webinar series is a process of engaging with multiple thematic issues, concerns and imaginaries with leading officials of various State and civic agencies, subject matter experts, youth, representatives of various sectors and residents from diverse sections of the city.  And it is also a process of collectivising diverse views and solutions with necessary nuance. 

In coming together this way, the steps necessary for effective and just waste management, provisioning adequate water and safe housing for all, ensuring universal public health and public mobility, providing infrastructure that is inclusive, and building energy systems that are earth friendly, along with governance that is decentralized and deeply democratic will be interrogated and pragmatic solutions identified for action. In the process we hope to construct an assemblage of visions of Namma Bengaluru and how the metropolis can survive with its limited resources for the benefit of present and future generations and the good of the world.

Week 7:Bengaluru’s Climate Action Plan: Making it Participatory and Inclusive

Mr. Ashwin Lobo, Research Associate at ESG, set the tone for the discussion by drawing attention to Bengaluru adding 12 lakh vehicles to its roads last year. This means Bengaluru now has close to 85 lakh private vehicles, an alarmingly high proportion of private vehicular use for a population of just 13 million people. No doubt this has recently earned Bengaluru the notorious epithet of the city with the worst traffic congestion in the world. Predictably, the air quality of the city has deteriorated to such an extent that air pollution levels are nearly three times above WHO prescribed limits. This explains the spike in asthma, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses, especially in children. In this context Ashwin enquired:

“Could the dense toxic winter smog which has become typical of Delhi and cities of the North, soon become a reality for our beloved Bengaluru?”

Despite these worrying implications for health, mobility remains a basic need. The focus of this session, therefore, was to contemplate on what needs to be done to make movement through the city minimally polluting, while simultaneously easing out traffic congestion. The question is also of how mobility can be reimagined to include those who cannot afford the destructive luxury of private vehicles.

Prof. Ashish Verma, Convenor, Indian Institute of Science Sustainable Transportation Lab commenced his presentation by explaining processes that are used to evaluate climate change mitigation by adapting sustainable transport measures, based on his research experience as part of the Indo-Norway project CLIMATRANS. While thinking about the climate action plan and the future of transportation in Bengaluru, it is important to remember the time of pre- covid mobility, said Prof. Verma. He elaborated that the city saw constant growth of congestion, increase in fuel consumption, and a significant rise in instances of accidents.

“Cutting of trees, expansion of roads, flyovers, underpasses, elevated corridors, etc. have brought us nowhere but more and more congestion.” 

Verma is of the opinion that all such activities have only aggravated environmental problems such as degradation in air quality, rise in levels of noise pollution, and contributing to climate change. People had to wear masks in a pre-covid era as well, as the level of pollution in some parts of the city was really bad. 

Prof. Verma highlighted that what we now need is a systems approach which combines top down and bottom up efforts, in place of the the traditional engineering approach. The traditional approach essentially looks at hotspots and then tries to arrive at solutions which end up in projects such as road widening or construction of flyovers, etc.  In his view the ultimate aim should be to reduce the total kilometres travelled by motor vehicles so that the dependence on fossil fuels can be reduced drastically, and this would contribute to significant reductions in tailpipe emissions, ultimately carbon emissions. Such shifts would eventually lead towards a more liveable city. 

“Quality of life and liveability should be the main goal of any development that we see or do in the future in Bengaluru and we should have the clarity of how we should evaluate interventions in terms of increasing the quality of life.” 

In the post covid world if we have to imagine sustainable urban mobility, what we need is not just a silver bullet but a bundle of strategies and a combination of measures, such as democratic planning and transparent regulation, aided by appropriate economic and technological interventions, said Verma. He argued for 9 principles in developing low carbon and sustainable urban mobility:

To address climate change, he highlighted two main action points – mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation includes efforts to reduce or prevent emissions while adaptation of climate change requires dealing with its adverse effects. Urban flooding is an issue faced very often in Bangalore – paralyzing the entire city.  This area of concern has been researched extensively to provide solutions and Such research contributes to the development of a comprehensive and democratic mitigation framework to deal with the impacts of climate change on issues concerning urban mobility. 

A travel forecast assessment revealed that the number of private transporters would increase, thereby increasing carbon emissions. To address which it is necessary to apply ‘Policy Bundles for Mitigation’ strategies. Such problems cannot be resolved with a single shot solution, Prof. Verma argued. As an example he elaborated on strategies in bundle 3, which are being implemented in Bengaluru and involve an increase in the share of cycle, walk, bus and metro, as part of mobility, while there is significant decrease in share of car, two-wheeler and auto use. None of these measures talks about increasing the length of road or widening of roads. Significantly he highlighted that sustainable mobility can be achieved without an expansion in any road infrastructure measures. He concluded by saying that:

“All this is not possible unless we have integration among agencies. With fragmented responsibilities in Bangalore we cannot really achieve these mitigation and adaptation plans.” 

[Mr. Ashish Verma’s presentation on Evaluating Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Potential of Sustainable Urban Transport Measures in Bengaluru can be accessed here.]

Mr. Mahesh Kashyap, Air and Noise Pollution Expert, Bengaluru began his intervention saying that the government and the authorities concerned must come together to work on aspects of climate change and pollution. He stressed on the need to take timely decisions in the form of bringing out strong policies to avoid catastrophic outcomes resulting from climate change. According to Mr. Kashyap, the problems emanating from climate change are already evident but there is a lack in initiating appropriate measures in tackling them. He stated that a lot of studies have been conducted to understand the impacts of climate change and pollution on the general population which more often end up being repetitive: 

“We are going around in circles. When are we going to start mitigation strategies? The need of the hour is mitigation. What we need to do is emphasize on pollution prevention and reduction issues rather than doing monitoring work here and there.” 

Mr. Kashyap went on to raise multiple issues related to data sharing, lack of coordination between the central and state pollution control boards and miscommunication between the people on field and the authorities responsible in guiding them. There is a complete lack of guidance and transparency in data sharing. He also mentioned that although some agencies have evolved certain measures, ‘there is a long way to go’. He also pointed out that many mitigation strategies adopted are superficial and implemented without proper explanation. He stressed the lack of expertise in handling climate change and pollution issues.

Bengaluru is more of a service oriented city than an industrial city which, according to Mr. Kashyap, is an advantageous position from which to tackle air pollution and climate change. When compared with Delhi’s weather and pollution status, Bengaluru is less likely to reach that situation, he argued.  This is because Delhi has also several coal fired thermal power plants that are in the vicinity, which contribute substantially to the pollution levels along with more recent problems such as crop burning.  Mr. Kashyap listed out some of the sources of pollution in the city; vehicular emissions, construction activities being the major ones. 

“Construction is going on everywhere due to the increasing need to upgrade the infrastructure, which is increasing the pollution level in those sites, unfortunately measures are not being taken to reduce the dust created on such spots.”

In his opinion the city can have uninterrupted supply of power from renewables like solar, wind and hydropower and can shun the overall reliance on DJ sets. He suggested that the government consider connecting the cogeneration plants in sugar mills with the grids which generate power from waste residue. 

Taking a different view from Prof. Vermin, Mr. Kashyap felt that in tackling climate change there is a need to shift focus towards mitigation from adaptation and resilience.

“Looks like we have accepted that we can’t do anything regarding climate change. This should not be the case or the attitude. The state needs to take action to assess the status and what needs to be done to mitigate climate change.”

Mr. Kashyap highlighted the lack of planning as a core concern in the state’s response to Covid crisis. We end up in such situations, he stressed, because we do not plan and implement with an horizon to assess impacts.  There is, therefor, a need to forecast implications of present actions, say over the next five years, in ways that would allow quantification of greenhouse gas emissions, and put in place mitigation plans. 

As for improving public transport, Mr. Kashyap stressed the critical need for massive improvement in footpaths, which he said must be maintained so it encourages people to walk and get off their motorbikes and cars. 

Unlike Mumbai and Chennai, Bengaluru is not bound by water from any side. Hence it sprawls in all directions, and along with vertical growth to high land values,  is contributing to high densities of  human and vehicular population.

As for the increasing emphasis on use of electric vehicles, Kashyap highlighted the need to factor in supply of electricity, appropriate infrastructure, etc. Urban planning to integrate electric vehicles requires time and careful thought, he stressed. 

Mr. Vinay Sreenivasa, Member, Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike began by focussing on the need for a fundamental  change in our perspective with regard to climate change: that it has to be perceived from a framework of justice for all, particularly in cities. 

Dr. B R Ambedkar wanted us to move away from villages and move into cities due to the deep casteism in villages, harassment and discrimination. While cities offer choice, anonymity, and places which are less hostile but also cities have become increased spaces of inequality”. 

Sreenivasa spoke about how Bangalore is not only affected by climate change but is also contributing to it now. Climate change affects marginalised communities first, though they contribute the least to it.  He illustrated this by saying, “Bangalore has only 6500 buses, although we have lakhs of private vehicles. People who travel in buses are the ones who contribute least to climate change compared to a person travelling in an air conditioned car unaffected by outside air pollution”. 

Sreenivasa shared concerns over how processes of urban planning, urban design or transport planning do not even consider equity as a core principle. If this point was taken into consideration, such as by encouraging people to take the bus, then there would be an increase in the number of buses, there would be diversification of the size of buses depending on the location and result in a significant reduction  in private vehicular movement. 

Vinay addressed the promotion of the Metro as a solution to environmentally friendly  public transport as flawed as it hides the extraction of material for its construction and its reliance on coal powered plants for energy. He pointed out that a study on life cycle impacts of the metro in terms of pollution vs a bus rapid transit system revealed that the former is highly inefficient as a public transport choice.

“In the last 5 years, why have there been only 650 buses? In fact over the last year thousand buses have been decommissioned. Why is this happening? Bangalore needs around 10,000 – 12,000 buses and they need to be of different sizes to cover even the interior areas of the city. The moment there is an increase in the number of buses the movement of private vehicles will come down, pollution will decrease and subsequently the impact of Bangalore on climate change will decrease, while also ensuring equity of transport to all”. 

Sreenivasa then moved on to speak about equity in consumption patterns of the people of the city and suggested the first step of the process would be to collect data of these patterns which would then aid in forming solutions to mitigate the contribution to consumption and climate change. He explained how buying from street vendors is more climate change friendly than shopping from departmental stores. If street vendors and pedestrians have conflicts, they can be easily resolved through local town vending committees. 

 Our focus should be on climate justice rather than climate change as it would result in effective, successful and organic solutions to combat climate change”.

Mr. Dasarathi intervened to draw attention to the  “overwhelming focus on electric vehicles” to such an extent that BMTC is willing to spend a crore on buying one electric bus whereas that money can be used to buy almost 5 diesel buses. He went on to highlight that the efficiency of a diesel bus is 30 times that of a private car and 10 times that of a person riding a motorbike. The transition towards sustainable mobility cannot be achieved overnight and requires systemic planning, he said: “lets just first have more diesel busses”

Prof. Nagendran Murthy, former member of the National Green Tribunal, drew attention to inherent conflicts – such as buses and wider footpaths – present.  For which there is a need for deeper debates and reflections on how smooth vehicular movements can be ensured without widening of roads, thus  bringing down pollution levels. Transitions also require a cultural transformation, Dr. Murthy highlighted, citing the example of South Korea  where the Vice Chancellor of a public university is not given a private vehicle and has to travel using public transport. Efforts to encourage those who can to  work from home could contribute to reduced air pollution and traffic loads, and he suggested there is a constant need for nuanced interventions identifying out of box solutions which are useful for implementation.

“Unless the government brings in expertise into their daily practise and then operate the transport system…unless it becomes people’s movement, it won’t be possible…Unless we try, unless we educate, we can’t do anything about this” 

Leo Saldanha of ESG raised a concern about the tendency of technical bureaucrats to typically prefer networking with foreign cities, and not interacting with their colleagues across India in a search for appropriate solutions. He pointed out that there is a need to work not just across departments within the city but to develop a network among cities for appropriate cross-learning. 

Prof. Verma joining this conversation pointed to the need for multiple steps to contain air pollution and called for the abandonment of the prevailing approach that exclusively relies on technological interventions. He stressed the need for planning and policy interventions that are implementable. He also proposed incentivising miles travelled in buses, or cycles or by walk – on the lines of how a credit card point system works – to encourage more people to shift to environmentally friendly transport. He also stressed the importance of reserving one lane for busses in every road which has two lanes in each direction, so that bus priority lanes can be created. 

The discussion rallied around many other possibilities of tackling carbon intensive transport and consequent air pollution and health impacts.  For instance there was emphasis on developing land use in the city through active  policy interventions that would encourage people to live closer to their places of work and education and thus be able to cycle or walk. This way the heavy investment in high capacity public transport systems like metro rail could be avoided.  

On the question of the effectiveness of installing smog towers in the city, Kashyap responded that such technologies should be carefully evaluated for their efficacy, regulatory agencies must share the results publicly, and consider expansion only if the results are satisfactory. On economic instruments such as transport cess to discourage private automobiles and to fund public transport infrastructure, Vinay was all for it. Clearly, he argued, considering that cars take up more space, there is a need for some kind of reparation for the wider public from those who use more road tax. The prevailing disparity that exists where rich people evade parking fees while the street vendor is made to shell out vending charges for occupying a certain place, is clearly inequitable and unjust, he Sreenivasa argued.

“Streets are our commons. Streets belong to everybody. Why should the rich have some kind of preferential access to streets? If you are going to occupy that space, you might as well pay for it, so that it takes care of some other aspects. We should ask for such cess from our elected representatives”

Shamala Kittane, expressed her frustration that there is such heavy investment in the metro, but hardly any at all in encouraging safe cycling and walking everywhere.  Besides, she highlightedm the metro is not accessible to all people. 

Leo Saldanha enquired if such a complex and worrying situation is an outcome of highly stratified decision making systems, which are rigid and incapable of moving a city optimally.  

“Environmental justice, transportation justice, street justice are all deeply political matters, and to see it merely from a technical perspective will not give us the answers…It is also important to try and create a network where it doesn’t become a government-driven system alone. As consumers we have power. As consumers, we are not effectively networked to propel the transformation that is essential” 

ESG will continue the webinar series “Bengaluru’s Climate Action Plan: Making it Participatory and Inclusive” next Monday, 10th May 2021 (6.00-7.30 pm on Zoom) addressing the theme: Reimagining Bengaluru’s Infrastructure as Resilient to Climate-Changewhere we explore if turning planning and development into deeply democratic and decentralised processes and promoting self-sufficient neighborhoods be the answer to reducing the carbon footprint of the metropolis and adapting Bengaluru to climate change impacts? More details on this webinar series can be accessed at www.esgindia.org. A recording of the webinar is accessible here

[Due to an internet failure, Sheshadri Ramaswamy was unable to participate from his location – Agumbe field station.]

Speaker Profiles

  1. Prof. Ashish Verma, Convenor, IISc Sustainable Transportation Lab

Mr. Ashish is the Convenor of “IISc Sustainable Transportation Lab. He has a Ph.D. from IIT Bombay and is currently serving as Associate Professor of Transportation Systems Engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering, Centre for infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation, and Urban Planning (CiSTUP), at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. He has authored more than 195 research publications in the area of sustainable transportation and road safety. He has also authored a book on “Public Transport Planning and Management in Developing Countries” along with Prof. T.V. Ramanayya. 

  1. Mr. Mahesh Kashyap, Air and Noise Pollution Expert, Bengaluru

Mr. Mahesh is a consultant and has worked with a number of government and private organizations in Bengaluru. He worked as a visiting scientist in IISc and a consultant with MoEF. His expertise is in air and noise pollution issues, climate change, teaching and training, health risk assessment and outreach activities. He was formerly a senior engineer with the Department of Environment, Government of Canada. Prior to that, he was associated with various levels of consulting services in the USA, advising clients on environmental issues. 

  1. Mr. Vinay Sreenivasa, Member,  Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike

Mr. Vinay is a member of the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike – a coalition of groups and unions which are working to ensure that bus travel in the city is affordable, inclusive and easily accessible to all sections of society. Vinay’s areas of interests include urban transport, urban poverty, the informal sector and urban governance. He has also been part of initiatives promoting free and open source software in the government. Vinay is also a member of the Alternative Law Forum. 

  1. Mr. Sheshadri Ramaswamy, Naturalist and Conservationist 

Mr. Sheshadri has been practising forestry, silviculture and biodiversity enhancement over the last two decades in drylands, rainforests. His work is focused on practical forestry, applied research and experimentation in forestry techniques. He has a deep expertise in the ecology of forest trees of south India. He was trained under Sri SG Neginhal IFS, in forestry, ecological study and practice, and is sought after as a field advisor to graduate and doctoral students of biodiversity.

[This report has been prepared by Sana Huque, Senior Research Associate and Karthik Anjanappa, Satvika Krishnan, Shrestha Chowdhury, Research Associate, ESG with inputs from Malvika, Ayush, Sneha and Breanne]

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