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Concrete galore: The transformation of Bengaluru

By Leo F. Saldanha fot The Hindu

Old residents of Bengaluru South will recall Krishna Rao Park as an unstructured space in which kids played cricket, badminton, football, frisbee, or simply ran about flying kites. A line of benches had elders sitting and chatting after their walks. The whole space essentially as a park was full of lovely old trees with mud paths crisscrossing, and some sections were cobbled. 

Not very different was Cubbon Park or Bugle Rock garden, or for that matter Coles Park, the Jayanagar boulevard and so many of the other parks that found a pride of place in the metropolis.

Such ways of gardening the city evolved out of a charming love for greening earth that Krumbiegal and Dr. Marigowda, who nurtured Lalbagh, revelled in. Their style of crafting and maintaining gardens was to maximise greenery in ways that there would be niches for solitude and gregariousness, while ensuring a sense of comfort, a feeling of belongingness that comes easily with use of vernacular materials and motifs. 

These gardens were welcoming. Everyone from a busy official who used it for a fitness walk, students who whiled away happy times, hawkers who made a living selling snacks, a ragpicker or a tired coolie in need of a nap, all found these spaces inclusive. And in the evenings, they were flush with kids playing just about every game possible.

Redesigning parks

When Bangalore Agenda Task Force, set up in 2000 by the then Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, took on the task of imagining the future of Bengaluru, largely in step with perceptions of fast globalising IT/BT community, the metropolis’ gardens were a major site of their attention: to deliver successful projects of transformation. There was no checking with local people who used these parks in the process; it simply was a process of some landscape architects designing them, running it by a high profile ‘high power’ committee headed by Mr. Krishna and Nandan Nilekani who chaired BATF, and then proceeding to redesign the parks to fit that imagination.

In sync with these emerging imaginaries, the then almost a century old Krishna Rao park was transformed fundamentally: one part was padded with lawns (thus out of bounds to anyone anymore) and the other was where youth and kids would play – and that only after they protested the abrupt blocking of their games. Overall, the unregulated, unconstructured space, very comforting as it was, turned into a display of corporate-style landscaping which determined where one walked, played and sat. This phenomenon quickly spread across the city, and before you could say Cubbon Park, almost all parks were being redeveloped along similar lines.

Sarakki lake in Bengaluru after its rejuvenation and the recent rains. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Corporatised venture

After BATF collapsed, the ideas of urbanisms which it had piloted was orphaned for some years until ABIDE pushed by B.S. Yediyurappa as Chief Minister and then corporate honcho, now Union Minister, Rajeev Chandrashekar, took up the task of envisioning the metropolis’ futures. Both processes were elite driven, and it was no wonder, therefore, that what followed was Tender Sure, a deeply corporatised and entirely undemocratic venture of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike advised by Janagraha, an NGO. 

The focus was to re-engineer roads and open spaces in the core city and CBD, and turn these pockets ‘world class’. This became a template of sorts, especially with the evolution of ‘Smart City’ scheme promoted from Delhi by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and soon neighbourhood collectives in suburbs and periurban areas demanded that they too benefit from such ‘development’. 

Layers of concrete

As Governments changed over the past decade, so did the imaginaries of urbanisms. Next in line was Urban Development Minister K.J. George’s ‘white topping’, which was euphemism for the most disruptive and dusty peeling off of well-settled tar roads and patting them with thick layers of concrete.

This concretising didn’t stop with roads; like a cancer it spread across to pavements, as paved regions into parks, and even into urban forests like Turahalli where, thankfully, public resistance stopped it. But the phenomenon is so widespread now, that it shows up in satellite imageries, and when it rains, the city floods in no time as there is simply no open ground for water to percolate. And in summer ‘heat islands’ result, desiccating what little greenery is left. 

The combination of such concretisation has now bumped up the ambient temperature of the ‘air conditioned’ city by several degrees, which in some areas is as high as 7-8 degrees Celsius. All this translates to an environmentally exacting metropolis which is simply not supportive of advancing public health.

(Leo F. Saldanha works at the intersection of law, policy and governance for advancing environmental and social justice in the non-profit Environment Support Group.)

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