Recently 8,000 citizens came out in the scorching sun to form a symbolic human chain in protest against a flyover that would cause 800 trees to be chopped and heritage buildings to be demolished.
Considered to be the longest flyover at 6.72km, from the neighbourhood of Basaveshwara circle to the neighbourhood of Hebbal in Bengaluru, the proposed steel flyover is estimated to cost Rs1,791 crore and has sharply divided opinion in the city. The project will be executed by Larsen and Toubro Ltd (L&T) and Nagarjuna Ltd, with the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) overseeing it. While thousands protested, the Karnataka chief minister came out in favour of the construction. The National Green Tribunal has since granted interim injunction and asked the state to file a detailed environmental impact assessment before going ahead with the project, The Times of India reported on its website on Friday.
A total of 3 acres and 28 guntas (a local measure of area) of government land and 1 acre and 0.74 guntas of private land is to be acquired for the project. All these details, though available on the Internet in the tender documents, were never put out in official press notes or briefings, so it never reached a larger audience, laments Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) in the city. The NGO finally filed a Right to Information application asking for the feasibility report on the project and the detailed project report to be made public. After being denied information by the BDA, NBF has moved court with a public interest litigation.
The fact that hundreds of middle-class citizens who own cars chose to come out and say a firm ‘NO’ to the flyover indicates a new coming of age for the urban middle class. It indicates that finally the middle class, which will never debate anything that inconveniences its lifestyle, is now ready to challenge its own biases. It is ready to join the difficult conversations we need to have about modes of transport in the city, who is causing air pollution and whether big infrastructure projects can solve Bengaluru’s traffic jam problems.
Environment activist Meera Rajesh, who was at the protest site, did some interesting research of her own. She interviewed 183 people who had come to protest and found that 71% of the protestors came by personal transport, which included cars, 12% walked to the venue and only 3 out of the sample surveyed cycled to the protest site. While Meera argues in her Facebook post that the figures reveal the need to move towards sustainable modes of transport, there is a greater insight from this enterprising survey. A far more surprising takeaway is that car-owning people who could potentially benefit from the flyover chose to raise their voice against it.
That’s why what matters is not whether the protestors own cycles or cars. What matters is that people are beginning to raise their voice, in spite of the fact that they own cars. A middle class that is thought of as being passive is willing to question its own footprint and that is the sign of an active citizenry that doesn’t want to just blame the government but to be part of the solution.
It is possible that in spite of all the protests, the flyover may be constructed. What the protests have succeeded in doing is open a debate—on the need for big projects, their efficacy and even the material used for constructing them. We need greater public participation on big infrastructure projects at a time when, across India, thousands of trees are chopped everyday for projects such as roads and expressways with very little accountability for alignment, cost and deadlines. The fact that Bengaluru’s citizens have risen to ask the right questions says a lot.
Even in Delhi, when the odd-even scheme was introduced, sceptics argued that it did not help reduce air pollution. But here is what it DID do—it empowered people to participate in what could be one solution to a problem that had so far seemed too complex for them. That’s why, cynicism aside, we need to tap this middle-class anger and channelize it for greater public participation in large-scale development projects. In rural India, tribal and farming communities have fought these battles for their land and forests; now it is the turn of urban India to stand up.
The Bengaluru protests set a healthy precedent of an awakening that urban India so desperately needs to get it out of the eco-disaster our cities face. So more power to the citizens of Bengaluru who chose to raise their voice.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.