Bangalore: The Garden City is turning barren.
Despite several protests and a divided court-appointed committee, projects to widen roads in central Bangalore are progressing briskly as two lanes become four, and four lanes become six.
Suddenly, this city’s nickname seems painfully ironic as the arterial Palace Road, Race Course Road and St John’s Hospital Road are being shaved off their green cover.
And the fight to hang onto Bangalore’s beauty has turned bitterly ugly. Controversies cloud the road-widening project, involving 91 roads leading to the new Bengaluru International Airport in north Bangalore and endangering up to 30,000 trees.
The Karnataka high court-appointed committee, tasked with examining the entire process, appears split. The chairman has been accused of passing decisions without consulting members. The minutes of the meeting face accusations of being doctored.
Road to perdition: Palace Road that leads to the new Bengaluru International Airport. Controversies cloud the road-widening projects involving 91 roads leading to the airport as it endangers up to 30,000 trees. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Bangalore is hardly alone. Indian cities fixing crumbling urban infrastructure also face pressure to preserve the little public space and green cover they have left. Road-widening projects to accommodate more cars have drawn protests, strikes, litigation and multiple applications through the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a tool for citizens to access government records.
In Delhi, roads are being widened for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. In the Mumbai suburb of Powai, at least 100 trees around the Powai Lake face the axe to make way for a jogging track.
“A little bit of sidestepping can save a line of 80- to 90-year-old trees, but this is just not part of the brief that civil engineers are given by politicians and policymakers,” says New Delhi-based botanist, Pradip Kishen, author of Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide. “Trees are being wantonly cut off today... We are being blind and foolish.”In Bangalore, it all began when environmental activist group, Environment Support Group, lodged a public interest litigation in the Karnataka high court challenging the road- widening project. In June, the court appointed a six-member committee headed by retired environment and ecology secretary Yellappa Reddy to examine road-widening in light of ecology and public interest.
Leo Saldanha, the founder of the Environment Support Group, is deeply unsatisfied. “The chairman of the committee has been acting arbitrarily, excluding both petitioners and the public in abrogation of the high court direction,” says Saldanha.
Reddy, the chairman of the court-appointed committee, says it isn’t so. “The committee has given permission (for fellings) after sufficient scrutiny…all decisions are taken unanimously,” he says.
But two members of the committee say they had not agreed to any such orders. Subbarayan Prasanna, a committee member and retired dean of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, says: “I’m not privy to any decisions, if any, to execute projects.”
There is a need to take a step back and review overall the rationale behind the road-widening project, taking into consideration the transport needs of the city, says Carol Upadhya, a committee member and academician. “But the meetings just talk about felling of one tree, or moving of another,” she says.
Most road-widening projects encourage individuals’ cars versus public transportation. This counters the Central government-approved National Urban Transport Policy of April 2006, which discourages private transport.
Delhi is seeing a host of infrastructure projects, including its city rail, pegged to widening of roads. The UP Link Road, connecting Delhi to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, involves axing 1,600 trees has attracted much wrath.
Protests are planned; Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, a New Delhi-based group, has filed an application under RTI, demanding the rationale behind the exercise.
Contrarian policy: Palace Road in Bangalore. Most projects for widening roads encourage use of individual cars, rather than public transport.
“Under the garb of Commonwealth Games, all roads are being widened. One does not know if any thought has gone into it,” says Prabhakar Rao, a member of Kalpavriksh.
Experts tend to agree, saying just because a road gets bigger does not mean traffic reduces.
“Widening of roads does not always lead to reduced congestion given the rapid increase in vehicle registration,” says Dinesh Mehta, professor at Ahmedabad-based School of Planning. According to the union ministry of road transport and highways, the number of four-wheelers in India jumped 34% from 7.05 million in 2001 to 9.45 million in 2004.
It’s not just the trees that are mourning; shopkeepers and other institutions must also make way for broader roads.
Turnbridge High School, a private school on the centrally- located Infantry road in Bangalore, is slated to lose one-third of its playground. “What about the interests of the thousand children?” asks Maureen Ojha, principal of the school.
The 5,000 shopkeepers on the central market area of Avenue Road risk losing their livelihood if Avenue Road is widened. “We are planning a two-hour bandh in the coming fortnight,” says G.V. Sreedhar, secretary of the Avenue Road Commercial Association, a local union and owner of 18-year-old Srirama Jewels shop on the road.
Both the principal of Turnbridge High School and the secretary of the Avenue Road association say they had not received any notification from the municipal corporation about the plan to cut into their space.
According to the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961, municipalities cannot make changes in a locality without notifying the affected parties and giving them a month’s time to respond.
Asked for comment, K.S. Krishna Reddy, chief engineer (major roads) of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the city municipality that is implementing the project, says: “We are not violating any act.”
Some have won their fights to keep the trees. Ahmedabad has managed to widen many roads by keeping the trees and simply making a service lane or a cycle path beside them.
And last month Pune Tree Watch, a Pune based environmental group, averted the felling of 190 trees in the central cantonment area.
“We engaged with different organizations to bring in the heritage, green and traffic angle to the road widening project and the officials were convinced,” says Tasneem Palsinorwala, founder of PuneTree Watch. The Pune Cantonment Board has given her assurance that no trees will be cut in the area.