Bengaluru went from being the Garden City of India to India’s answer to Silicon Valley virtually overnight. The city’s pensioners made way for code-spanking techies who thronged the city armed with two words that invite more scorn than understanding – ”Kannada gothilla!” (I don’t speak Kannada!).
In the midst of its choked roads and glaring glass facades, Bengaluru is a city dying under its own weight. The weather during the day is described with loaded lines like, “Wow! It’s becoming worse than Chennai!” Bengaluru was once the place where Chennai would come to discover what winter was. But, not anymore.The traffic in Bengaluru is an exercise in extreme patience and a test of one’s organisation skills. Bangalore measures distance in time, Domlur to Koramangala is 20 minutes or 45 minutes, depending on what time of the day you decide to test your patience. Whitefield to M G Road is considered a trek, best measured in days and nights.
Some things about Bengaluru stand out immediately. People here love building walls and living inside them, much like the Trump character from the show they call the American election. Gated communities are a dime a dozen, advertising their exclusivity rather than inclusiveness. Space is also a key selling point in these communities. In a city where public spaces are quickly shrinking, private spaces come at a premium. The old aunty with a dachshund, down the lane recently invested in an extension of the height of her wall. The herd of people walking past her property are on average 6 inches taller than what they used to be a decade ago. She’s noticeably distressed. Bangalore ranks high in terms of its crime rate. All signs of how bad things are getting.
A lack of social infrastructure, irregular power supply, lack of adequate water supply, increasing pollution, a dying ecological environment and a booming population are all hallmarks of a failure in governance, and therein lies the real reason Bengaluru is dying.
Now, a steel flyover is at the centre of this struggle to wrestle the city from the crutches of poor governance. A 6.7 km symbol of failure and corruption is the Chief Minister’s latest fad. Expected to cost over INR 1800 crore (INR 268 cr per Km), the bridge is expected to save commuters merely 7-10 minutes of travel time to the airport. The project is being mooted as an answer to the city’s burgeoning traffic problem though evidence produced by experts seem to point to the contrary. In contrast, an extension of light rail transit is expected to cost around INR 200 cr per km.
The city is up in arms over the proposal that’s expected to lead to the loss of further public space, and over 800 trees to motorised traffic. Experts, including ones paid for by the government, have all argued that the bridge will merely shift congestion from one part of Bengaluru to another and lead to, among other things, an increase in temperature, loss of fragile ecological systems, loss of several heritage monuments and offer no real solution to the problem of mobility.
Yet, the government has used dubious methods to push the proposal through with undue haste, manufacturing consent along the way and ignoring the very loud dissent over the project. One show of protest saw nearly 10,000 citizens form a human chain to denounce the flyover. A #SteelFlyoverBeda (No to Steel Flyover) campaign soon took over Twitter and Facebook, and mobilised citizens across the the city. Over the weekend, a group of citizens calling themselves Citizens for Bangalore Forum, rallied to organise the dissenters of the project, collecting nearly 42,000 “beda” (no) votes for the bridge in response to the government’s 217 responses in favour.
Prakash Belawadi and Naresh Narasimhan, who lead the proceedings at the forum, best described the bridge as a “steel dagger to the heart of Bangalore.” Ramachandra Guha showed uncharacteristic candor at the forum, blasting the government for what he called fraud and folly. He ended his speech with the commandment, “Thou shalt not steel!” — his message was received with thunderous applause.
The government and opposition’s absence from the forum was telling of the state of democratic representation in the state. The government’s own consultation on the project was itself an act of incompetence, having sought opinion on the project with a non-existent email address. A last minute correction allowed for 299 responses of which the government claims over 70% are in favour. Though it provides no further details that can be verified.
RTI applications on the project have been denied and most residents are clueless about the scale of the project and its ramifications on their everyday lives. Where the government should be concentrating on moving people, it has instead focused on a policy to move motorised traffic. In effect, the government is incentivising more private ownership of cars and environmental plunder. Public transport will not be allowed on the bridge and pliers can expect to pay two tolls to get to the airport should they choose to use the bridge — a feature unique to this city.
The Siddaramaiah government’s contempt for democracy comes as no surprise. Bengaluru, a 480-year-old city, was once a land of abundance and acceptance. Today it’s the land of scarcity and intolerance. A comedy of tragedies is unfolding in the corridors of power. Politicians cast a dark shadow over the city, like vultures, praying on its finite resources to line their own pockets.
Be awed. The city houses some of the world’s top talent. Companies like Cisco, Honeywell, Amazon, etc. run massive R&D centres in Bangalore. A major share of India’s startups are here. The architect of the Aadhar Card — Nandan Nilekani; Ramachandra Guha — India’s premier historian; India’s only woman billionaire — Kiran Mazumdar; The two largest e-commerce companies in India (Amazon and Flipkart) are both headquartered here; The Indian Institute of Science — one of the foremost authorities on scientific research in India; DRDO, ISRO — I could go on. Yet the government of the day displays an alarming lack of intelligence or spine. It’s sitting on perhaps the largest pool of human intelligence in India, but none find voice in this government.
Congress infighting over cabinet berths and quarrels about the Chief Minister’s expensive watch are regular headlines in the local news, a sign of the government and opposition’s priorities. Meanwhile, Bengaluru lives on borrowed time. Should the steel flyover go through, it will be the final nail in the coffin for both Bengaluru and the Congress party in Karnataka. The flyover may allow the Congress party to leave Karnataka seven minutes sooner. Alas, maybe that’s perhaps the flyover’s best selling point.