Over the last week, hundreds of people have been vociferously protesting against the plans of the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) to build a Metro station in Lalbagh and to cut trees along the verdant Lakshman Rao Boulevard, popularly known as Nanda Road.
On Sunday evening, 19th April, 250 people gathered along the tree lined road. They sang songs, shouted slogans (“Ulisi ulisi, Nanda Road ulisi”) and held a candle light vigil to protest against the proposed cutting of trees in Lakshman Rao Park. Earlier, on Friday, 17th April, about 220 people formed a human chain along RV Road near Lalbagh West Gate. Behind the long line the protesters formed was what had brought them together – an ugly gash of upturned footpath, broken stones and traces of stumps was all that remained of the Lalbagh boundary wall that had once stood there.
It was on the night of 13th April that demolition of the boundary wall near Lalbagh West Gate began. Volunteers of Hasiru Usiru (HU), a network of citizens and groups concerned about Bangalore’s green cover, chanced upon the demolition. The next evening, activists at a hurriedly convened meeting at the site, decided to hold a protest. By that time, about 150 metres of the boundary wall had been demolished. Early next morning, HU volunteers distributed flyers at West Gate and spoke to morning walkers at Lalbagh, urging them to participate in that evening’s protest to save Bengaluru’s natural heritage. They also spoke to independent candidate for the Bengaluru South constituency, Capt Gopinath, who immediately cancelled all other appointments and decided to join the protest. “I am not against the Metro,” he averred, “but it must be an intelligent Metro.”
The first protests organised that Wednesday evening, 22nd April, brought together about 250 people. HU volunteers, volunteers from the NGO, Maraa (meaning tree), ordinary citizens who enjoy the open spaces Lalbagh provides, Capt Gopinath and his band of campaign volunteers and a large posse of media people – all congregated at the site of the demolition.
Capt Gopinath’s supporters held aloft a huge banner proclaiming ‘Smartplan Metro – Preserve Lalbagh’. Addressing the crowd, he pointed out how other cities had not had their parks destroyed by Metros, whether in Delhi or London. “The London Metro has a Hyde Park Station, but the station is not inside the park, it is opposite the park,” he said. An oft-repeated refrain of the protesters was “Metro: underground”.
At least some of those gathered at Lalbagh seemed to feel that the simplest thing to do in order to save Lalbagh and Nanda Road from the axe was to do away with the Metro altogether. Several voices periodically cried slogans against the Metro: “Metro beda” (we don’t want the Metro).
Most, however, said they would prefer to see the Metro go underground. As for the higher costs of an underground Metro, Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group (ESG) and HU says other “fanciful political imaginations” like the Rs. 3,000 crore high speed rail link from MG Road to the airport could be shelved and the money put instead into the Metro going underground.
There are also alternatives to the present Metro alignment which would leave the last few bastions of nature in Bengaluru untouched. One such, proposed by HU and ESG, has the Metro running underground along RV Road, all the way to South End Circle, from where it could proceed to Jayanagar shopping complex.
From here, HU proposes that the Metro turn towards BTM Layout and further. As Saldanha emphasises, instead of heading towards Jarganahalli on Kanakapura Road, where a large number of lower income families live and who are unlikely to use the Metro; to be of maximum benefit, the Metro should touch the Bannerghatta Road – Electronic City area. “Otherwise, as a public transport idea, the Metro will fail,” predicts Saldanha.
The idea that the Metro will alleviate the city’s traffic congestion has also been challenged. According to Metro’s own figures, it will carry 10.2 lakh people a day in 2011, and 16.1 lakh in 2021, which works out to about 10 per cent of the population. But according to BMTC’s website, public buses in Bangalore already carry 38 lakh people a day. With a little more expenditure, an improved bus service could easily carry the 10 lakh passengers that BMRCL says its Metro will carry. Spending Rs. 9000 crore for a Metro project then seems ill thought out.
Some of these reservations, but not the alternative alignments, were discussed during an open house discussion on ‘Bangalore Metro – its socio-economic and environmental impact’ organised by CIVIC in June 2007, in which the then Managing Director of BMRCL, V Madhu, had participated, with members from CIVIC and Hasiru Usiru as respondents. However, architect and HU member Vijay Narnapatti, says they have not met and presented Metro officials with suggestions for alternative routes. HU members are currently working on elaborating their suggestions for alternative alignments.
Thin end of the wedge?
The immediate concern of the protesters in Lalbagh and Nanda Road was the loss of Bengaluru’s irreplaceable natural heritage. Magalam Suresh, a young software professional who took part on Wednesday’s protests at Lalbagh, explained how, as a Bangalorean who had grown up with greenery, he could not sit back and watch as the city lost its trees. “When I heard about the trees being cut, I just had to come,” is how he put it.
There was also the fear that Metro’s planned station in Lalbagh might be the thin end of the wedge. As one young protester, computer professional Pavan Hegde, says, “First, they will want a station. Then they will want a parking lot for the station. Soon, construction would have come up to Lalbagh Lake.”
The experience with the Metro thus far shows that Hegde may have a point. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Metro project claims only 412 trees (of which it says almost 35 per cent are “aged” or “mutilated” and will anyway need replacement in the near future) will be sacrificed for the Metro. But as Vinay Sreenivasa of HU says, “About 250 have already been cut. And now, in response to an RTI, we know that 323 trees are going to be cut for the Metro along Nanda Road.”
The legal angles
During Wednesday’s protest at Lalbagh, Saldanha said Metro’s action of tree felling was in violation of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act and the Tree Preservation Act. He also mentioned that the felling had been done without permission from the Tree Officer.
According to the Tree Preservation Act (1976), permission needs to be taken from the Tree Officer, a forest official assigned to the BBMP, before cutting any tree in the city. This Act does not apply to lands under the Horticulture Department; both Lalbagh and Cubbon Park fall under the Horticulture Department. However, the land where the boundary wall has been demolished is no longer a part of Lalbagh.
In November 2008, when both Houses of the Karnataka State Legislature were not in session, stating that there were circumstances that necessitated immediate action, the Governor promulgated an ordinance amending the Karnataka Government Parks (Preservation) Act of 1975. Called The Karnataka Government Parks (Preservation) (Amendment) Ordinance, 2008, it allowed the State government to ‘alienate’ – legalese for transfer ownership – 1135.18 m2 of land near the compound wall along RV Road to the BMRCL for constructing the Lalbagh West Gate elevated Metro station. (Incidentally, this same ordinance also transferred 1223 m2 at the Indira Gandhi Musical Fountain Park in Cubbon Park to the BBMP to allow it to widen roads there).
The BMRCL Public Relations Officer BLY Chavan and Lalitha, Assistant Director at the Horticulture Department, confirmed that the land had been transferred to BMRCL. So does this mean that the Tree Officer’s permission is required?
Venkateshappa, Tree Officer for Bengaluru (South) said that BMRCL had indeed applied for permission to cut some trees along RV Road, but that “pending some inspection”, he had not yet granted that permission. He added that it would take him eight to 10 days to complete that procedure.
Venkateshappa says three Ficus trees have already been cut, before the permissions have been granted. He has since filed a complaint against the contractor in charge.
Chavan of BMRCL, however, refused to talk to Citizen Matters about why they had asked, but had not waited for, permission to cut trees. “I do not want to comment on this until after the elections because it has become a political issue,” is all that he is willing to say.
RK Misra, member, ABIDe, the task force chaired by the chief minister, refused to comment at this point, “ABIDe having been constituted by the govt, we cannot make any pronouncements on the issue when the code of conduct is in force.” He pointed out that the transport minister, R Ashoka has already said that they are going to relook at the alignment, to see that Lalbagh and Nanda Road are not affected. As a consulting body, if the government requests them (after the elections), “ABIDe will provide advice on a relook at Metro alignment.”
Of Town and Country
Legally speaking, there is another Act which may make Metro’s act of demolition illegal. CIVIC Bangalore and ESG have been legally challenging the issue of tree felling for road widening for several months now. They had filed a writ petition in May last year challenging the BBMP’s road widening schemes, stating, among other things, that they did not conform to the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1963. As a consequence, an empowered committee was set up in June 2008 to look into cases of tree felling and into related matters such as public and private transport – both directives that directly impact the BMRCL, which was also a respondent (meaning defendant) in the case.
As part of the same case, on 16th March this year, the High Court ruled that while the BBMP was free to proceed with road widening, it should “strictly follow the provisions of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act”. As a respondent and as an entity involved in tree felling and providing public transport, this directive is also legally binding on BMRCL.
This is why protestors have decried Metro’s moves as illegal. The Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act (1963) provides for public input into the planning process. This has not been done for the Metro construction in Lalbagh, nor at Nanda Road.
With each protest, the ranks of Hasiru Usiru have been swelling as citizens, horrified at the thought of losing trees in Lalbagh and Nanda Road, join the green movement. On Sunday’s protests along Nanda Road, several residents of the neighbourhood joined in. Volunteers and protesters distributed flyers to passengers in passing cars, buses and autos, several of whom promptly joined the Hasiru Usiru coalition the very next day.
In the meanwhile, Sunday night’s assertion by Transport Minister R Ashoka that he had instructed BMRCL to stop work until the polls has energised the green activists. But they plan to press on with the struggle to save Bengaluru’s green heritage.
On 21st April, one day before Earth Day, the fourth protest in a week was organised by Hasiru Usiru to protest Metro’s plans of felling trees in Lalbagh and along Nanda Road. About 150 people walked along RV Road from South End Circle to Lalbagh West Gate, passionately shouting slogans all the way (“Vote for Lalbagh! Vote for Nanda Road!”). At West Gate, they listened to short speeches by HU members Sreenivasa and Narnapatti.
Addressing the wildly cheering crowd, Narnapatti spoke about how, in contravention of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, no public consultations had been held by the BMRCL. “If they have a consultation, we can give them alternatives,” he said, outlining two possibilities: The Metro can go via KR Road and thence to 4th Block, or “it can go underground in which case it can go anywhere”, he said. The meeting concluded with the announcement of a public meeting to be organised by Hasiru Usiru on 1st May in an as yet undecided venue.
Later, reacting to statements made by BMRCL officials that public consultations had been held in 2004, Saldanha said any meetings that might have been held so far did not constitute statutory public meetings as required by the law.