It was a tense few hours for residents of Malleshwaram on 29th June. Some 25 residents including activist Meenakshi Bharath had gathered near Sankey Tank at 11 am to prevent the auction of trees that were to be felled by the BBMP for widening of Sankey Road. Tree officer and Assistant Conservator of Forests, Venkateshappa had come with other BBMP officials to initiate the auction.
Anticipating trouble, personnel from Karnataka State Police (KSP) were present at the venue. Vinay Sreenivasa of the city’s green network Hasiru Usiru requested the authorities to postpone the auction as he had petitioned Mayor Shardamma Ramanjaneya that legally, a Tree Authority for Bangalore needs to be constituted and they have to reconsider the felling of trees on Sankey Road. He reasoned with the authorities that auction could not take place before their appeal was heard befor the Tree Authority. The officials initially said that they would postpone the auction if BBMP Commissioner H Siddaiah gave them orders to do the same.
Frantic calls were made to the Commissioner’s office but he could not be reached. The officials then decided to go ahead with the auction at around 11.30 am. Nineteen trees were marked for the auction and the base price was set at Rs.3 lakhs for the whole batch consisting of trees,. The 19 trees consist of two Atthi trees, one Goni tree, four Jamun trees, one Paper tree, two Jackfruit trees, four Honge trees, two Hunase trees, one Bidiru tree, one Mango tree, and one Male tree.
Protestors who had gathered began to raise slogans against BBMP to get them to stop the auction but in vain. When this did not work, they turned to the 50 or so timber merchants who had come to bid at the auction. After much cajoling by the protestors, the merchants seemed to sympathise with the protestors and agreed to withdraw from the auction.
At this point, BBMP officials had no option but to call off the auction as there were no bidders. Syed Peer, one of the timber merchants from Kalasipalyam said that they (merchants) respected the sentiments of the people and decided to withdraw from the auction. "Our business is to cut trees but not against the wishes of the people. That is why we are not participating in the auction," he said.
BBMP officials then held a mock auction in which no bidder participated and concluded it and told the protestors that they were done for the day and that a mahjar (enquiry report) would be prepared to explain the circumstances under which the auction didn’t take place. Just as residents were heaving a sigh of relief at averting the auction, Jagannath, Malleshwaram BJP President and a few party workers descended on the venue and raised slogans against the protestors and accused them were against development.
Speaking to media persons, Jagannath said, "Widening of Sankey Road is necessary. We will not let citizens hold us hostage while taking up developmental activities." He alleged that several protestors who had come there were not even residents of Malleshwaram. "They are not the voice of residents of Malleshwaram," he said.
This seemed to be a ploy to distract the protestors as officials resumed their auction some distance away. Even the timber merchants, who had promised to stay away came back and registered themselves for the auction. This time BBMP officials were more resolved to carry out the auction. Tree Officer, Venkateshappa, cited orders from his superiors that auction must go on at any cost. Tempers flew as citizen groups became enraged at what they saw as betrayal by the BBMP. By this time the crowd had swelled to more than a 100 people. Members from environmental groups and NGOs such as CIVIC too had come to express their support.
Sensing that the situation would turn serious, S B Abdul Khadar of the KSP called for additional backup from the Karnataka State Reserve Police (KSRP). It was past noon when Abdul Khadar had to face the ire of the public, who questioned his decision to involve the police in the matter. They said that it was a peaceful protest and the police should not be involved in it. "You are preventing government officials from carrying on with his duties and it is my responsibility to protect them," Khadar retorted.
In the melee, another group of residents tried unsuccessfully to get the officials to stop the auction. While some hugged the trees and refused to let go till the officials called off the auction, another group sat on the road holding placards. The timber merchants were called upon again to honour their promise of staying away from this auction. All the hullabaloo and a strong media presence seemed to have unnerved the merchants, who finally decided to withdraw. They took back their demand drafts from the officials and for the third time the auctioned seemed to have been called off.
A few BBMP officials who were not part of the auction, the police and some timber merchants remained at the venue even after was called off. The protestors were relieved temporarily, but they remained wary of BBMP’s intentions and did not leave the venue for another hour. They decided to station a few citizens to monitor the area in shifts till the end of the day.
BBMP announced that the auction will be on 1st July. Dasharathi G V, one of the protestors said that they would turn out in larger numbers on Friday when the auction will be held again. "We only hope that they do not come in the middle of the night and hold the auctions," he said.
Citizens have their fingers crossed, hoping for a positive outcome from their meeting with Deputy Mayor S Harish before the auction takes place. The meeting is the second one this week, is on 30th June at BBMP headquarters.
In a previous meeting with some residents of Malleshwaram on Monday, 27th June, the Deputy Mayor had remained adamant that Sankey Road had to be widened. The stretch from Bhashyam Circle to 18th Cross Malleshwaram is to be widened as per the Revised Master Plan 2015, prepared by the BDA in 2005. The road will be widened to 27 metres from its present width of 13.5 metres.
Speaking to Citizen Matters, Executive engineer for the project, Guru Dutt had said that the project did not need approval from the BBMP Technical Advisory Committee as it was not an in-house project and was already approved by the state government.
ABIDE member Ashwin Mahesh, who has also been a member of the BBMP’s Technical Advisory Committee for the past few months, disagrees. "The government’s transport plan for the city announced in 2009 decided we need to widen only 12 roads, and this is not one of those. And local residents don’t want it. So who really wants to widen the Sankey Road? And why?", he said in a post on Facebook earlier this week.
The residents had argued that improving traffic management would be a better option. They also requested that BBMP put the widening on hold as there were already civic projects going on nearby. They suggested that work on the CNR Rao circle underpass (underpass from Maramma Circle to CNR Rao Circle) and widening of Bellary Road be completed before any more projects were taken up.