Bengaluru has the most active citizenry any city can dream of. There are sustainable transport advocates, public transport activists, runners, cyclists, environmentalists, civic activists, anti-corruption activists, urban planners, architects, artists, political activists, public policy experts, resident welfare associations – you name them, you have them here. And the steel flyover coming up on Bellary Road has united them all in protest, under the banner ‘Citizens Against Steel Flyover’.
A human chain event has been planned this weekend on October 16th, 2016, from Chalukya Circle to Hebbal, to oppose the steel flyover. A team of citizen activists is mobilising people across the city to join the human chain, with unprecedented support from people belonging to all walks of life.
This cartoon by Bengaluru’s famous cartoonist Paul Fernandes reflects the public sentiment, with a tongue-in-cheek visual of the Rs 1800-crore six-lane steel flyover project that will cover the 6.7 km distance from Raj Bhavan to Hebbal.
Secrecy in the project, refusal of information
This project meant to decongest Bellary Road has been in the pipeline for a long time now. In 2011, it found the first mention in news reports, in the form of elevated corridors during the BJP regime. The project found an official mention in the 2014-15 state budget, presented by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah on February 14, 2014. The Detailed Project Report was reportedly ready in March 2014 itself, but was not available for public scrutiny.
The land required to be acquired from Palace Grounds for widening the Bellary Road was under dispute at the Supreme Court, and decks were cleared for the land acquisition in November 2014. Soon after, the BDA formally announced the project. PN Nayak, engineer member, BDA, was quoted by Times of India, as saying that the construction was supposed to be a metal structure.
This discussion by a minority of people in the advocacy group, Praja offers some insights to the scenario. Activists and urban experts have been opposing the idea of a flyover to airport from the beginning, but the arguments have always been based on incomplete information, as the government never provided details about the project, the cost-benefit analysis or complete plans.
When Citizen Matters tried to get the Detailed Project Report (DPR) while working on a story on steel flyover, BDA officials told us to go back another day to get it. The next time we went, they did not share the DPR with us. We were told that the DPR has been sent to the State Cabinet and they can’t share it before its approval.
In July 2016, yielding to public pressure, the government kept the project on hold, and called for public opinion. However the time given for public to react was very less. The BDA has not shared the details of this exercise in public domain, and has refused the RTI queries seeking these details.
Three months ago, Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF), a non-government organisation in the city, filed an RTI application asking the feasibility report of the project, DPR, public opinion copies and many other details. After being denied of information by the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA), now NBF has moved court with a public interest litigation. The copy of RTI replies received by NBF are here:
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“Without giving details of such a big project, the BDA called for public consultations. Sources told us the opposition for the project was higher than the mails that supported it, but the BDA says only 299 emails came, of which 73% supported the project! There is no transparency, no attempt to make the public feedback public, how can we trust BDA?” asks Suresh N Ranganath, who filed the RTI applications on behalf of NBF.
Botching up big time by not sharing public data
However, the information on land acquisition, the diagrams of the project, geotechnical investigation details, tender details, cost escalation details, drawings of the ramps, structural diagrams, modifications made – all details have been on public domain, in the E-Procurement website since September 2015. (You can see them here as well.)
The tender was called for the project on September 28, 2015. Currently it is searchable in E-procurement website, with the tender number BDA/2015-16/FL/WORK_INDENT1186. The status shows up as ‘under evaluation’. See the tender documents here. However, it does not contain the DPR, feasibility report etc.
With unnecessary secrecy and denial of information, the BDA botched up the project big time, leading to mistrust among public and the media. Selective leaks to a few media outlets did not achieve much publicity, as there was no comprehensive media briefing on the project by anyone.
We wanted to understand this better. When we asked R Vijayakumar, Executive Engineer, BDA, who also handles RTI queries, as to why the information that was on public domain was not shared with RTI applicants, he said the officials have certain conditions under RTI, so they cannot share all the information asked under RTI. However, he did not disclose the exact reason.
A report by The Hindu says that Larsen and Toubro (L&T) has been finalised for the project. The government had earlier clarified that heritage buildings won’t be demolished, but 812 trees will be cut. A total of 3 acres 28 guntas of government land and 1 acre 0.74 gunta 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.
Fear of demolition of heritage, tree cutting
The project has been termed as the one that will destroy a beautiful stretch of heritage structures and 812 trees. Naresh Narasimhan, a city-based architect, has detailed the perceived losses from the project in this video. (Video courtesy: Carlton Braganza)
Political differences or affiliations have been set aside, while evaluating the merits of this project. “Bengaluru needs some innovative solutions to address the traffic issues and to decongest junctions, the Steel Flyover is in a way a good solution as it can be completed faster, but I am quite concerned about the trees that may be axed for the construction of the flyover. Government has to take steps to save trees even if it means making changes to the alignment. Also the government has to ensure that there is no environmental impact in this project,” says Kavitha Reddy, a lake activist and State Secretary of Mahila Congress, Karnataka.
“Public open spaces are shrinking, now at 5.8% while it needs to be more than 15%. For the loss of trees and open spaces it causes, and lack of aesthetics it brings in, the flyover will effectively kill any neighbourhood life below, all for reduction of just 10 minutes travel time,” says V Ravichandar, a member of Bengaluru Blue Print Action Group (BBPAG).
Project not seen as part of a larger mobility plan
As there are not enough details available on public domain and not much information given by the concerned, most activists feel that the project is not a part of an integrated plan, and will promote private transport/ cars over public transport, while the city needs a better public transport system.
Since the project is on Bellary Road, it is seen to be helping the airport traffic. According to Airport Authority of India (AAI) data for August 2016, the traffic that goes to and comes back from the airport is on an average 61,000 persons per day. This is very less when compared to the 40 lakh+ bus footfalls and 1.9 lakh Metro footfalls in the city. Activists question the necessity of designing a flyover for 1% of the total number commuters in the city.
Even more importantly, there is the proposal to construct a Metro line to airport, and one of the nine routes suggested by RITES is on the same Bellary Road route. Going for the steel bridge without finalising the Metro route has irked many, because if Metro comes on the same road, it is again a question of land acquisitions and years of construction activity, which needs to be borne by the users of the road and residents living nearby.
There are also proposals to develop two existing alternate roads to the airport, that pass through Budigere cross. People are questioning the logic behind coming up with an elevated road while one of those alternative roads could be developed at a fraction of the cost of this elevated flyover.
Ravichandar says there is no way a car-centric approach can ever fix the traffic issues in Bengaluru. “We have road deficit infrastructure. Government must believe and demonstrate their faith in public transport. Long flyovers and tunnel road proposals indicate a car mindset,” he says.
‘Commuter railway not considered’
The city has good length of railway network, that connects till Devanahalli. With some dedicated budget, this line can be developed till the airport, and will be an easy mass transport solution, feels Srinivas Alavilli, a citizen who is also co-ordinating the human chain event. “I want better connectivity to airport too. But as the keeper of my tax money, I want the government to spend it judiciously, to benefit more people, rather than a fraction of the community,” he adds, condemning the “complete lack of imagination behind the project.”
‘Steel is not a cause for concern’
According to Nitin Seshadri, a resident of Koramangala, the opposition to the steel flyover on cost factor is a poorly thought out argument. Steel is costlier than concrete, and works out expensive in the shorter term. However the life of a steel structure is more than a concrete structure. Electronic city elevated road constructed in 2004 that had a length of 9 km was initially pegged at Rs 360 crore, but ended up spending around Rs 776 crore.
In last 10 years, steel price has seen a downward trend, and 2015 saw the bottoming out of steel price. Global trends for steel price predict an upward trend in future, during which time the project will be undertaken if allowed. The price of steel keeps on increasing, and steel is cheaper than concrete in the long run, says Seshadri. A concrete bridge can last about 35 years, after which there will again have to be investments made to build a new one, but with proper maintenance, steel bridges last longer, about 75 years, hence the cost will be well-worth it, Seshadri argues.
If the flyover lasts for 75 years, instead of having a concrete flyover, a steel flyover makes sense. Price of steel is Rs 40,000 per tonne today, and that of scrap steel is Rs 19,000 per tonne. When the life of the bridge ends, the steel price would have gone up multiple times because the amount of steel on earth is limited. The steel scrap from the bridge will have better value than concrete waste, feels Seshadri. It’s not a bad bargain to build a steel flyover according to him.
However, hiding DPR data and not sharing details is something to be worried about, feels Nitin Seshadri. If the due process was not followed in the finalisation of the project, that is something to worry about. Transparent procedures and more details about the project should be demanded from the government, he feels.
The government hasn’t put any efforts into developing any of the existing options, but wants to go ahead with the project. This has upset many activists working on making commuter railway a reality in the city.
Nithya Ramakrishnan, a resident of Whitefield and cofounder of the citizens group Whitefield Rising, says that the MP for Bengaluru East, P C Mohan did a fantastic job by building Hoodi railway station. “Like this we need many more people-focused efforts. Who is thinking up these projects when the people of the city don’t agree? What we need right now is projects that promote mass transit. Not car travelers,” she says.
‘Let there be a mobility plan for the city’
While the city has Metropolitan Planning Committee in place, the approval of this body has not been obtained for the project. Many citizens have asked for a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, but it has not materialised so far.
Ashwin Mahesh, an urban expert, says that by deciding to go ahead with the project against public sentiment, the government has made this more of a prestige issue, rather than an issue based on facts and needs of the city. He calls for a meeting of Metropolitan Planning Committee, chaired by the CM. “Let it put out a master plan for decongestion that looks at multiple options, with opportunity for public input. And from those options, let there be a decision on what projects should go forward,” he suggests.
There are many who in principle agree there need to be flyovers, but disagree with the process. But Ashwin says: “The project is a result of the process. Who in BDA is a mobility expert? How did they come up with this plan? Who in BDA advised the consultants, or approved their plans?” Having no expertise in the government departments and going by the words of the consultants is a recipe for disaster, in his opinion.
Cost, expertise of BDA under question
Many activists see the cost pegged at Rs 1,791 crores as too expensive for a 6.7 km project. People are questioning the logic behind spending so much, that will save a 7 to 10 minute drive to the airport.
However, the real length of the project is about 12 km, including all ramps. The cost of the project includes the dismantling of the existing traffic bottlenecks, excavation and reconstruction of roads underneath. Except for one or two media reports, the full picture of the project, including the cost factor, was never communicated by the government or the BDA publicly.
BDA’s previous underpass, overpass and flyover projects that have worsened the traffic scenario are yet another reason for people to distrust BDA’s capacity in executing the project. Steel structures are new to the city, hence people are skeptical about the aesthetics and possibility of the entire plan.
“There are no technical, financial and environmental viability for this project. Where is the feasibility study? Metro, mono rail would have been better choice with less obstructions and same money. This is unsustainable,”; says Prof M N Srihari, traffic expert.
The project is being termed as ‘Steal Bridge’ – something that will help the concerned parties make quick bucks. Bengaluru Incharge Minister K J George’s feeble attempts to challenge the allegations have fallen on deaf ears, for the public opinion has already been made.
Too little explanation, too late
The outraged citizen communities engaged in twitter campaigns, email campaigns and call-a-thons. Citizens called up MLAs and MPs of Bengaluru to express their anguish about the project and seek support. Open letters were sent to Bengaluru Blue Print Action Group (BBPAG), demanding to know why the BBPAG supported the project. The replies from some members were of many hues. While some of them said they will seek an alternate route, some had reservations on the concept of flyovers itself. However the project has been distanced by everyone.
After the public outrage that erupted on social media, the Bengaluru Development Authority uploaded a file on its website late on Wednesday evening. The file had some project details that are already in the public tender documents. It also answered some queries regarding the flyover.
The cost factor was explained, and it was clarified that the cost includes overall about 11.3 kms including ramps, ground level improvements, the VAT amounts etc. The choice of steel over concrete was justified by explaining how difficult it will be to construct using concrete on this stretch as it is the busiest and cannot be closed for traffic, while steel allows the construction to happen with minimum hindrances as steel structure is prefabricated and can be installed on site. Part of the price escalation was attributed to steel price.
The release clarified that other than a small part of Balabrooie compound, none of the other heritage structures will be demolished, and ‘60,000 numbers of ornamental plants’ will be planted to compensate for the loss of 812 trees!
However the release said permission from Metropolitan Planning Committee was not required because: “BMPC has jurisdiction to suggest overall plan and projects. Approval of each and every project need not be obtained from BMPC. The Cabinet has already accorded approval.” Environment clearance and social impact assessment was not required for the project, said the release. However, the BDA release left many questions on larger integrated mobility plan for the city unanswered, and left citizens unsatisfied.
All the claims made by BDA have been rebutted by the activists. With community mobilisation already in place and the BDA release leaving much to be explained, the citizens are going ahead with the unique protest, to make the government see the point of having community participation before deciding on a big infrastructural project for the city.
As Ashwin Mahesh puts it, “It is not an anti-Congress claim, or an anti-contractor claim… let us have a PROCESS in place for deciding how we will spend public money. That is all that is being asked. It is reasonable, and moreover, it is the law.”
Full disclosure: Ashwin Mahesh, quoted here, is a trustee at Oorvani Foundation that also funds Citizen Matters. V Ravichandar was an investor in Oorvani Media Pvt Ltd that runs Citizen Matters. Many citizens named here have been supporters of Citizen Matters, and have participated in citizen meetings and events organised by us. Namma Bengaluru Foundation has picked Citizen Matters for best media organisation award in 2014 Namma Bengaluru awards.