When former Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa inaugurated Bengaluru’s Commercial Street in July, one didn’t expect the makeover to run as quickly as it did. Within hours, the so-called ‘Smart’ street was unable to contain the rainwater, which then found its way into shops. Within a week, the street wore its usual haggard look. It certainly didn’t look like a year had been spent giving the road an expensive makeover!
Commercial Street is among the 36 roads being developed under the Smart Cities Mission in the Central Business District (CBD). While the roads under the project have had their issues, none quite like Commercial Street (and these roads have to live up to higher standards than regular roads, don’t they?). So, what went wrong?
“TenderSURE guidelines diluted”
The roads under the Smart Cities project were designed by Jana Urban Space, part of the Jana Group, as per TenderSURE principles. But while the initial TenderSURE projects like Church Street and St Marks Road are holding strong, Commercial Street was a washout. “TenderSURE has been diluted over and over again. Whatever they now call TenderSURE is not the TenderSURE from the original times,” says Srinivas Alavilli, Head, Civic Participation, Janaagraha, which is part of Jana Group.
Read more: What’s this TenderSURE all about?
While planners and designers follow a set of guidelines and design principles to reimagine roads, these get diluted by the time of execution. Nithya Ramesh, Director, Urban Design at Jana Urban Space, says, “Though the Smart Cities road designs are as per TenderSURE guidelines, we’ve only done the working drawings. We were not involved in the implementation. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a site visit (to Commercial Street) and don’t know why this happened. My informed guess is that it’s because it was done in a hurry or they didn’t maintain the slopes that went toward the storm water drains.”
Nithya adds that some amount of dilution in guidelines is not necessarily a bad thing. “In some cities, dilution is essential. For example, in Bengaluru there are many TenderSURE footpaths, without doing the roads and utilities. I think this is still great because these are places that either didn’t have footpaths or they were in bad condition.”
But problems arise when a road that’s supposed to be entirely based on a certain set of guidelines (TenderSURE in this case) is diluted. “Then there’s something wrong and why that’s happening needs to be questioned. But if due to time, budgetary or capacity constraints, certain local bodies decide to renovate only footpaths or intersections, I think that’s a great idea. At least they are being honest. Commercial Street doesn’t fit into this,” says Nithya.
Where’s the accountability?
Srinivas Alavilli says that poor execution of works, as in the case of Commercial Street, happens all the time but people don’t pay attention to it. “When it happens in Commercial Street, under the Smart Cities Mission, people notice. Otherwise we are used to bad civic work. So, I’m glad it happened because it creates a sense of accountability in officers, and frustration in people.”
Trained planners and designers give a lot of thought on how to construct roads, says Akhila Suri, Manager, Sustainable Cities and Transport programme, World Resources Institute (WRI). “But there are many factors that ultimately influence their implementation on the ground,” she says.
This systemic issue can only be solved through political accountability, says Srinivas. “If something fails, who holds the engineer responsible for not doing a good job? Usually the municipal councillor is supposed to monitor the work. If they don’t like how it’s going, they have to escalate it to higher officials. But we didn’t have [BBMP Council] elections for a year.”
In the absence of an elected BBMP Council, ward committees — which are supposed to monitor all works in a ward — don’t exist either. “In addition, these roads come under Bengaluru Smart Cities Ltd (BSCL) and I don’t know if they can be monitored by ward committees. These are all the checks and balances in our system and at the end of the day, if someone doesn’t do a good job, there isn’t a mechanism to punish or penalise them,” says Srinivas.
A common complaint against ‘Smart’ roads has been that they seem to take just as long to construct as regular roads, cost much more, and fall apart as quickly. So, what makes them different?
Akhila says, in general, there is a lack of awareness about the long-term gains of reimagining roads. “The ultimate goal is to create more inclusive and equitable streets. We tend to look at this as ‘pedestrian priority’. But when you design for pedestrians, you are designing for all the other users on the street. There is data that shows why it’s important to design for pedestrians, but the conversation hasn’t really expanded to demonstrate the clear benefits for vehicles as well,” she says.
Back to Commercial Street. As a result of the initial shoddy work, the street and its inhabitants must endure more construction as the contractor redoes the footpaths and carriageway. Rajendra Cholan, MD of Bengaluru Smart Cities Ltd, who was unavailable for comments, has mentioned in interviews that the new works will solve the issue of flooding and more. But it seems more of a band-aid fix. It’s essential that we address the systemic issues at hand.
What is the most pragmatic solution going forward? “Decentralisation. When you want accountability, you have to decentralise. Things should be run and monitored by ward committees,” says Srinivas.