As Bengalureans came out on Sunday to form a human chain from Basaveshwara Circle to Mekhri Circle in protest against the proposed 6.7 km long steel flyover, I wondered what must be going on in chief minister Siddaramaiah's mind as he saw those images. Did he smirk at the audacity of the 8000-odd people who thought they can stop a government-backed project merely by standing next to each other? Laugh and mock at them? Or feel scared at the Gandhian protest? Or apprehensive that the #NoSteelFlyover hashtag was trending?
If the early response of the Congress government in Karnataka is anything to go by, the opposition to the steel flyover -- touted as the longest in India and intended to make the drive to the airport shorter and faster -- has only steeled the determination of the powers-that-be to go ahead with it. Dinesh Gundu Rao, a Congress MLA from Bengaluru and working president of the Karnataka Congress thinks the flyover idea is a steal and one that should not be dropped just because 812 trees will become history along the route.
The government argues the steel flyover is needed to take care of traffic jams. Critics of the project say the monster at Rs 1791 crore will not solve any problems. Instead, for the same amount, Bengaluru could have 3600 km of quality footpath or 9000 buses or 40 lakh bicycles or 200 km of suburban rail that can transport 15 lakh passengers every day.
The government claims it will plant 60000 saplings to compensate for the 812 trees that will be chopped and that 2.68 lakh vehicles will ply on the flyover every day. The critics argue at best it will save 10 minutes of driving time.
The government says the average speed of vehicles in Bengaluru is already down to 13 km/hour and that this will help the city be in the fast lane. Besides the steel flyover will not emanate dust and will be completed in 24 months. The city's greens claim that Bengaluru has already lost 10000 trees in the last many years to road widening and Metro Rail work and cannot afford to lose more.
This is not intended to say who is right and who is wrong. The problem is with lack of communication between the government and the citizens. The problem is with the attitude that once the MLAs and the corporators are elected for five years, they have the license to do whatever they wish to with the city. The irritation of the government stems from the fact that a few voices -- or let us say 8000 Bengalureans -- are trying to speak on behalf of the entire 1 crore plus population of the city. What the political establishment is saying is when the elected MLAs and the cabinet has decided to go ahead, who is this human chain to put a spanner in the works.
It is this arrogance of the political class that is disturbing. The lack of dialogue and transparency giving rise to suspicion that the steel lobby is pushing for it. The labelling of anyone who opposes the flyover as a BJP or an AAP activist on social media. It is an oft-used tactic because when political motives are implied, it is always easy to bulldoze a citizen initiative.
In many senses, Hyderabad is repeating itself in Bengaluru. Earlier this year, the Telangana government reportedly planned to cut 1394 trees around the 400 acre KBR National park in Hyderabad - the city's green lung space - to widen roads as part of the Rs 510 crore Strategic Road Development Plan. The argument was that the multi-level flyovers will cut pollution by 55 per cent and that far outweighs the loss of so much green cover.
Environmentalists, shocked at the argument, say that this is like extending an invitation to disaster as cutting existing trees will mean the microclimate of these trees can never be replicated. Clearly, ministers and bureaucrats do not see reason despite the summer of 2016 being witness to the drying up of all the four reservoirs that provide drinking water to Hyderabad.
With the government unwilling to listen, Hyderabadis had to go to the High court and the National Green Tribunal, both of which have stayed any attempt to cut the trees. The Telangana government is not amused more so because the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti had won a majority in the Hyderabad municipal body this January. Inability to do what it wanted to has not pleased the backers of the project.
And like in Bengaluru, anyone who opposes the establishment in Hyderabad is labelled anti-Telangana.
Governments, irrespective of which party is in power, know the knack of wearing down a public agitation. They know working professionals cannot carry out a protest 24x7. Also that part of society - say atleast 30 per cent - that is upwardly mobile, needs flyovers.
Governments, irrespective of which party is in power, know the knack of wearing down a public agitation. They know working professionals cannot carry out a protest 24x7. Also that part of society -- say at least 30 per cent -- that is upwardly mobile, needs flyovers. That section will not take a stand for public transport or pavements. The ones who need to use the footpath and the buses are scared of political power and will never be part of such an agitation. It is the disparity in this mix that any government takes advantage of.
But there are small victories. The same Bengaluru Development Authority that would not give any details of the flyover project through RTI, now claims to have put out the details on its website.
Any government is a powerful entity. The Hyderabadis and Bengalureans who dared to take them on need to be complimented because all they are asking is a decent public debate where the politicians do not behave like they decide and the public abides.
Politicians and governments come and go. It is the cities that live for ever. Or, may be more appropriate to say, live gasping for breath.