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Above: A series of protests had led the Siddaramaiah government to drop the project earlier/Photo: Shruthi Mohany/your story

A flyover which was meant to ease the city’s notorious traffic has run foul of the Karnataka High Court which has directed the Bengaluru Development Authority to seek environmental clearance first

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

This is one bridge too far for Bengaluru. Despite the Garden City having lightning-fast data speeds which help it rake in billions, it has a hardware problem: its eight million vehicles jostle for space on its clogged roads. An attempt to ease these jams, however, has not fructified as the Karnataka High Court has ruled that the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) cannot go ahead with its steel flyover project without seeking environmental clearance from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA).

This project was shelved by the previous Congress government. However, there were hopes of it being revived when Bengaluru Development Minister and Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara said that the government was mulling whether to review the project.

Efforts by successive governments and even the wealthy private sector have not fructified to get the city a well-connected, seamless public transport system. While the state-run Bengaluru Metro­politan Transport Corporation runs a fleet of 6,500 buses across 2,000 routes, the eight-year-old 43-km Bengaluru Metro rapid transit system carries five lakh riders across its two lines daily. Ride-hailing service apps have helped cut some costs and time, but the city’s traffic jams see no signs of ending soon.

One of the key stretches that BDA identified to ease traffic was a stretch from Kumara Krupa area to Hebbal Junction, one of the main thoroughfares going to the Kempegowda International Airport. With almost 27 million passenger footfalls for 2017-18, the airport has already become the third busiest in India. It has 75,000-80,000 passenger arrivals and departures on a single day.

Around 2016, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress regime, under Bengaluru Development Minister KJ George, came up with the plan to beat the airport rush—the passenger traffic is expected to grow three-fold in the coming decade—with a BDA plan to build a steel flyover to reduce travel time to the airport. It suggested a six-lane bridge, 6.7 km long, between Basaveshwara Circle and Hebbal Junction, which it hoped would cut time significantly.

But some citizen groups were up in arms as the project involved cutting trees and also due to the high cost of mounting the 60,000-tonne steel bridge. After a slew of campaigns against it, the project ground to a halt. Opposition to the project came from the likes of former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde and Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar who backed an organisation that went to the High Court in October 2016.

George saw it as an attack on his government by the Opposition as he claimed that the BDA had consulted experts from IIT Madras and IISc Bangalore. For every tree cut, the BDA said it would plant more trees. But that didn’t cut ice with the groups that vehemently opposed it.

“What the government must do now is to fast-track the Metro line work and increase the number of buses rather than spend almost Rs 2,000 crore for such a small stretch,” said R Ashwini, a student volunteer and a regular Metro rider, to India Legal. “The government must work 24×7 and increase the Metro lines to cover the entire city,” he said.

The first red flag against the steel flyover came from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which wanted the BDA to seek environmental clearance from the SEIAA. The NGT heard the submissions of the BDA, the state of Karnataka and the steel flyover project contractor, Larsen & Toubro. One of the groups that had opposed the project sought a third-party analysis on the environmental impact due to the construction of the steel bridge.

Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had claimed that the project was totally transparent, while the Opposition alleged it was another scheme to siphon off funds for the 2018 polls. He claimed that the steel bridge was proposed in 2010 itself and announced in the 2014-15 budget.

Siddaramaiah’s support is crucial for Parameshwara to go ahead with the project after due procedures. After the Karnataka High Court observation, he said he would direct the BDA to seek environmental clearance from the SEIAA before going ahead with the project. He also took to Twitter and said that due procedures would be followed to start the construction of the bridge.

The present chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy, had opposed the project when he was in the Opposition, but has now changed his tune. He told the media recently that as chief minister, his first priority was to ease the traffic congestion in the city and it didn’t matter whether it was a steel flyover project or any other kind of infrastructure intervention that would help find a solution to the traffic jams.

While the BDA is putting together a complex set of papers and documents to get a nod from the SEIAA, a coalition of citizen groups has sent an appeal to the latter against the steel flyover project apart from planning a series of protests, online and offline, like the ones in 2016 and 2017 which led to the Siddaramaiah government dropping the project.

According to those opposed to the steel project, the SEIAA may have to consider whether it is in violation of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act and any other court orders. Citizen groups planning novel protests like the last time—be it mockumentaries on YouTube or human chains—will have to steel their nerves again to mount their opposition.

With public pressure mounting, the minister for the city’s development may find it beneficial to prod his officials and agencies under him to come up with a faster, reliable, integrated and sustainable public transport system like in Singapore or London.

With both sides of the project sharpening their lines of attack, the steel flyover project may take a while to take off. Meanwhile, Bengaluru’s citizens will have to get used to spending mind-numbing hours on the choked roads.

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