The newish road leading from the modern Kempegowda International Airport is an elevated expressway that has made getting to the city a breeze. While departing the suburbs and nearing Hebbal, however, the clamour and chaos of Bangalore takes over.
As the city copes with the rapid urbanisation of the past two decades, its biggest bane is the overcrowded, traffic-choked road network. Both for the occasional visitor and millions of residents, the potholes, traffic jams and lack of footpaths have become the overwhelming “Bangalore” experience.
A series of initiatives, some led by non-profits, others corporate-supported, and some citizen-driven, are working to improve roads and the traffic situation in Bangalore. Each of these innovative projects lavishes attention on the details of planning, implementation and bettering of roads.
If successful, these projects should ease the daily pain of travelling within Bangalore. At this time, two major arterial roads in downtown Bangalore, St Mark’s Road and Cunningham Road, are going through a major overhaul under a model project called Tender SURE (SURE is an acronym for specifications for urban road execution).
The project, initiated by the Jana Urban Space Foundation of the urban advocacy group Janaagraha, attempts to provide a methodical and controlled process to address the design, procurement and execution of city roads by using newer, longer-lasting road technologies. Five more roads have been identified for renovation under the programme, and a total of 25 roads in the city centre are likely to be eventually revamped.
Road infrastructure in Bangalore and other Indian cities is crumbling because they neither have the money nor the expertise to deal with rapid urbanisation, says a Janaagraha survey. Every Indian city is plagued by a shortage of qualified urban experts. The survey highlights the contrasts between Bangalore and New York City, which have the same population.
While New York has 15,000 technically qualified professionals in urban governance areas such as urban design, water management and solid-waste management, Bangalore has just 15. Streamlining road projects and making them process-driven, as Tender SURE is attempting to do, might make up somewhat for the lack of urban technical expertise.
Each of the contractors chosen for Bangalore’s seven road projects is required to submit daily progress reports to the city authority, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Other than traffic flow, the project envisages spaces for parking, pedestrians, cyclists and vendors.
Meanwhile, several Bangalore-based firms have floated the “Adopt-a-Mile Bengaluru” movement that aims to develop roads and improve civic sense. As per an agreement signed with the BBMP, firms including ING Vysya Bank, Oberoi Hotels, Mindtree and Taj Hotels can now adopt a stretch of city road, hire contractors and engage directly with their employees in developing and beautifying that expanse.
The most heartening change in Bangalore’s roads, however, is quietly coming about by the actions of an anonymous citizens’ group called The Ugly Indian whose motto is “Kaam chaalu, mooh bandh” or “Stop talking, start doing”. During the Independence Day weekend, the group took over six neglected, smelly, dingy underpasses around KR Circle, within walking distance of the Vidhana Soudha, the headquarters of the Karnataka government. Volunteers cleared, cleaned and painted them, and then invited citizens to cram the brightly lit subways where musicians, artists and dancers held free events.
There are over a dozen more such underpasses in the city, built so that pedestrians can avoid traffic hazards. But nearly every one of them is in disrepair and pedestrians would rather navigate dangerous traffic than venture into the subways taken over by anti-socials. By clearing one stretch, The Ugly Indian was sending a message that citizens had reclaimed the space.
So that the cleared subways do not go back to their previous shabby states, they have been handed over to a programme that allows private citizens and firms to adopt government properties for maintenance. The Ugly Indian movement, powered entirely by volunteers, including students and tech professionals, has transformed footpaths and street corners in various parts of Bangalore.
Cleaning up pavements, clearing garbage, removing posters from walls and restoring stretches, the movement is chipping away at Bangalore’s urban chaos, one corner at a time. Taking their cue from it, several such citizens’ movements have started in neighbourhoods like Koramangala, Jayanagar and Whitefield.
It is as if Bangalore has been bitten by the DIY (do it yourself) bug, a most reasonable solution to restore order in the streets rendered chaotic by citizens themselves.