Since Bengaluru’s international airport opened nearly a decade ago at Devanahalli, 37 km from the heart of the city, citizens, town planners and political parties have debated ways to improve connectivity to it. A proposal for a high speed rail link never took off, and a plan to extend the Bengaluru Metro — whose first phase is set for completion in 2017 — to the airport is currently open for public suggestions on the best possible route.
In the interim, road projects like a nearly 30-km toll expressway have ensured that travel to and from the airport is not bogged down by Bengaluru’s infamous traffic jams. What the expressway cannot prevent, however, is a huge traffic pile-up on a 7 km stretch inside the city, leading up to NH7.
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Two years ago, the state government proposed a steel flyover to unclog traffic, especially at peak hours, on the route. But the proposal was put in cold storage after questions were raised over its feasibility. It was, however, revived on September 29 by the state Cabinet — triggering a fresh round of controversy.
What is the steel flyover project about?
It is a Rs 1,791 crore project proposed by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) to construct a 6.72 km long, 6-lane steel flyover between Basaveshwara Circle and Hebbal to ease traffic along a route leading to the international airport. It is proposed to be completed in 24 months, and opened by 2018. The contract is to be awarded to L&T. As many as 2.68 lakh vehicles will use the flyover every day, it is estimated.
So, what is the problem?
As many as 812 trees will have to be felled. Also, given the high cost of steel, its feasibility has been questioned. Critics say building flyovers goes against the grain of encouraging public transport systems over private transport. Bengaluru has 61 lakh registered vehicles already, and 1,000 more are being added daily. Peak-hour traffic crawls at 9.2 km/h on average in the city. Flyovers have only limited success in ensuring smooth traffic, and often only move a jam from one location to another.
And why a steel flyover, specifically?
The BDA argues building it will take a fraction of the time it will take to build a concrete one, besides looking nice. The flyover, which will use around 60,000 tonnes of steel, will come pre-fabricated, and will be assembled at the site. Project backers also argue it will support Karnataka’s iron and steel industry. However, there are concerns about likely corrosion over time if the flyover is not maintained well. Also, even though Kolkata has around 6 steel flyovers, none is of the size proposed in Bengaluru.
Who is opposing the project?
Especially upset are older residents who are nostalgic about how green the city used to be. Strong opposition has come from the Namma Bengaluru Foundation run by Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar who is associated with the BJP. The Foundation’s petition on change.org, which had nearly 36,000 supporters by Tuesday evening, says, “Bengaluru needs a comprehensive mobility plan with focus and large scale investment in public transportation… (and) the proposed steel flyover (gives) a strong signal (that the government) prefers to cater to the private sector…”. The historian Ramachandra Guha, actor Prakash Belawadi, entrepreneurs Priya Chetty Rajagopal and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde have all voiced strong protests. The campaign has resonated most with the middle and upper middle classes, and many residents welfare groups have rallied in support. On October 16, a human chain of over 5,000 people spread over the length of the proposed steel flyover project — the first major physical protest, which was followed by smaller protests.
And who is in favour of the steel flyover?
Residents of some of the newer areas of north Bengaluru have demonstrated sporadically in favour, saying it would cut their travel time by more than half. The BDA has campaigned for the project by putting out its specifications and creating animated videos.
How has the government reacted?
It insists the decision was well thought-out, and the flyover is essential to ease traffic in the short term along the 6.7 km stretch. “The decision to spend Rs 1,791 crore for development was not taken just like that. It was done after a lot of deliberation,” Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said after the Cabinet cleared the project. “When it comes to development of the city there will have to be a compromise on some things. For every tree that is cut, we will compensate with 10-20 saplings. Environmentalists must understand this,” he said.
While Siddaramaiah has accused the BJP of being “jealous” and of “playing politics” over a project that its own government first considered in 2010, Minister for Bengaluru Development K J George has been given the job of convincing the naysayers, including BJP leaders, about the feasibility and necessity of the steel flyover. He has met with BJP MP from Bengaluru North and Union Minister D V Sadananda Gowda, local BJP MLAs and residents’ welfare groups.
So what lies ahead?
An attempt by the Namma Bengaluru Foundation to get the Karnataka High Court to intervene did not yield results; the court had, in fact, cleared the way for the implementation of the project. The government stands firm as of now; according to Minister George, irrespective of the protests, construction will begin soon.