By Chetan Ahimsa
The Karnataka government’s proposed Rs. 1,350 crore ‘Steel Bridge Flyover’ project in Bengaluru has been met with credible criticism from residents and public interest groups.
Among those opposing the project are several high-profile corporate entrepreneurs. Ironically, several of these elites themselves benefit from similar high-budget, environmentally-destructive, possibly-corrupt, government-sponsored ‘developmental’ projects.
So, is the ‘Steel Bridge’ controversy a mark of the Congress party’s highhandedness or corporate leaders’ double-talk? Both perhaps?
The 6.7km, six-lane ‘Steel Bridge Flyover’ from Chalukya Circle to Hebbal Flyover was initially proposed as a project of ‘elevated corridors’ under the BJP government in 2011.
In 2014, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah officially included the project in the state budget. According to media reports, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), an Indian multi-national conglomerate, has been finalized to handle the project.
Congress leaders claim that the steel bridge will reduce traffic jams en route to the airport. Once, CM Siddharamaiah brashly commented: ‘Will you fly to avoid the traffic congestions in the city?’
Negative socio-economic aspects:
Although the government has promised not to raze heritage buildings, 812 trees will be felled to construct the bridge, reducing much-needed tree cover in our city for the travel convenience of a privileged few. Bengaluru Development Minister KJ George claims 60,000 saplings will be planted to make up for the destruction. Good. Ideally, George should plant the 60,000 plants regardless of whether or not the project happens. Trees are the first casualty of many infrastructure projects in the city.
The Rs. 1,350 crore budget has been considered excessive by many construction experts. (Due to the overall secrecy around this project, RTI requests to disclose actual fiscal realities have often been neglected.)
Opposition parties have alleged that the state Congress government is trying to siphon off funds to the national Congress leadership in light of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections.
The state government has specified the following reasons for the seemingly-inflated cost: high prices of steel, 11.3 km of framework including ramps, VAT amounts, etc.
But, if there’s any definitive legitimacy to the allegations that the budget of the ‘SteAl Bridge’ has been increased for corruption purposes (which wouldn’t come as a complete surprise), a non-partisan entity should be entrusted to reassess the cost of the bridge.
Alternative transportation methods
A new way for cars to avoid traffic from other cars is not a rational answer to road congestion, especially when this bridge would primarily serve upwardly-mobile travellers and that too for a maximum of 7-10 minutes. Options such as metro, mono-rail, and increased bus services should be reviewed thoroughly and considered if viable.
Contradictory views of some project opponents:
Some of Bengaluru’s leading IT/BT entrepreneurs and corporate heads have been vocal about their opposition to the project by sending an open letter to CM Siddaramaiah and Bengaluru Minister George against the construction.
Yes, these corporate executives have the democratic right to challenge what they find questionable, but they must also be willing to question their own projects with the government that may have environmental, financial, and/or utility limitations similar to the ‘Steel Bridge’ flyover.
For instance, the gargantuan Information Technology Investment Region (ITIR) project.
The ITIR project over 40sqkm requires 10,500 acres of land, and a Rs. 1,00,000 crore budget (sources reveal that over Rs. 21,000 crore of capital and pre-operative expenditure will be borne by the state and central governments—that’s more than 12 times the cost of the ‘Steel Bridge’).
The Devanahalli-Doddaballapur ITIR project began in 2013 and has plans to construct a mini airport, a high-speed railway network, shopping malls, and whole lot more. Over 55 IT companies—including those whose heads are vociferously protesting the anti-‘Steel Bridge’—have supported the ITIR project and signed Memorandums of Understanding to validate their interest.
It would be ethical that all those who challenge the ‘Steel Bridge’ project also hold the ITIR project to the same if not higher standards.
In other words, what are the socio-environmental ramifications of 40 square kilometres of land and massive farmers’ displacement? Are the constructions of an airport and shopping malls inside ITIR required when Devanahalli Airport is only 14 km away and shopping malls already inundate Bengaluru city? Is Rs. 21,000 crore of taxpayer money being justifiably spent on this mammoth public-private partnership project that will help society as a whole or are the already-privileged corporate elites acquiring even more benefits?
As we all know, corruption—government-sanctioned or illegal—must be fought on all levels to build a free, democratic society.
In conclusion, to the Karnataka government: there are so many worthwhile issues to allocate funds for a more equal and just city and state. We don’t need or want the ‘Steel Bridge’ project.
As for you, IT/BT & corporate heads: I trust your motivations to oppose the ‘Steel Bridge’ project are transparent and not because your own companies did not receive the benefits from the proposal. Yet, if you want to prove your sincerity to the people of Karnataka, you can start off by re-examining the mini airport, shopping malls, excessive budget, and environmental destruction that are a part of your own ITIR project. It would be the right thing to do.
Chetan Ahimsa graduated from Yale University (2005) and came on a Fulbright Scholarship to India. He has been engaging in social service and activism in Karnataka for the past 11 years. Professionally, he is an actor and has worked in Kannada films such as Aa Dinagalu and Mynaa.
(Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.)