The solution lies in thorough planning, public consultation and implementation of rapid construction technologies, say experts.

Delve Governance and Policy Wednesday, January 01, 2020 - 13:09

“It is not only a matter of money. It is about what one wants to do and do in peace,” says Ramesh, who runs a makeshift cobbler shop in Bengaluru’s St Mark’s Road. While the shop is only around six months old, Ramesh has been a cobbler since 2001 following in his father and uncle’s footsteps. 

But the remodelling of St Mark’s Road under the TenderSURE (Specifications for Urban Roads Execution) model meant that Ramesh had to abandon his business in 2014 and look for other ways to earn a living until the work was complete. 

While the road was ready by June 2015, Ramesh did not return to set up his shop until this year. For five years, he tried his hand at being a mechanic, and drove an autorickshaw to feed his family of four. Unable to eke out a steady income, he returned to his cobblemaking earlier this year. But business, he says, was not like before. 

“Since the road is now a one way and there are no buses on the road, there are less people coming in so business is not as good as it used to be earlier. But still this is better than driving an auto-rickshaw in the city,” he says.  

Over the recent years, the city has seen multiple instances of infrastructure projects affecting traditional businesses of all sizes. Be it the introduction and the expansion of metro rail, white-topping of roads or laying of new water and sewage lines. And the only overwhelming common feature among all these projects are the lengthy delays or permanent changes that affects the livelihoods of people by damaging local micro-economies. While some of these ill-effects can be restored with time, some extend beyond the closure period and are irreversible.

“If some roads are closed, the shops which have access only through those roads will be affected. Now if this is done for a short period, nobody will oppose it. But if it is for a long period of time, people will change their habits and they will choose to shop from somewhere else,” says Ashwin Mahesh, co-founder of Centre for Public Problem Solving. 

“It's only logical, right? If you find it difficult to access a locality which looks like a war zone, obviously you will go somewhere else. And this affects the local economy, there are documented studies across the globe. Fundamentally, if the carrying capacity of a road becomes low, correspondingly businesses will suffer,” he explains. 

Street vendors, small legacy businesses

TNM spoke to multiple businesses owned by age-old big establishments, stand-alone outlets and street vendors across Bengaluru’s Museum Cross Road, located in the heart of the city. Museum Cross Road, which links Museum Road with Church Street at the busy Central Business District (CBD) area of Bengaluru, was taken up for renovation under the same TenderSure model in November 2018. The road was open for full usage only by May 2019, after several missed deadlines. 

Read: Just 400m but Bengaluru’s Museum Cross Road to take 3 more months to develop

Christopher Lepha, the manager of a multi-cuisine restaurant Chutney Chang, says the closure of the Museum Cross Road for six months meant that the restaurant incurred high operational losses.  

“On average before the road was dug, we would get at least 300 covers (customers) and since the work began we would get a maximum of 100 to 110 covers per day. Since our companies have three other restaurants, our jobs were safe. But think of other businesses which do not have this leverage,” Lepcha says.

“Since the road was redone, we have slowly getting our business back. But still, we are hitting only 200-plus covers. While we may still remain afloat, our suppliers, especially the smaller ones delivering seafood items, were very badly affected,” he adds.

The same goes for a car showroom on the same road. Footfalls in the shop were reduced by 50% on average for the entire part of this closure and led to loss of business, admits Girish Babu, Marketing Head of Nandi Toyota. .

He says, “It is only for the last two months that business has again picked up somehow despite the slowdown. There was a drastic impact. In a month, we would do 80 deliveries, that reduced to 35-40 for the three-four months.” 

All businesses TNM spoke to in this small stretch tell the same story of varying degree of losses. 

Venkatamma* sits on the pavement on Museum Cross Road, selling cigarettes, peanuts, bananas, chips, pan masala and other tobacco products. Her small business caters to employees of nearby offices, drivers of pool cars for the nearby St Joseph’s school students and passers by. 

During the road closure period, while many of the first section of the customers were intact, she saw a drastic reduction in passersby as the area was unwalkable  

Speaking about the closure period, she says, “While I don't keep a tab on my day-to-day sales but surely there was a significant drop in sales. Many of my regular customers are from the offices nearby, so I was saved. Also I had to move constantly as their work would progress from a point to another. Many would have thought that I did not come that day if they did not see me in my usual vending point.” 

She adds, “My business has improved again with the road reopened and steady flow of commuters which include autorickshaw drivers, van drivers, and others.” 

What businesses underwent on this small stretch of road is not unique. Several old Bengaluru roads have also lost their character along with its local economies permanently due to infrastructure projects.

Predatory infrastructure and loss of city's character

One such example is in Chinmaya Mission Hospital (CMH) Road, which was closed down for nearly a decade for the construction of the Bengaluru Metro in 2008. Unlike the Museum Cross Road, where the number of shops were very few, many small shops including popular restaurants were forced to shut shop or relocate.

Collaborative for the Advancement of the Study of Urbanism through Mixed Media (CASUMM), a non-profit did a study in 2007 on the possible impact of the metro construction on businesses.  

Bengaluru-based urban governance researcher Vinay Baindur, who was part of CASUMM then, calls the lengthy constructions, often those which are opposed by the public as “predatory infrastructure”.  While infrastructure is expected to enable life and livelihoods, these closures eats up small businesses especially those who are dependent on their daily incomes. Hence, small businesses shut shop while big establishments or franchisees of international brands can survive long dry periods.

The study noted that while there were many opposing the metro project based on multiple grounds including its technical, planning and financial feasibility, the prime opposition was noticed in Indiranagar’s CMH Road and Mahakavi Kuvempu (MKK) Road in Rajajinagar. 

Both these roads being vibrant traditional small business areas had close to 800 shops each which were set to get affected. The establishments included daily provision stores to high-end electronic gadget outlets. The traders on these roads show similar diversification in the size of establishment, investments made, and employment provided.  

“The entry of the Metro will completely destroy the dense network of trade linkages and employment and livelihood opportunities these areas support. This forms the main reason for trader’s opposition to the Metro Rail alignment on these two roads. Traders in these two areas have, over time, built up a complex network of (wholesale and retail) suppliers, transporters, financiers, consumers, coolies and headloaders inside Bangalore and extending to cities in other states. The entry of the Metro will destroy not only the livelihoods of CMH and MKK Road traders and their dependents but also the livelihoods of those involved in associated trading, finance and transporter networks,” stated the report. 

The study, in many ways, turned out to be prophetic. 

“There are so many such shops. They opened somewhere else in the cross roads, they could not get the same amount of business and eventually they had to close down. Now you tell me what happens to the employees. What is the fate of their families? Now the shops which are there are also facing many problems as there is little or no space for parking and the road too has become too narrow,” says NS Ramamohan, the president of CMH Road Shops and Establishments' Association. 

He adds, “This was a well established commercial area. Now after metro construction started and got completed, we have lost as much as 1,000 shops. Before the metro, 1,500 outlets were there, now there are hardly 300 outlets.” 

Some of the prominent establishments that closed down were Aroma Bakery, Jyoti Bakery, Hallmark outlet, Kartik Sweets, a LG showroom, Sowmya Silk among others.

As a prelude to this study, researchers at CASUMM observed that many hawkers who were forcefully evicted for the Sirsi Circle flyover project became construction workers or domestic help, while some were compelled to do sex work in their hometowns. 

The flyover from Town Hall to Mysore Road, built between 1999-2002 was Bengaluru’s first large infrastructure project, which was mooted as a solution to the congestion at the SKR Market, which was a major hub of trade, transportation and finance in the city.   

And due to the reduced access to the city market area, hawkers complained that their incomes had fallen by 80% as a result of the construction of the flyover and shifting of the wholesale markets, the study noted. 

“If a road is dug or pavement is broken, the first victims are street vendors. If moving to an alternative location is not viable, they are forced to close business as they do not have the bandwidth to continue even for a few dry days. There’s also the other part, who buys from these people? There are a number of security guards, garment factory and construction workers who are often daily wage earners who depend on these streetside shops for their daily needs. It can be ready food or small handful of rice or cut vegetables. Think of those people who would prefer to buy things in such small quantities which other shops won’t sell or they can’t afford otherwise,” says Harini Nagendra, a professor of sustainability at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. 

She finds the biggest loser of these scenarios to be the economically-weaker sections of the society. 

With roads and streets destroyed, Harini also observes that there is destruction of culture and character of the city and its parts. “Streets are not just a place that you pass through but also where you meet people and linger. So there are parts of the city like Basavangudi and Malleshwaram which have their own character. Even Commercial Street has its own character. The KR Road, Jayanagar-South End Circle also used to have its character,” she notes. 

Rapid technology and binding contracts

While some construction work in the name of infrastructure expansion may be unavoidable, a lot of the harm can be minimised with thorough planning, design and importantly, quicker construction.

Mahesh says, “The best possible solution here is to do the work fast. There is no way that while doing the work slowly we cannot protect the local economy. Elsewhere in the world they are building underpasses even in 48 hours and not more than a week. We are not even coming close to do these. Not only time, often these rapid technologies are cheaper than our methods.”

“The reason we tend not to use modern technology is that our preferred contractors can't do that. This is partly because of the contractor-politician nexus. More than the cost of projects, higher are kickbacks,” he alleges. 

Mahesh points out that in other parts of the world, municipalities penalise the contractor for delaying the work after a deadline, thereby motivating the contractor to finish the work on time. 

“But the problem with Bengaluru and other Indian cities compared to the developed world is that the city (civic body) will have control over supply of power, water. But here BWSSB, Bescom is there and each of them acts on their own and there is no integration,” he says.  

He adds, “Sometimes it's not the technology that is slow as most days there are no construction work at all. Rest of the days are only for waiting for other agencies to do their part of the work like Bescom to raise some pole or BWSSB to shift some pipe. So there has to be one single executing agency for all these infra development.”

These teething problems can be countered by forming one single nodal authority for executing any infra project. 

Consultative and sustainable planning 

While cities have to grow, Harini argues that they have to be redeveloped in a way that supports these street activities. She cites a Yale University study which looked at cities around the world and compared their sustainability.  

“Places like the US, nobody usually sells on the streets and you have to get into your car and drive to the grocery store. This leads to people buying much more than they need, because they are not sure when they will go again. On the contrary, places like Hong Kong or Singapore, which are based around this street culture where you buy things for that day. So they have better sustainability, not just from the point of view of walking and not using the car but low generation of waste as well along with a lower total carbon footprint,” she explains. 

So there is a need for change in terms of designs while taking up developmental projects.  

“Just because there is a Metro there is no need to throw away street vendors. There are ways of managing these and one bright example is Juhu Beach, Mumbai. When it was being remodelled several years ago, there were many protests by the beach vendors but the architects were very responsive. What they did was they consolidated the vendors in one side and left a designated space for waste dumping to stop the erstwhile garbage problem. This was done by a careful survey before and after setting up the facility. This has improved the quality of the beach as they are a very important public space in Mumbai. Now there is a place for people to walk as well,” she notes.