Whose streets?


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GROWING up in Bangalore, the one childhood memory that I recall is of my little hands clasped in those of an adult, often one of my parents, while shopping in Bangalore’s iconic Gandhi-bazaar. For close to a century now, this street functioned as a major node of nutrition and household and consumer supplies to large parts of South Bangalore. In the dead of the night mid-January this year, a battery of bulldozers backed by massive police mobilization, swung into action and destroyed everything in the market that was considered ‘illegal’, ‘encroaching pavements’, and ‘causing traffic congestion’. Vendors sleeping next to their carts, or under them, were pulled out, beaten if they resisted and disbursed like vermin. Crows and parakeets roosting in the evergreen canopies were rudely disturbed in their sleep and fled the scene in howls of protest.

Local residents were shaken by the surreptitious demolition. Proud and dignified vendors, who they knew for generations, and with whom they had bargained on a daily basis, were now painfully scraping through the remains. As they ploughed through broken carts, wrecked fruit cartons and temporary shelters, several crying and others holding back their tears, the local media scoured for stories, all painful.

Officials of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (Bangalore’s city corporation, BBMP) and the chief minister were stoic in defending the demolition. Soon shamianas for protestors festooned with large banners, in support of the vendors’ cause came up. For a number of days, the shamiana was full of protesting vendors. The vendors lacked a leader, a vacuum that was filled by several local wannabes, often from political parties opposing the ruling dispensation of the BJP. But the leaders disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, leaving behind the vendors with a stark choice: to sit and protest and have no money or food at home, or find an alternative space to trade. The latter seemed a rational and necessary choice.

The New Indian Express ritually described the entire operation as ‘Footpath encroachments in Gandhibazaar cleared’ while the DNA stated, ‘Evicted Bangalore hawkers will make way for parking lot.’ Today, this bustling, living heritage of South Bangalore is nothing more than a street filled with scooters, motorbikes and cars.


A million questions jostled for answers in my head as I walked through the street; it was as though a part of me had drifted away. No familiar faces any more. Who or what would they attack next, I wondered, the buttressing roots of the massive rain trees rebelling against an engineer’s view of the street? The promise of seamless movement of traffic that caused all this sorrow seemed so ruthless.

Whose street was this anyway? Who decided the future of Gandhi-bazaar? I laughed at the contradiction: the National Street Vendors’ Policy had been crafted for the very first time in free India under the leadership of BJP supremo Vajpayee when he was prime minister a decade ago. Ironically, it is a BJP government in Karnataka and Bangalore that has demolished every assurance that the policy made. The same dispensation has also destroyed the Malleshwaram market, as they did in Shivajinagar a year ago.

But it would be unfair to lay all the blame for such demolition drives only on the BJP. Several governments over the past decade must equally share blame for such programmes, most especially the S.M. Krishna led Congress regime a decade earlier. Krishna’s vision of Bangalore was simple: it had to look like Singapore. To implement such a vision, he had roped in the ‘best minds’ in the city. Essentially, they were captains of various software industries, such as Nandan Nilekani of Infosys. Under Krishna’s stewardship, Nilekani and his team created an unprecedented and unique instrument called the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) with the stated task of turning Bangalore into a world class city. The BATF was not a statutory body but it enjoyed tremendous influence in determining the future of the metropolis. Every department followed the plans drafted by the BATF and, in a wholly corporate style, there were no public consultations, except amongst an invited audience.


Among other schemes, the BATF developed a proposal to widen the streets of Bangalore and thus relieve it of traffic congestion. It was argued that with over 1000 new vehicles being added daily to the city’s traffic, and with a 1:3 vehicle-person ratio, this was the best way out. There was no empirical evidence to suggest that it would work, but it was decided that this was the solution. Initially 90 major roads of the metropolis were identified for widening, and the list grew to 216 roads with a cumulative length of about 1000 kms. under subsequent governments. The plan to widen roads was prepared by civil engineers who basically took a street map and drew arrows into building lines indicating the extent of expansion. Next, low ranking officials painted every affected property in red with a + 6m or +3m to indicate the extent to which the property would be demolished. Tree lines, vending zones, buildings, street infrastructure and anything else which came within the proposed right of way had to go.

There was no plan to compensate, except to grant Transfer of Developmental Rights (TDR) – essentially a promissory note that allowed property owners to increase their remaining floor space by one and half times of the area that they lost to road widening. If one chose not to use the TDR to build in the remaining space, it could be sold as a Development Rights Certificate to any other builder who would then be allowed to exceed in equal measure of floor space acquired through DRC over and above locally allowed building space rights anywhere in the city.


The TDR scheme failed as almost all affected building owners, that included thousands of homes and businesses, refused to accept it. Meanwhile, an interesting process began to emerge across all affected streets – a sense of community evolved out of impacted businesses and households, including street vendors. Traders on Avenue Road, one of Bangalore’s oldest streets, organized themselves under The Avenue Road Traders Association, demanding that the district be declared a Living Heritage Zone and not be demolished for smoother traffic flow.

Some traders proclaimed that this area was the poor man’s supermarket, while others argued that each shop on Avenue Road was a critical node supporting an intricate trade network that spread across Karnataka and other states. In the century-old Chamrajpet area, Bazaar Street witnessed bandhs and protests against road widening. People gathered in large numbers and came up with alternatives to relieve the street of congestion. They argued: increase public transport, build a metro if need be, but do not demolish businesses and houses as it would not help relieve congestion. Road widening is not a solution to congestion, their slogans declared.

Affected homes and businesses along the 16 kilometre stretch of the Intermediate Ring Road organized themselves as though they were one interconnected community. In no time all households and businesses along this long and winding artery hung weatherproof protest placards on each and every property, labelling road widening as unscientific, undemocratic and unnecessary. Meetings were held in houses, at street corners and kalyana mandaps. The city was in ferment as resistance grew against what was widely perceived as a ridiculous proposal. The tension was palpable when the BJP government decided to widen Tannery Road, an area dominated by Muslim traders. Was the communal card at play here? Fortunately, tension eased as people from all religions and trades came together and resisted the move. Clearly wherever a strong sense of ‘community’ came into play, the resistance succeeded. But in the case of roads that were predominantly lined by government held properties, the road widening scheme was ruthlessly employed.


Despite city-wide protests, the state and city governments insisted on bulldozing their way through, felling trees and tearing apart houses. They seemed unconcerned that this resulted in making even simple tasks such as crossing streets a death wish – a fact brutally played out on the road to the new airport where, in less than a year, about 30 pedestrians were killed by speeding traffic. All attempts to dialogue with the bureaucracy and find intelligent ways out failed. Particularly frustrating was the absence of an elected government in the city during this period to represent these serious concerns.1 The power vacuum was used by the bureaucracy and the state cabinet to ram through the road widening proposals.

Responding to this situation, Environment Support Group (ESG) represented these complex concerns in a public interest litigation challenging the road widening scheme in the Karnataka High Court in 2008 (WP No. 7107/2008). It was submitted that road widening projects were illegal as they were being implemented without prior public consultation and mandated planning procedures as per the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act. It was highlighted that planning and implementing agencies were mandated to consult the public not only in developing the intent of a scheme, such as road widening, but also in formalizing it as a project, and further in securing budgetary sanction as well. In defence, civic authorities and the state argued that the government was fully within its powers to develop such schemes without any consultation, since the state action was always in public interest.


The court considered all these arguments but preferred not to resolve them legally. Instead, it constituted a committee of experts drawn from nominations received from petitioners and respondents under the chairmanship of former Environment Secretary Yellappa Reddy and entrusted it the task of recommending a way out. The idea was that the committee would investigate each and every case of road widening, conduct hearings locally, and formulate recommendations for the court’s consideration and subsequent ruling. This seemed a reasonable arrangement, particularly given that city had no elected government yet.

For Yellappa Reddy, however, the nuances of such jurisprudence appeared unnecessarily tedious. He admitted to being under pressure from then Chief Minister Yeddyurappa to deliver on the road widening projects. Consequently, he began to conduct ‘his’ committee proceedings as a final word on all issues pertaining to road widening, and also the construction of the Bangalore Metro. He shut the public out of deliberations, including affected public and petitioners, claiming that it was an expert driven exercise. None other than officials and the court appointed experts and certain invitees could participate. He then undertook site visits and decided that it was in the public interest to widen Sheshadri Road, Palace Road and Race Course Road abutting Vidhana Soudha, disregarding the majority view of committee experts who argued that such widening would not resolve the problem of traffic congestion.


Most old Bangaloreans associate Sheshadri Road and Palace Road with the visionary schemes of Dewan Mirza Ismail. Every kilometre of these roads had at least a hundred fully grown trees that, in their decades of growth, had covered these core city streets with beautifully arching canopies that also functioned as migration corridors for birds, butterflies and arboreal mammals. In addition, the shade these tree lines offered made it a joy to walk in the core city areas.

Since there was no ‘community’ here, civic authorities assumed that widening these stretches would be frictionless. They were surprised when hundreds of people poured out in protest under the banner of Hasiru Usiru (Greenery is Life’s Breath), a loose coalition of individuals and organizations. Many architects and student groups joined in and produced wonderfully designed alternative schemes that demonstrated intelligent use of street space without the felling of trees, guaranteed improved pedestrian safety and comfort, and eased traffic flow – all this pro bono.

Disregarding all this, Reddy’s committee ordered widening of these roads. What followed was nothing short of a carnage. As massive trees were brought down and dismembered, they took with them more than just a memory. Forest Department officials, who one assumed would resist the large-scale felling of trees, were instead enthusiastic about participating in the demise of these green denizens. In a matter of weeks, all the trees were removed, a process extremely painful to those who had cherished this living heritage of Bangalore. Part of the chief justice’s verdant residential complex was turned into a road, as were colleges, public offices and utilities.


The ESG challenged the decision in court, and fortunately found support. An agency that the court had created to find ways to resolve the conflict had instead assumed decision making powers available only to the judiciary, thereby breaching the mandate. The committee was dissolved and the matter was taken back into the formal hearings of the court. In a simple interim order, the court ruled that road widening and such other infrastructure projects could be undertaken only in ‘strict compliance’ with the statutory provisions of the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act and Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act.

The court not only kept the petition alive, it decided to periodically monitor implementation of its order. This simple interim ruling has subsequently protected thousands of homes, trees, businesses and livelihoods across the city. Even though various agencies have tried to work around this order, for instance in the construction of the Bangalore Metro, they have not found it easy. An alert public and impacted communities have taken shelter under this order to block illegal and unnecessary road widening efforts, sometimes by moving injunction suits in civil courts. As a consequence, the ill-conceived road widening project has largely remained in limbo, at least for the past couple of years.


A major threat to the High Court ruling emerged when the Bangalore Metro agency decided to encroach into street spaces and abutting public spaces such as parks (including the iconic Lalbagh), in order to construct elevated rail tracks. Following weeks of street protests to change the government’s stand on destroying public parks and spaces, which failed, ESG challenged this move in a PIL (WP No. 13241/2009). This time no stay was granted, and phase 1 of the metro was hurriedly initiated in characteristic disregard to town planning norms and laws – something that has become endemic and epidemic to all metro projects across India.

In the case of Bangalore Metro, it was Yeddyurappa’s desire to claim the launch of this mega project as his political legacy. By the time the High Court finally disposed off the PIL, a major portion of the metro had already been constructed in violation of norms, a fact conceded by the court. Fortunately, the judgement ensured that this method of infrastructure development could not be the norm. It directed that henceforth, the metro, its expansion plans and all such infrastructure projects, must fully comply with the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, especially those that mandated public involvement in decision making. Spelling out that its intent was to ensure the transparency of planning and implementation of projects, the court warned officials that it would hold them individually responsible for contempt if they failed to comply.

Meanwhile, another PIL initiative backed by ESG (WP No. 28040/2009) challenged a new road that the BBMP wanted to build through the biodiversity rich and verdant University of Agricultural Sciences campus in North Bangalore. Disregarding widespread protests from communities within the campus and surrounding neighbourhoods, the BBMP persisted with its efforts and began building the road through this forested campus, employing brutal police force. The Karnataka High Court stayed the project. It then subjected it to public hearings by court appointed commissioners. Based on their findings, it finally held that the road could only be built if an Environment Impact Assessment, conducted independently under the supervision of a committee headed by the state chief secretary, established that the project would not damage the ecology of the campus.

It turned out that the need for the EIA never arose as by the time the court delivered its verdict in September 2011, an elected city government was fully functional. The issue was extensively debated in the council and it was resolved that the road had been unnecessary to begin with and that it was promoted only to suit certain real estate interests. The project was abandoned. But a judicial precedent had been set: henceforth road building efforts would be based on EIAs and public consultation, and the final project decision had to be an outcome of these processes.


If we review the evolving jurisprudence attending to conflicts over urban infrastructure development in Bangalore, what emerges is the following:

1. The rule of law supports democratic and planned decision making, be it for roads, metros or any other form of infrastructure development.

2. When the civic and state administration fail to attend to the complex issues that emerge in implementing urban schemes, and especially when they aren’t democratically evolved, approaching courts for seeking corrective measures results in a positive outcome.

3. Despite all the projected and perceived ills of an elected urban local government, its capacity to resolve disputes arising out of ill-conceived projects appears to be far more sensitive to public interest than the much touted efficiency of a strong bureaucracy-led civic administration.

These experiences also bring to light a slew of issues that remain unattended. For instance, bureaucracies and elected councils seem insufficiently equipped, perhaps even indifferent, when forced to contend with the complexities of new urbanisms. The Gandhibazaar incident reveals the absolute lack of humanism and cultural sensitivity in attending to issues of livelihoods, interclass relationships and comprehension of multiple visions of a city. As has occurred time and again, the underprivileged are forced to contend with ill-equipped and insensitive agencies when attempting to articulate and secure relief for their cause. They thus tend to suffer the most, as is the case with the street vendors. This also highlights the gap that exists between evolving policies with progressive intent and projects implementation.


Further, the increasingly elite outlook of urban projects has exposed the gross incapacity of existing urban administrative systems in evolving an understanding of an inclusive metropolis. It appears that elite interests, and the projects they promote, find greater purchase through imposed visions and ideas of living, subsuming, often brutally, many other ways of living. History, culture and tradition seem handicapped in making their presence felt through such didacticism of what seemingly is a globalized version of urbanism operating undemocratically. A eulogizing of the efficiency of the bureaucracy seems yet another way to respond to the needs of the elite who manage to push forth their visions of urban life. In contrast, the judiciary appears to have lived up to its institutional and intended purpose of offering corrective and procedural remedies, based largely on rational choice, and an enforcement of the rule of law.


The flip side is that the judiciary, in the end, has merely responded to persistent calls to enforce the rule of law. This may well have been a decision the bureaucracy could have made, and should have made. This in itself presents a picture of a crisis in the making, as urbanization envelops the developmental agenda of civic authorities, state governments and also the Centre. The harsh reality is that projects conceived centrally, totally divorced from local situations and expectations, are causing widespread discontent. The Centre, aware of these complexities and resulting conflicts, has attempted a resolution through what appears to be progressive policies, such as the National Urban Transport Policy. On closer examination, though, they come across as mere window dressing. The financing of infrastructure projects by the Centre has followed a policy of acute centralization, acute disregard for local government roles and choices, and a particular indifference to the critical importance of public involvement in decision making.

Despite this grave situation, work within communities by voluntary organizations and innovative organizing amongst impacted communities has brought these complexities to public attention. This has also resulted in a better appreciation of different class expectations, a process that will hopefully evolve to reflect the needs of the many publics and not merely the elite.


* Leo F. Saldanha is actively engaged in various issues and concerns relating to urban infrastructure and governance, and researches and campaigns full time with Environment Support Group, Bangalore. leo@esgindia.org, www.esgindia.org. He is grateful to the editors, Lakshmi Nilakantan and Abhayraj Naik for their detailed comments and criticisms. The essay is a result of these collective interpretations.


1. There was no elected body in Bangalore from 2007 until elections were held in April 2010.