Bengaluru in a Bind: What Has Put the Brakes on India's Fastest-growing City?
Political turmoil, budget stays, fund diversions – the last few months have witnessed chaos and logjam, with key infrastructure projects stuck in limbo.
Bengaluru: The pillars erected for the Hebbal flyover, their iron spokes jutting out towards the sky, make for a jarring entry as you move into the city of Bengaluru from the airport. The structures, part of a widening project for the decade-old overpass, have forced out at least 30 per cent of the traffic from one of the busiest intersections of the city that sees nearly 3.5 lakh vehicles daily.
At the other end of Bengaluru, where Hosur Road leads up to the tech zone, Electronic City, and from there on to national highway 4, white-topping works taken up under the previous JD(S)-Congress coalition government have been suspended. About 70 per cent of the highway is topped with concrete, the other bits still filled with gravel and run-down asphalt.
In south Bengaluru’s Jayanagar, the Kittur Rani Chennamma flyover waits for funds.
Across the city, projects that began in the coalition government era or before that, are now hanging fire after the new BJP government decided to suspend all tenders, stop issuing of any new ‘job codes’ for civic works, and ordered a review of every allocation.
The IT city, in the process, is halted.
It began with a Lok Sabha election that saw a three-month-long ‘model code of conduct’, political turmoil right after that with defections and resort stays, a new government that did not have a cabinet for an entire month and one that put the budget of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) on hold for weeks. All in all, it is a city that has stopped in its tracks for eight months or more.
Bengaluru may be one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, but it’s closed in on all sides by projects that haven’t taken off, roads that are useless during the rains, ever-swelling traffic and a citizenry always at odds with the facilities they have to bear. An estimated Rs 8,000-crore-worth projects are in abeyance, but, besides that, poor maintenance of arterial roads has put Bengalureans on the brink during the rains this past month.
“I think the BBMP council did try to get started on a few things, but they obviously knew what was going on, the noise against which they were working,” says retired IAS officer and citizen activist Renuka Viswanathan. “By the time they finished the process and issued an approval, you would have had a direction from the government, but the government had changed, so you couldn’t go ahead with issuing an order.”
A member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) now, Viswanathan recently released a go-to booklet or manual for citizens on how to demand accountability from their corporators and MLAs.
“Citizens must start asking, in each ward, what happened to my work? Has my work order been issued? It is now… April, May, June, July, August, September – five and a half months lost. That five and a half months lost means that the money that was available for that work, the time that was available for the work, everything in it has been compressed. There’s no way you can get anything done up to mark in the time you have now,” Viswanathan says.
The approval to the BBMP budget, which was presented way back in February 2019, was scrapped when the new government came in. The BJP after taking power went on to revise the budget entirely, before sending it as the “final budget”.
The budget, of over Rs 11,000 crore, has unusual allocations of nearly Rs 1,000 crore as “discretionary funds” to the mayor, the deputy mayor and the minister in-charge of Bengaluru, she says.
“Rs 1,000 crore is big money. An elected council is supposed to take decisions to allocate money to various sectors. But if you take it and put it away without allotting it sector-wise, what’s the role of the council then? How democratic is that?” she asks.
The revised budget also has another glaring change – most of the funds allocated to the assembly segments led by Congress leaders have been redirected to those represented by BJP MLAs.
It was over this issue that Thursday saw a Congress protest at the Town Hall, crying discrimination against the skewed allocations between assembly segments of the ruling and opposition party. There are 28 assembly segments in Bengaluru city alone. Eleven of them represented by Congress MLAs have had to take a cut of Rs 1,921 crore that was allotted to them in February, while those segments with BJP MLAs have had a bonanza of Rs 1,824 crore as their funds, Reddy says.
The ones profiting most are the assembly constituencies that saw MLAs defecting – five segments that are together getting an additional Rs 923 crore between them from the city funds.
“Even I was Bengaluru in-charge minister for some time (in the Siddaramaiah regime), but we never compromised on such things. We gave funds for everyone, maybe a little more for Congress, but we never neglected BJP or JD(S),” Reddy told News18.
Krishna Byre Gowda, another Congress MLA who was a minister in the coalition government, says nearly Rs 8,400 crore was approved by the state government for Bengaluru development alone.
“To draft this Rs 8,400-crore proposal, it takes nearly one year of background work. It included roads, flyovers, storm water drains, lake rejuvenation, etc. The Cabinet approved it in January 2019, government orders were issued and tenders were called. The government now has put a halt to all these funds,” he says.
By that count, the Bengaluru logjam doesn’t just go back eight months: nearly 20 months of work in planning and chalking out programmes have gone kaput.
The BBMP commissioner, BH Anil Kumar, says however that many projects are in the process of being approved.
"Various stages of processing have happened. Based on an earlier action plan, we have prepared detailed project reports, some tenders have been floated, some are in various stages of approvals. Because of holding up of action plan, we have not yet finalised everything. Shortly, the action plan will be finalised and we will get a go-ahead from the government to start the works,” he told News18.
Maintenance of roads, covering of potholes and restoration works are still going ahead without delays, he added.
Gowda rebuts this. “Now, after one year of background work, they have stopped work and now they are actually redrawing whole programmes. This is going to take another couple of months and then again government orders have to be issued, tenders have to be called and that could take another 4-5 months. So, which means effectively this action, driven by nothing other than political vendetta, of re-appropriating the money given by the previous government, is actually going to cost Bengaluru. If the new government wanted to give more money to Bengaluru, we are not coming in the way. But they are indulging in political partisanship. The casualty is neither Congress nor JD(S). It is development,” he says.
Citizens, and citizen groups, are getting frustrated.
“Look at lakhs and lakhs of people… this Kundalahalli area is one of the most important junctions which connects the IT people. For the last six months, nothing has happened. They have built this entire thing. There has been an excavation that has gone. They have built this entire road. Now everything got stopped in this political turmoil. Again, last week the CM has passed down this Kundalahalli flyover and he said, now everything would be done. But in the last 6-8 months nothing has moved. Everything has got stopped and we the citizens are the ones who bear the brunt of all the political decisions. They do not have any problem with it, but we are the ones who always get stuck,” says N Madhusoodhan, an activist with the citizens’ movement Whitefield Rising.
Whitefield, incidentally, home to hundreds of IT companies where thousands of techies commute every day, is a business-cum-residential cluster in the Mahadevapura region of south-east Bengaluru. It is known as the top revenue-generator for the city – more than 25 per cent of all property tax proceeds comes from this region. There are elected representatives here who, off the record, admit that they have told the government to not approve establishment of any more companies – unless the infrastructure is scaled up.
The BJP says it is doing what it is doing in the interest of the city.
“The cost of white-topping was a deterrent. Instead of that we will be going for traditional asphalting. I think it was more of a misuse… a lot of misuse of funds was there. We want to prevent that, re-plan the existing projects. Whatever has been already sanctioned is not being cut down, it is only being re-distributed more effectively,” says BJP leader and deputy chief minister Dr CN Ashwath Narayan.
“There are a lot of things that get affected when a government comes and suddenly puts people’s projects on hold. The BBMP as you know is the municipal corporation. It is the lowest tier of government. And the work it does affects us on a daily basis. For instance, this year has seen an unprecedented spike of dengue cases. Of 10,000 cases in Karnataka, about 6,000-odd have been in BBMP limits. And the allocation to health is a small amount, less than 5 per cent. As the cases are increasing, a life-threatening kind of situation is here. Children are being affected. It isn't like bad roads. You can't just ignore it. It's not inconvenience. It is the health of human beings,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, an activist with the Citizens for Bengaluru campaign.
She says the BBMP budget has so far been an ad hoc process with no independent auditing, unlike all other city councils. “Can you believe a Rs 10,000-crore fund that can get away without independent auditing? BBMP does it. Even the councillors themselves have objected to it,” she says.
The future doesn’t look too bright. The politicos are busy with mayoral elections next week, and, after that, by-elections in the constituencies where MLAs had defected. Four of the 17 bypolls are in Bengaluru city. So, don’t expect files to start flying at top speed.
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