Could systemic public engagement prevent imbroglios of the kind created by the Bengaluru steel flyover proposal? What steps and caveats would be necessary for that?
The fate of the contentious steel flyover is uncertain now with the imposition of an interim stay order for four weeks by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), but the project is far from being scrapped. A media report suggests that the the Chief Minister has ordered officials to commence work from the Hebbal side, with indications that the government may be open to consultations regarding developments south of Mekhri circle.
The steel flyover has seen one of the biggest civil society mobilisations ever in Bengaluru, with very vocal public protests and petitions against the project involving people from different walks of life. A human chain organised to protest the flyover
attracted more than 3000 citizens, yet another signature campaign
to protest against the flyover has attracted more than 35,000 signatures. These protesters point out that the due process for detailed public consultations as required under the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act was not followed.
Cartoon by Paul Fernandes on BDA's proposed steel flyover.
A look at the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act itself reveals that city planning processes and projects require having public consultations, as part of which the project plan must be displayed in prominent locations and comments on the same must be invited. However, there is scant mention of the process to be followed to effectively address individual comments. Not surprisingly, development agencies take advantage of such gaps in these laws to subvert the entire process of public consultations.
The last time one can remember a visible but passive public consultation process was during the drawing up of the Bangalore (Revised) Master Plan 2015, when in the face of sustained public pressure, the BDA displayed the draft master plan for 60 days and invited comments and objections for the same. It is not entirely clear how they finally dealt with the comments received.
What is fairly clear is that public consultation laws are not in place for a reason – that’s because if implemented effectively, these would pose a problem to development projects. Are there then ways to effectively implement public participation in assessment of projects?
The way forward
Though there are no clear mandates in this regard, there are some suggested ways to move forward on public consultations. The 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution focuses on decentralised governance systems. An integral part of this is the setting up of Ward-Committees and Area Sabhas to ensure local participation. Karnataka has been debating the bye-laws and rules of these for quite some time now, and it was just recently that the rules were gazetted and notified
Ward Committees and Area Sabhas, if constituted, could offer a unique opportunity for local citizens who are going to be affected by development projects to give their feedback on these projects and have a legal voice in the decision regarding these projects. Thus, any effort towards public consultations would have to be grounded at the Area Sabha level which would be the most fundamental unit of urban decentralised governance.
For that to happen, however, the bye-laws would have to be redrawn to make Area Sabhas more powerful and accountable. The laws must mandate that project proponents necessarily have to listen to local governance units. As the rules stand right now, citizens or Area Sabha members can make suggestions to the municipal Councillor, who is the head of the ward committee but it is finally up to the latter to make the final decision.
Also, ward committees would need to be financially empowered, which means that part of the city budget is directly given to wards - and they decide how to use it. Thus city governments can no longer directly approve projects that require co-funding; they would necessarily need a buy-in from the ward committees who now control the purse strings to a certain extent. These conditions would lead to projects which are more grounded in reality rather than the current big ticket projects which seem to be rather expensive and seemingly ineffective.
What is also required is for projects to be graded from a broader sustainability point of view. Take the steel flyover project, for instance. Ideally a traffic congestion solution must be within a greater 'sustainability framework.' The Asian Development Bank - has one called Avoid, Shift, Improve Framework: Avoid travel as much as possible, shift people from private transport to public transport, and improve public transport to attract more people to use it. This is a gold standard in sustainable transport planning. If one uses this framework, the steel flyover would not even have made it beyond the ideation phase.
Is participative decision-making necessarily better?
Since decentralised urban governance processes are still fairly new in the Indian context, it would be foolhardy to expect common citizens who are part of Ward Committees or Area Sabhas to be able to completely comprehend the logic of sustainable interventions. They might very well see short-term goals of flyovers or widened roads and vote for them instead. After all every second person in Bangalore owns a private vehicle.
This would call for behavioural change and capacity-building among citizens in the long run. It could take a few years but it is important to initiate the process of change nevertheless.
However, in the short run, a 'sustainability framework' that provides Ward committees and Area Sabhas sustainable infrastructure choices, guides their decision making is the only way forward. They can be aided in these decisions by transport experts and research institutions which have subject knowledge, for example on the topic of transport planning in the current case.
Finally, even citizen consultations would need to be qualified. Soliciting the opinions of citizens on projects which do not affect them might not yield the desired impact, as they simply may not care.
Assigning weights to citizen consultations may be required. Citizens in whose area infrastructure projects would be coming up may have greater concerns about the negative externalities, and therefore could be assigned a greater role in decision making as opposed to those citizens who might not be negatively affected.
Public consultation is a new phenomenon in India and calls for deeper understanding in terms of how to incorporate it vis-à-vis development projects and processes.