Bengaluru is in the process of preparing yet another master plan. What does the process involve and what does it aim to achieve? To understand this, let us go back to the time when Kempegowda first founded our great city, Bengaluru.  

  • Challenge: Bangalore was on a high plateau and had no water resources.  

  • Only way it could host a city: Rain water harvesting, and lots of it. Best option to do it was through lakes, using them as water sinks.

  • First thing on his agenda: Build many lakes, more than the population the city then had would require.

Where did he learn to do this? From the local villagers. The locals, even ordinary villagers, built lakes, as offerings to their many deities. Every village had many lakes.

The many villages in and around Bengaluru built most of the lakes, and that was how Bengaluru ended up being a city of lakes. The kings built them, ordinary citizens built them. Between these lakes, more than 2,000 of them, they held water enough to even exceed the requirements of 1.25 crore people that we have today.   

What have we done? We have destroyed all these lakes, and we now import water from 200 kms away, from the river Cauvery.

This example is important because it shows how the modern government today has lost its links to everything local, the local population, the local wisdom, and hence its disconnected actions end up in tragedies of this sort!

This scenario has a history. The planning and administration process have got derailed over the centuries, in India and in Bengaluru. The British were a colonial administration; their interest was only to benefit themselves, and their far away motherland, Great Britain. They built an administration system that was top-down. They usurped ownership over all commons, and stopped listening to the locals. They set up a centralised planning system, undertaken by officials, and handed down to citizens, with a ‘Take it or put up with it’ approach. They put their might behind big engineering, and tried building huge palatial public buildings, large engineering projects, bridges, dams, etc.

How did this affect local governance?

None of these were either beneficial or solutions for local problems.

  • The British decided what they would do with the cities. If you cared to notice, the British side of a city, ie., Cantonment would have good roads, sidewalks, gardens, good public buildings, etc., whereas, the ‘Pete’ side of the city, ie., the Indian dwellers side, would get the short shrift, hence if you visited Chickpet, Balepet etc etc., you see, narrow lanes, bad amenities, in short, total disregard. This is a story that repeated itself across all Indian cities.

  • The biggest disaster was not that the British just took care of themselves; it was that they also decided for the locals, but without the knowledge the locals had. Hence, most decisions ended up destroying the local ecosystems, and the health of the populations.

How are all these relevant in the present context?

Once we got freedom, how much has changed? In reality, nothing! We still have government system which is top-down, and doesn’t consider ‘citizens’ an essential component of decision making. This is because, we have largely retained the colonial structures of governance that the British created to exploit us.

So, who is exploiting now? And why is this system still in place? The answers to these will tell us why such an exploitative and Top-Down system is being retained by the status quo.  

When the British left, the Indian elite that prospered under the British Administration, by being close to them, had not gone anywhere, but quietly moved into a role of manipulating the system to their selfish benefit. They ensured that the structures remained the same, and since they were already good at playing it, they kept it going, for their self-interest. Result?  

  • Our cities are beyond breaking down, highly congested, badly planned, projects are still based on vested interests, and not the city’s real needs.

  • Planning is still is top down, and citizens are kept out of the process. Opaqueness characterises how our government bodies operate.

  • Education still teaches us and our children to keep our heads in the clouds (Britain has been replaced by USA, but nothing else has changed) that result in a disengaged and disempowered citizenry.

Does this answer all of the reasons why the BDA’s planning process never meets the city’s real needs? Does it answer why the plan avoids all the legitimate concerns of citizens, but helps some shady consultants and real estate developers lobbies?

So, what is wrong with this process, and how can it be corrected? To find answers to this, we need to first delve into the legal status of the BDA.

  • Who is the Bengaluru Development Authority?  

  • Who gives it the power to plan our city?

  • Who is the BDA answerable to? Is it answerable to the citizens?  

  • Is the BDA a constitutionally mandated body?

  • Does the BDA have capability and skills to plan a city?  How many Urban Planners are employed by the BDA?  

Answer to all of these is unfortunately in the negative!  And more specifically:

  1. The constitution specifically mandates the Metropolitan Planning Authority to plan the city. (74th amendment)

  2. The Constitution also mandates that every ward have a Ward Level Planning Committee (local self government, and citizens involvement).  This is devised to change planning from a top down approach, to a bottoms up approach, which has been missing for more than two centuries.

So, it turns out the BDA is actually an impostor. The entire act of the Comprehensive Development Plan or Master Plan that the BDA indulges in, unfortunately is a sham. It is in violation and contempt of our Constitution. The BDA has no qualified planners. Until recently, the BDA would not even hold public consultations. However,  due to heightened citizen activism of late, the BDA is forced to hold a show of consultation. The fundamental assumptions and basis of the planning are suspect, and none of the studies are in the public domain. The whole process appears like a charade.

What is required?

  1. The Government needs to be called out for its disrespect and contempt for the Indian Constitution, it needs to dismantle the BDA and merge it with the BBMP. Maybe we could interest the Namma Bengaluru Foundation to take up a PIL in this regard, with active Citizen Support?  A new campaign by citizens that say #BDAbeda #MPCbeku is called for?

  2. The MPC and Ward Level Planning Committees have to empowered.

  3. The MPC should be authorized to begin the Master Planning exercise from scratch. All studies have to be put out in the public domain even before the planning exercise!

  4. Before that, the MPC should be equipped with a dedicated in-house Team of qualified and experienced Urban Planners. An Urban Planning department with the requisite strength of planners and infrastructure should be set up. It should not be a job entrusted to private consultants who run their own agenda.  

  5. Most Important:

    1. Local Self Governance has to be restored in the city. This can be done only if the City Council has the full mandate for running the city and planning it.

    2. The MPC should report to the elected City Council.

    3. The City Council should be fully empowered, all the powers of the State Government to run the city should be transferred to the City Council.

    4. The City Council should have a Mayor for a fixed term of at least five years, and the city’s management goals clearly laid out.

    5. Wards should see active Citizen’s involvement and the Ward Committees should all be ensured to be active. If a Ward level citizens committee is found non-operational, the ward corporator should be dismissed, and fresh elections held for that ward.

    6. A ward level planning committee should be established at every ward, and it should be empowered to plan for the ward, and these inputs have to go towards the larger City Masterplan that the MPC utilizes for the city’s Masterplan.

What are you citizens doing?

We are a democracy now, it is a government by us, the elected representatives that we send to the legislature are meant to serve us. So, what’s stopping you from demanding or setting the agenda?  Educate yourself. If people you end up voting can be trusted to plan and run our cities, then surely it can’t be rocket science, you citizens can also read up and learn the best practices and innovations required to improve our cities. Participate in Agenda Building.

A group of citizens have set out to build an Agenda with public collaboration; to evolve a demand that could empower the city and its citizens’, and here is the result:

To participate in this initiative, and to engage in evolving the Citizens Agenda for Bangalore’s Governance, please visit:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/CitizensAgendaForBengaluru/permalink/1069003803198619/

Note: An elaborate version of this article was first published on CitizensforBengaluru.in; this is an edited version. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.