Disconnect of Bengaluru’s Corporates More Worrisome Than Cauvery
A corporate-led initiative in Bengaluru to widen the roads is more worrisome than Cauvery row, writes Subir Ghosh.
The protests over Cauvery waters in Karnataka, particularly in capital Bengaluru, have made headlines the country over. But lost in the din has been a string of demonstrations of a much smaller scale in the city: over tree felling for widening roads under the controversial TenderSURE project.
Bengaluru's Cocooned Corporate Elite
Both, however, have shown the disconnect the city’s corporate elite have with popular sentiments and ground realities. Having been caught on the wrong foot over both protests, the elite is now making frantic efforts to recover lost ground – by “appropriating” others’ causes.
The group in question is the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B-PAC), which describes itself as “an action group that is committed to improving the quality of life for all citizens of Bangalore by focussing on improving governance”, and is headed by Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw as president and TV Mohandas Pai, co-founder of Aarin Capital and formerly with Infosys, as vice president. The bloc was set up to act as a pressure group in February 2013, during the run-up to the state assembly elections.
Corporates’ Writ Runs Large
TenderSURE initiative aimed at revamping roads comes under the scanner as it is
revealed that the move will lead to tree felling.
project conceived under the BJP regime has remained controversial due to the
secrecy around plans, budgets and tenders.
- Citizens protest against the move to pave roads at the expense of green
cover, with the BBMP announcing that only five trees would be cut.
blame nexus between the corporates and the state government that is
imposing an elite narrative in the name of development.
Cauvery Faux Pas
After the Cauvery protests began, pro-Kannada and farmers’ organisations called for a bandh on 9 September to protest against the order of the Supreme Court directing Karnataka to release Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu. As businesspeople are wont, Mazumdar-Shaw reacted against the bandh, and tweeted, “another Bandh – Its now Bandhaluru where bandhs r affecting productivity – what a sad situation where farmers on both sides cant share.” But this one was not just another bandh, and she had misread the sentiments.
As many trolled her, she deleted her tweet and blamed everything on the media, “Pls read my message don't listen to media twist. I hv always stood by farmers n people of Karnataka.” By that time, of course, innumerable screenshots had been taken and widely circulated on social media.
Mazumdar-Shaw released an elaborate statement three days later, insisting how the tweet had been misinterpreted, and insisted that she was a “proud Kannadiga”. The statement was faithfully reported by many, and published in full too. The PR exercise was all about how much she had done for the state. It’s a different matter that Mazumdar-Shaw has got into acrimonious spats on Twitter often in the past over farmers’ issues, particularly over the Land Acquisition Bill which she has trenchantly supported.
Looking for a Genuine Cause
As the situation kept simmering, BPAC jumped into the swirling waters by filing a writ petition before the Supreme Court and impleading in the Cauvery dispute, seeking protection of drinking water needs of Bengaluru and its surrounding areas in the Cauvery river basin. BPAC, of course, has historically not spoken about protecting the Cauvery river basin or the needs of farmers.
For instance, since January 2013 (when its official Twitter account was set up), the word “farmer” shows up only seven times, with only two of them alluding to problems of farmers – that too in a state which has one of the highest rates of farmer suicides. The word “Cauvery” has more traction, but most have to do with water supply to BPAC leaders’ own city.
Hitting the Road Over TenderSURE
Even as the Cauvery water dispute dominated public discourse in the state, particularly the capital, many in the city were shocked and outraged to learn one fine morning (on 18 September) that 18 huge trees would be chopped down on the green-canopied arterial Nrupathunga Road to make way for pavements and road-widening under the ambit of the controversial TenderSURE initiative.
TenderSURE is an initiative that was meant to reconstruct roads in Bengaluru and other cities/towns of Karnataka, with SURE standing for 'Specifications for Urban Roads Execution'. The project, conceived when the BJP’s DV Sadananda Gowda was the chief minister, has remained controversial because of the secrecy with which plans were approved, budgets allocated and tenders awarded. A brainchild of the Bangalore City Connect Foundation (BCCF) and designed by Jana USP, TenderSURE roads have evoked wide criticism for faulty construction and causing collateral damage. Most prominent BPAC members belong to BCCF too.
Paving Roads at the Expense of Trees
While there had been sporadic protests and submissions of memoranda earlier, the Nrupathunga tree felling plans made civil society groups hit the streets. A tree-hugging demonstration along the pavement was organised on 23 September, but activists were soon asked to disband by the police on the ground that Section 144 CrPC was still in force in the city. The protest apparently had a relatively positive outcome – the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) announced three days later that only five trees would be cut.
The following day, BPAC tweeted: “People power has saved trees on Nrupathunga Road, one of the few tree canopies left in the Garden City.” And this got everyone’s goat, for all good reason.
Not only was the TenderSURE project cleared after a presentation made by Mazumdar-Shaw (as a BCCF member) in September 2011, BPAC members have been fiercely vocal advocates of the environmentally destructive project, and have also been dismissive and abusive of all those who speak out against TenderSURE.
'Few Corporate Icons Imposing an Elite Narrative'
Vinay Sreenivasa of Hasiru Usiru that has been protesting against TenderSURE says, “People are beginning to see through them (BPAC), and hence, an attempt to shore up public image by intervening in Cauvery, etc. They have never really cared about farmers or the common Bangalorean on the street.”
They have no idea of the ground reality of even middle-class Bangaloreans or the most disadvantaged in Bengaluru, yet don’t think it’s problematic to lobby for decisions that go against the middle-class or the disadvantaged.Vinay Sreenivasa, member, ‘Hasiru Usiru’
Kshithij Urs of the Forum for Urban Governance and Commons concludes, “Let us be clear about what’s happening. A handful of super-rich corporate icons in Bengaluru are acting like self-proclaimed conscience keepers of the city, using their high-level connections to disregard the local government and impose an elite narrative of development, with no consideration for the needs of the common masses or to the constitutional mandate for a bottom-up planning process. The presence of the same people in so many advisory groups – to promote tourism to management of art galleries sounds incestuous and mocks at the capacity of elected representatives and the experience of experts in respective fields.”
BPAC was emailed a questionnaire; the group did not respond.
(Subir Ghosh (www.subirghosh.in) is a Bengaluru-based journalist and researcher. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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