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A Virtual Reality
The expressway between Bangalore and Mysore

RITU PRIMLANI / India Currents v.16, n.1, Apr02


Rail and road map: Bangalore to Mysore.
Produced by Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education

In 1995 the Government of Karnataka approved the development of a massive urban and transport related infrastructure corridor between Bangalore and Mysore called the Bangalore-Mysore Industrial Corridor (BMIC). It proposes to cut down the travel time between these two cities to 1.5 hours from the 3.5 hours it takes today. The Government of Karnataka has approved the project, under the auspices of the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board. Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE) is the developer, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, SAB Eng both U.S. companies, signed contract in 1995 with Chief Minister Devegowda, but they face opposition from three organizations: Karnataka Vimochana Ranga, Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and Environmental Support Group, Bangalore.

NICE, the developer, points out that Bangalore is the fastest growing metro in India, with a population growth rate of more than 3.5 percent per annum. They state that this city was originally created to house 200,000 people, and is severely congested by housing its 5.5 million residents. They laud Bangalore as the Silicon Valley of the East, fueled by the infotech revolution sweeping across India. Consequent problems are choked and narrow roads unable to handle the growing vehicular traffic, power and water shortages, and severe air, water and noise pollution.

The project aims to accelerate the development of area widely perceived as the economic backbone of Karnataka. In addition, the corridor will also link the fast growing industrial area at Bidadi on the way to Mysore where some large multinational corporations such as Toyota, General Electric, Coke, and Pepsi are situated. Coke is said to be setting up its largest bottling facility of Asia at Bidadi.

Besides helping achieve the economic growth of the region, the project will also help to alleviate the problem of the commercial traffic traveling on the busy NH 4 and NH 7 (linking Chennai in the south to Mumbai in the west) without crossing downtown Bangalore by a fast, grade-separated bypass.

NICE paints a beautiful pictures of benefits: creation of world-class infrastructure facilities, peripheral road to help heavy truck traffic bypass the city of Bangalore, leading to decongestion of the city. NICE claims the BMIC is an environment-friendly project as the level of noise and air pollution will drop significantly, and it will create green areas out of barren and non-cultivable lands. There will be a reduction in fuel consumption for all users of the toll roads as well as Bangalore citizens due to less congestion on city roads. Bangalore will experience a reduction in travel time and accident rate. Approximately 700 people lose their lives in road accidents every year in Bangalore currently. The municipal corporation will save on the maintenance cost on existing city roads. There will be new employment opportunities, inducing economic growth in the regions due to the corridor, rural to urban migration will be arrested, and for the farmers? They stand to gain too, since there will be newer markets for their produce, the educational status of the rural population, and they will have an incentive to progress. Better housing, clothing, and recreational facilities will act as oppositional forces to urban centers.

Let's look a little closer. The Bangalore-Mysore Industrial Corridor is India's largest private estate/infrastructure project, and involves building an expressway from these two cities, and building five cities along the corridor. The government notified about 21,000 acres of land towards this project in 1997, of which one-third was government owned land, such as forests, revenue land and "wastelands," the rest being small farms and common grazing pastures which support small farmers and landless laborers. The developers admit that ousting people for a project is a thorny issue. The development powers of over 170 village panchayats that fell within the acquisition area were made subservient to a state-led high level committee of secretaries from various departments.

I agree that Bangalore is severely congested, and that is a serious concern. Regarding the benefits of the project to alleviate these problems, though, I beg to differ. The creation of this massive road highway along the five nodes from Bangalore to Mysore would alleviate the traffic problems by causing an initial migration out of Bangalore to these five nodal cities, provided the number of owned vehicles stays the same. Which it won't.

Roads promote an increase in private vehicular purchase, and this phenomenon has been amply demonstrated by cities all around the world Los Angeles and Delhi are two prime examples. The corollary assumption that once these residents move out of Bangalore, they will not go back again also stands to skew the result. My argument is, that this project will increase the traffic, and concomitant traffic congestion, rather than alleviate it. Claiming that the noise and pollution will go down because of this road is to claim that the noise and pollution levels of Delhi went down with the creation of the nodal cities of the National Capital Region, or the concomitant highways. Or that Los Angeles' urban sprawl helped its problems of pollution. It might be the developers' claim; it is certainly not based in reality.

Let us cast some light on the claims around economic development. NICE claims creation of economic development, since Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of the East. I couldn't agree more that Bangalore boasts among the most skilled workers in the computer industry in the world Bill Gates himself lauded Indians on U.S. national television for a full hour. NICE however, is assuming unrestricted growth of the Silicon Valley contracts. With the dot-com bust and the debilitating influence it has had on the "original" Silicon Valley in California, how will the building of this corridor ensure the creation of economic growth?

NICE itself points out that multinational corporations are Bangalore's prime contracts in the computer industry. When the original Silicon Valley is experiencing a recession, to the point of sending back thousands of its skilled Indian workers on H-1B visas, where would the Silicon Valley of the East get the same contracts from? It would be accurate to claim that this corridor would create economic opportunity in these nodal cities provided the level of economic opportunities in computers stays the same. Which it isn't. The power and water shortages are going to remain the same for these nodal cities since the water and power source for that region is the same. People are not going to die because of this migration; they are only going to move from one place to another. It is going to do nothing to solve the power and water shortages of the region. On the contrary, BMIC has been allocated 150 million liters per day of Cauvery waters, which, first, is illegal, and second, takes water away from extant urban uses, and does nothing to alleviate the water shortages.

The only claim I haven't addressed so far is BMIC being lauded as an "environmentally-friendly" project. NICE claims BMIC will make fallow lands green. I would like to point out that the environmental movement does not go around planting grass to make cities green. BMIC, in fact, does the opposite of being environmentally friendly: it is creating large roadways, which cause toxic runoff into rivers, oceans, and the adjoining lands. They promote purchasing of private vehicles, which have been implicated in lung cancer, and the emission of highly toxic gases such as sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxide. This project is ousting natural lands and farms to make way for cities that consume far many resources and the creation of hazardous substances. Even Coke, which NICE proudly displays in its portfolio of transnational products, is a hazardous waste due to its Ph balance. If it wasn't for the U.S. authorities who lowered the Ph scale in defining hazardous substances to make room for Coke, we'd all be carefully disposing off each can of Coke under the stringent regulations that hound hazardous substances. As for benefits for the farmers, what farmers? The ones who have been ousted by the project? With the rate at which India's urban centers are sprawling out over the countryside, soon there will be no arable farming land left.

Environmentalists and social upliftment groups point out a major concern in this project: the land transfer agreement, where the government pays farmers below market rates (around Rs. 200,000_300,000/acre), and turns around and gives that land to NICE, the developers for even lower rates! (Rs. 100,000/acre). The government does not seem concerned about cost here, which was a major concern to bring cities closer to Cauvery waters.

Leo Saldanha, of the Environment Support Group (ESG) Bangalore, points out the alleged benefits of the project: decongest Bangalore and thus provide relief to the city's growing problems of unplanned growth, high cost of living, pollution and crime.

The best solution for the city, and the neighboring countryside is to keep the city as geographically succinct as possible, and improve the current systems of transportation. Urban sprawl hurts both the city and the countryside in the long run. We've looked at the problem, the painted "virtual" reality, now let's look at the options.

A Ferrari When India Needs a Fiat

Re-planting bananas on fields that are in the corridor alignment. This community is unaware of the fact that they might be displaced. Courtesy of Environment Support Group, Bangalore. Let us look at the social costs at a glance. In India the population density is such that you can barely swing your arms without smacking someone upside the face. And that is the developer's reality: someone will have to pay for it. There is another reality. Just like a highway project is unlikely to go through Beverly Hills in the U.S., so it is unlikely to bulldoze across Andheri, Bombay. In other words, it will go through the homes of poor people. And what of human rights and environmental clearances? It is a well-known, albeit less acknowledged fact that you have as many rights as you have money. We all know how little money small agrarian communities have, and since I haven't seen much ledger-keeping by tigers the last time I visited Karnataka's forests, we'll just assume the forests of India do not have many money-ratified rights either. If social justice concerns are not your forte, let's talk economics and do a needs assessment.

Costs of the BMIC? Here is a snapshot of the costs: Rs. 4,000 crores (over U.S. $1 billion), government land is being leased to NICE for Rs. 10 (20 cents) per acre for 40 years; 200,000 people will be displaced; about 7,000 acres of the last 8 percent of India's forests will be impacted; 150 million liters per day of Cauvery waters will be taken away from rural and urban communities (which is not legal, and try mentioning that to Jayalalitha, who has fought for years for her state's share of Cauvery waters). Farmers pay for this project by being forced from their lands in a land-for-money transaction, leaving them further impoverished by the rates they get. The average Karnatakan pays for it since the government takes their money and subsidizes NICE, and the two U.S. companies.

And Here's the Fiat

Agara Tank is one of the several tanks the silt of which is allowed for construction use. This is likely to cause serious damage to the watershed and the waterbody, the backbone of the rainfed agriculture in the region. Courtesy of Environment Support Group, Bangalore. The two best railway and road options are the following: one was proposed by the Government of Karnataka to convert the existing Bangalore-Mysore railway line into a "High Speed Double Track Electric Rail Link." A mouthful, yet it works to get a 20-minute peak-hour service, and costs but a fraction of the amount required for BMIC: Rs. 500 crores. In 2000 Southern Railways stated their support in the form of covering half the costs of doubling the track, and electrification. There is marginal land acquisition, and expansion of services up to 10-minute intervals is possible.

The road option, according to Subramaniam Vincent, who researched these extant options, has already procured its funding through the World Bank by a Rs. 1700 crore loan towards upgradation of the entire state highway network in Karnataka to international standard motorable highways. The World Bank highways project is not upgrading the Bangalore-Mysore state highway. The government is independently upgrading the Bangalore-Mysore highway with HUDCO funding.

Not to make light of social justice issues which India stumbles over during every large, top-down project it advocates, like the Narmada Valley Development Project. India also has demonstrated a knack for doing an assessment, and when the assessment recommends against the project, they throw it out, and do the project anyway. Maybe that is what will happen with the BMIC. The powerful will order the powerless around.

The BMIC is a virtual reality for Bangalore and Mysore for three reasons: the claims of the benefits are not rooted in reality, or how urban geographies respond to massive infrastructural projects like these. Two, the economic spearhead of this project is the computer industry, which lives in a virtual world of its own. And three, this project is virtually here. Resist it or promote it, it is almost a reality. If you promote it, I enveigh you to change the definition of democracy, from it being of the people, by the people, and for the people, let it be of the ruling economic class, by the ruling economic class, and for the ruling economic class, and the rest of the country be damned.

Ritu Primlani is the President and Executive Director of Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education. www.thimmakka.org or e-mail thimmakka@thimmakka.org.

Contact: Leo Saldanha, Coordinator
Environment Support Group
S-3 Rajashree Apartments
18/57, 1st Main Road, S.R.K. Gardens
Jayanagar, Bannerghatta Road
Bangalore 560041, India.
Telefax: 91-80-6341977; Fax: 91-80-6723926



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