Written by: Sandeep Anirudhan
Let us go back to a time when Kempegowda first founded our great city, Bengaluru. This is what he faced:
Challenge: Bangalore was on a high plateau and had no water resources. The only way it could host a city was by rain water harvesting, and lots of it. So the first thing on his agenda became: build lakes…. many lakes…….. many more lakes even in proportion to the small population of the city at that time.
Where did he learn to do this? From the local villagers. Every village had many lakes. How? The locals, even ordinary villagers, built lakes, as offerings to their many deities.
The many villages in and around Bengaluru……. they built most of these 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, just for a population of few thousands, they held water enough to exceed even today’s water needs of a 1.25 crore population!
What have we done, today? Destroyed all of these lakes, and we now import water from over a hundred kilometers away, from the Cauvery.
Why am I citing this example? Because this exemplifies how modern governance today has lost its links to everything local – the local population, the local wisdom – and disconnected actions result in tragedies of the sort we face today.
Why did we end up in this scenario? It has a history. To understand this, we need to delve into how the planning and administration process have got derailed over the centuries.
The British were a colonial administration. Their interest was only to benefit themselves, and their distant motherland, Great Britain. Hence, they built a system of administration that was top-down! They usurped ownership over all commons. They had no intent to benefit the local population and hence stopped ‘listening’ to the locals, or valuing their local wisdom that had evolved over thousands of years! That was the end of sustainable cities and villages in India. They set up a centralized planning system, run by officials, and handed down to citizens, with a ‘take it or put up with it’ approach.
The British had an innate inferiority complex, when it came to dealing with Indian Civilization. Everywhere they went, they came across highly evolved systems of local engineering, wonderful palaces, great systems of irrigation, highly evolved agricultural systems, and the best quality fabrics and crafts, none of which their recently civilized society could match. Unsurprisingly they put their might behind “Big Engineering”, to prove that they were superior. They tried building huge palatial public buildings, large engineering projects, bridges, Dams, etc….. this was their illusion of grandeur and amounted to nothing more than feeding their egos! None of these were beneficial, nor were they solutions to local problems.
How did they ensure their system survived? By brainwashing us from a young age. The public education system, which cut us off from our environment and realities, taught us an alien language, taught us useless subjects, taught us tales of faraway Britain, DID NOT teach us about our immediate environment, our surroundings, the local communities, local governance or citizenship. All of this ensured that once we reached adulthood, we would be mentally British and physically Indian, hence of no use in either place! And they could continue running our cities and towns, and exploiting whatever they required from our nation.
They had a free run of 200 years, by which time, they changed the entire topography and governance of India through such exploitation, and by keeping local populations out.
- When the British arrived on our shores, India had a forest cover of nearly 95%. By the time they left, the forest cover had reduced to 50% (earliest writings by British explorers detail how they couldn’t even cross the Deccan plateau due to thick forests, which we nowadays associate with arid and desert like conditions! )
- When the British arrived in India, we had sparse Urban centers, very low populations, and immense wealth. By the time they left, we had overcrowded urban centers, extreme poverty and disease.
- When the British arrived, most of the lands were commons, ie., local communities had ownership of lands. The British usurped ownership of commons and forests to exploit them, unhindered, for two centuries. So, when they left, we had no control over our commons and instead, authoritative government officials had control over these
How did this affect Local Governance?
- The British decided what they would do with the cities. If you cared to notice, the British side of a city, for example, the Cantonment areas would have good roads, sidewalks, gardens, good public buildings, and so on, whereas, the ‘Pete’ side of the city, where Indians dwelt, would get the short shrift. If you visited areas like Chickpet and Balepet, you would see, narrow lanes, bad amenities, in short, complete disregard. This is a story that repeated itself across all Indian cities. The reason we Indians do not notice this disparity, today, is that we think the Cantonment side of town was built for us, blissfully unaware that these parts of town once had “Indians and Dogs keep out” signs all across them
- The biggest disaster was not that the British just took care of themselves but that they also made decisions for the locals, but devoid of the knowledge the locals had. Most decision making thus ended up destroying 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 that operates 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. Not only that, the public education system that was created to enslave our minds, is still intact and still produces citizens like us, who do not engage in citizenship, but expect the government to ‘do’ things for us.
So, who is the exploiter now? And why is this system still in place?
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 this game, they kept it going, out of their own self-interest!
- India’s remaining forests are now almost all gone
- Our cities are beyond breaking down, highly congested and badly planned. Projects are still defined and driven by vested interests, and divorced from the city’s real needs
- Planning is still top-down, and citizens are kept out of the process. Opaqueness characterizes 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) resulting in a disengaged and disempowered citizenry
Does this analysis have answers to 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 hand-picked consultants and real estate developer lobbies?
So, what is wrong with this process, and how can it be corrected? To find answers to this, we need to examine 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?
The answer to all of these questions is unfortunately a no. More specifically,
- The Constitution specifically mandates the Metropolitan Planning Committee to plan the city (74th amendment)
- 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 2 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.
Since the BDA has no qualified planners, it pays consultants who toe their line. Until recently, the BDA did not even worry about holding public consultations and it only because of heightened citizen activism lately that the BDA is forced to hold a ‘show’ of consultation. It is quite obvious that the already misplanned Masterplan will not undergo any serious change. The fundamental assumptions and basis of the planning approach are suspect, and none of any studies they conduct are placed in the public domain! The whole process is a charade, and benefits questionable parties who are contracted to be involved.
So, how does all of this go unhindered, in this age of information and technology? The Education system, as I told you, is responsible. We are all trained to have our heads in the clouds and not be aware of our local community, and governance. So, we are ‘like this only’! Until this system of education is disrupted and a meaningful and relevant way of educating our future citizens emerges – one that connects us to our communities and neighborhood – we will remain largely useless citizens.
What is required?
- 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 join hands with other like minded organizations and push this forward, with active Citizen Support? A new campaign by citizens that says #BDAbeda #MPCbeku is called for?
- The MPC and Ward Level Planning Committees have to be empowered
- The MPC should be authorized to begin the Master Planning exercise from scratch. All studies must be mandated to be put in the public domain even before the planning exercise proceeds
- 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 constituted. It should not be a job entrusted to private consultants who run their own agenda
- Most Importantly:
- Local Self Government has to be restored to the city. This can be done only if the city council has the full mandate for running the city and planning it
- The MPC should report to the elected city council
- The city council should be fully empowered and all the powers of the state government to run the city should be transferred to the city council
- The city council should have a mayor for a fixed term of at least 5 years, and the city’s management goals clearly laid out
- Wards must see active citizen involvement and it needs to be ensured that the Ward Committees are active. If a Ward level citizens committee is found non-operational, the ward corporator should be dismissed, and fresh elections held for that ward
- A ward level planning committee should be established at every ward, and it should be empowered to plan for the ward. These inputs have to go into the city’s Masterplan.
What are ‘we’ Citizens doing?
We are a democracy now for heaven’s sake, it is a government ‘by us’. The elected servants that we send to the Legislature are meant to serve ‘us’. So, what is stopping us from demanding or setting the agenda? Let us educate ourselves: if those illiterate, ignorant people we end up voting (more so by not voting), can be trusted to plan and run our cities, then surely it can’t be rocket science. We citizens can also read up and learn the best practices and innovations required to improve our cities.
Let us participate in agenda building.
A group of citizens have set out to build an Agenda with public collaboration – to make a demand that will empower the city and its citizens’, and here is the result:
To participate in this initiative, and to engage in evolving a Citizens Agenda for Bengaluru’s governance, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CitizensAgendaForBengaluru/permalink/1069003803198619/
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author and not necessarily the views of CfB