Fixing Bangalore’s “Traffic Problem”

For the last 6 months, the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited has been ensnared in a public tussle with a host of Dalit organizations over temporary shifting of a statue of Ambedkar in front of the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka.

Author RESET , 02.14.13

While the BMRCL authorities insist that the statue must be shifted for its own protection from the underground metro system work-in-progress, the Dalit organizations fiercely disagree. In December, the matter reached the Karnataka High Court, which threw the case out and directed the state government to have the statue shifted in 15 days. After much dithering, the government refused to comply. Meanwhile, the tussle, say the BMRCL authorities, has stalled the Metro project to its slowest pace, escalated costs by INR 100 crores, and delayed the launch of the already much-delayed first phase by at least 4 months.

The Metro project, of course, is only a high-profile example in a series of critical public transport projects in the city that are struggling with such peculiarly Indian problems. It was to bring to focus such challenges – and thereby encourage solutions – that The Alternative recently put together an event called “Connect the Dots”. The event brought together a panel of civic leaders and activists who have been working to address some of the city’s most intractable traffic woes. Panellists included Dr Ashwin Mahesh, the brain behind the city’s popular Big10 public bus service and a candidate for the 2013 state assembly elections; Sanjeev Dyamannavar, an advocate of the Commuter Rail Service for Bangalore; Rohan Kini, whose Bums On The Saddle initiative has done much to make Bangalore the cycling capital of India; and GV Dasarathi, an entrepreneur and a passionate advocate of cycle commuting.

Let the city rise

One of the most insightful presentations at Connect the Dots event was by Dr Mahesh who demonstrated that Bangalore’s traffic problems are in reality a housing problem. Today, a house anywhere within the city costs nothing less than INR 1 crore, which is beyond the purchasing capacity of most city dwellers. Those who wish to buy a house have no choice but to move to the outer limits, and eventually forced to drudge back to central areas for work. To prove his point, Dr Mahesh juxtaposed two maps of the city built using cellular data – one captured during day and the other during night. While the day map showed a significant cellular concentration within the city, the night map showed an effective dispersion towards outlying areas. “Unless we solve the city’s housing problem, we will not solve its traffic problem,” he cautioned.

Solutions to urban housing problems in the country, however, are only now beginning to kick in. Recently introduced union government schemes, such as the National Urban Renewal Mission and the Rajiv Awas Yojana, finance 50% of the costs of building affordable housing in mega cities, while the remaining is funded by state and municipal governments. A developer-led market for affordable housing is also beginning to show up, but in Bangalore, many projects are being squeezed out of the city since land prices inside make them unviable. This is because the city’s Floor Space Index, which determines how high developers can build, had long been capped at 3.25, creating an artificial scarcity and an inefficient use of land. Last year, the Karnataka government selectively raised the maximum residential FSI to 4, but that will remain insufficient for a city that is seeing the highest population growth rate in the country. In most major cities outside India, the FSI rises well above 10, and in some cities such as London, there is no FSI restriction on housing.

To be sure, some urbanization experts in Bangalore oppose raising the FSI, by arguing that more high-rises in the city will strain civic amenities further. But that argument forgets one of the core lessons the city has learnt in the last two decades: artificial and poorly-planned limits on housing result in illegal and inefficient settlements that prove prohibitively expensive to regularize. In contrast, investing in dense and compact accommodation, such as multi-storey housing, enables a city to save significantly on network infrastructure.

Connect the periphery

Bangalore’s horizontal, outward expansion has created what experts call urban agglomeration – when urbanization unfolds from the city towards contiguous areas of towns – a process that has given rise to large urban clusters on the city’s periphery. According to the influential Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services, authored by a government-appointed High-Powered Expert Committee, peripheral areas of Bangalore are seeing faster growth in population than core areas. But for these areas to effectively contribute to the city’s economy, they need basic urban infrastructure services, and in particular, transport infrastructure services. The report warns that failure to provide the latter will transmute the peripheral urban clusters into sources of traffic congestions, environmental degradation, and air and water pollution.

But the Bangalore Metro service will fail to meet this need by itself. Even with Phase 2, which is yet to receive the Union Government’s approval, the city’s first mass transit system will cover a network length of 114 km, barely serving the highly urbanized parts of the city. In contrast, Delhi Metro already boasts a network length of 189 km, connecting the four cities of Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon and Ghaziabad. What’s more, work is underway to expand the length to 440 km by 2021.

According to Mr Sanjeev Dyamannavar, a more efficient and economical suburban transit solution for Bangalore is the Commuter Rail Service. Pegged on the lines of the Mumbai and Chennai local train service, the CRS, says Mr Sanjeev Dyamannavar, will cover a network length of 405 km, connecting surrounding towns and local suburban areas to the core of the city. A feasibility report by the Rail Indian Technical and Economic Services estimates that the CRS will cost INR 8,000 crores and take 8 years to be fully built. In contrast, the first phase of Bangalore Metro alone will cost INR 12,000 crores. The report argues that the CRS will have a greater ability to disperse Bangalore’s urbanization owing to its significantly higher ‘average trip length’, which is 34 km as against the Metro’s 7 km. It estimates that the service will carry as many as 2.2 million passengers per day and run at the same frequency as the Metro, but at a much lower operational cost and investment.

But don’t forget the weakest link

Whatever the investment in creating new urban infrastructure services, pay-off will hinge on competent governance. On this count, Bangalore fails miserably. Its urban governance model is essentially a tale of multiplicity of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and fragmented roles and responsibilities. For example, at least 5 different bodies are responsible for building and maintaining the city’s roads. Report after report has cried for reform, demanding an integrated institutional set-up, an empowered and accountable mayor, fiscal devolution and autonomy in city management. But the state government, empowered by the constitution to enact reforms in local governance, has barely budged.

While such obstinacy may be characteristic of state governments across the country, it needn’t stop the Union Government from doing what it can to institutionally bolster local governance. For example, it is widely known that Urban Local Bodies in most cities do not have the financial capacity to discharge even their most basic responsibilities. Unfortunately, the constitution does not allow the Central Finance Commission, the body responsible for determining how taxes are shared between the centre and states, to recommend direct transfers from tax proceeds to local governments. This is left to State Finance Commissions, most of which barely function. But, as Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha points out in an article in Mint, in 2010, the thirteenth CFC made three game-changing recommendations. First, it dropped the tradition of ad-hoc grants and allocated a formula-driven 2% share in the country’s total divisible pool of taxes to local governments, signaling for the first time their independent share in taxes. Second, it overcame constitutional impediments by recommending that the share be transferred “after converting (it) to grant-in-aid under article 275.” Finally, it linked the transfer of 40% of the grant to the state fulfilling a set of conditions, including an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, establishment of an independent ombudsman and service-level benchmarks for Urban Local Bodies. To its credit, the union government formally agreed to all these recommendations last year, but the real test will be in ensuring rigorous implementation across all levels.

Lastly, even as attention is paid to devolution of fiscal and administrative power to local bodies, there is an urgent and attendant need for strengthening their professional capacity. During his presentation, Dr Mahesh recalled being shocked when an officer who had recently been transferred to lead an important public transport organization told him he was “looking forward to learning about the department in the coming days.” The High-Powered Expert Committee’s report makes powerful recommendations in this regard, including a greater reliance on Public Private Partnerships to draw private sector talent; a transparent search-cum-selection process for Municipal Commissioners that looks beyond the civil services; institution of Research and Performance Management Cells that will collect, analyze and make public comparable data on the quality of municipal services; and short and focused training for upgrading the skills of existing personnel in the use of technology. The Karnataka government will do well to take all of them seriously.

Author: Kaushik Satish for The Alternative.

The Alternative is an online media publication focused on sustainable living and social impact.

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