Public interest groups do play a critical role in protecting citizens, articulating environmental concerns and keeping government in check, but are their conflicting causes and interests sometimes responsible for strangling cities and killing its development projects?
Crowded, overpopulated, polluted but rich Mumbai is crying out for some swift development initiatives, decongestion measures and planned beautification programmes; but so far, except for tiny projects initiated by local interest groups, most efforts get mired in controversy and die a natural death.
Let us look at some projects in the news. First there is the stalled flyover project on the Western Express Highway which is being built by V.M.Jog Constructions. The road to the airport used to be my daily commute seven years ago and at the best of times it was a difficult drive. Apart from vehicular pollution, potholes during the monsoons and continuous construction activity slowed traffic at one stretch or the other between Mahim Causeway and Sahar Road. The last few months have however seen the Kalanagar and Santacruz flyovers make driving (at non peak hours) a true express experience until you get to Andheri.
Construction of the Rs 130 crore Jog project has halted following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) which is worried, that the shopping mall proposed to be constructed under the flyover, in order to recover costs, will increase traffic problems. The BEAG contends that development rules were bypassed and no traffic studies conducted before permission was granted for the construction.
I first wrote about Maharashtra's 42 flyover plan outlined by the Jog Committee report (headed by the same Madhav Jog whose firm is constructing the flyover) for the Times of India, sometime in 1994. The article expressed the suspicion that without traffic studies the extensive construction activity involved would make Mumbai a nightmare for commuters. We received no response from NGOs or the average citizens. I then followed up the report by calling up an activist-industrialist to mention my worry. He sympathised and agreed with everything I had to say. On the other hand, Madhav Jog contacted the paper to explain the limitations of the Jog report. PWD Minister Nitin Gadkari also had his office set up a meeting and explained at length what his government planned to do to minimize disruption. I was skeptical, but the Minister was true to his word and initiated dramatic changes in tendering procedures, technology requirements, and off-site construction conditions so that the flyovers were better constructed and in several cases well ahead of time and brought immense relief to commuters.
The Sion flyover, has dramatically reduced the commute to Thane and the Santacruz flyover has made non-peak hour driving a dream on the western express-that is, until you come to a grinding slow down at the Jog flyover.
Sometime in 1998 after the flyover was more than half done, the BEAG filed a PIL voicing concerns about the dangers of the underground shopping and the traffic problems.
As one of the original protestors, the industrialist-activist contacted me, but I felt that any PIL which disrupted construction would only harass the commuters and was completely against public interest. Predictably, that is exactly what happened. The Court said that the company should complete the flyover at its own risk and construction was halted. Jog Constructions was not into such risks.
For over a year now, commuters from the western suburbs have gone through endless traffic snarls and forum to voice their anger and frustration until an expert committee appointed by the Court held a public hearing in March. The pent-up anger of several groups of local residents was all too visible then. There is now a realisation that the priority is to complete the flyover, but the government is bankrupt and the Jog Constructions refuses to resume work without some assurances.
The stalemate continues without much realisation that NGOs will have to find a way to oppose projects which violate established rules or potentially detrimental to society in a manner that the opposition itself does not turn into a bigger nuisance for the ordinary citizen.
Contrast the hullabaloo over the Jog flyover with what happened at Crossroads - India's largest and most modern shopping mall. Construction took place behind tarpaulin covers and the public had its first inkling of the size and scope of the mall just days before its gala opening set off a month long nightmare of traffic jams.
A Tardeo Residents Association sprang up and held demonstrations to protest against the disruption; the police stepped in to restore some order. A few months later, it has all fizzled off. The rush of shoppers has diminished, but not enough to ease the congestion entirely. The U-turn in front of the mall has been re-opened, double parked taxis and cars continue to clog up the narrow road opposite. In front of the mall itself, the parking is usually four deep. Naturally. The parking charges at the Mall are an outrageous Rs 30 per hour or around Rs 60 for the average of 1.5 hours that people spend there. So shoppers park in front of the mall and occupy all the parking on either side leaving nothing for other shops and establishments.
So where have the protestors gone? Where is the Tardeo Association? Where are the traffic cops? Their agitation has simply fizzled off. It is no wonder that the corporate sector and bureaucrats believe that sharing information is only a sure recipe for protests and opposition - if the public is presented with a fait accompli they tend to accept it.
Often, as in the case of the Sion flyover, peoples fears are exaggerated. Even at Tardeo, the proposed road-on-road which was to accelerate traffic movements to south Mumbai has been canned following public protests. There is no attempt to hold a dialogue or demand the creation of a computerized virtual traffic demonstration to check out the extent of the problem.
There are plenty of other ironies. The Shiv Sena-BJP's 42-flyover project was opposed because it encouraged the use of cars. But then, every attempt to increase public transport has also comes to naught. The Limouzine project which introduced privately run air-conditioned buses in Mumbai was killed because the monopoly BEST services prevented it from becoming a stage carrier. When the Railways tried to increase the speed of the local harbour line train services by clearing hutments which were dangerously close to the track and slowing trains, it was blocked. The several lakhs of commuters who would have benefited remained silent observers as the Railways were forced to stop their action.
Even on environmental issues there are opposing claims. One NGO has filed a litigation to clear the Borivali National Park of large-scale occupation by squatters. Yet, former Prime Minister V.P.Singh, desperately looking for a suitable cause to make his political come back is leading demonstrations against the courts' eviction order with the help of another NGO group.
At the receiving end is always the tax paying middle class and the average citizen and the Mumbai city. Unless the mute, fragmented and cowardly middle class wakes up to its rights, it will continue to be buffeted by every powerful minority group which is vocal and organised. Or, to borrow Chief Vigilance Commissioner N.Vittal's coinage - the neta, the babu, the lala and the jholawala will always prevail.