Today was a day of revelations. And that would be putting it mildly.
I had the opportunity to attend a public consultation meeting for the Revised Master Plan for Bangalore- 2031 held at Ambedkar Bhavan in Vasantnagar, Bangalore.
I have helped organize a number of public consultation meetings for projects that I was working on during my days in Ireland. Since returning to India in 2008, I had the opportunity to help organize a series of public participatory workshops for a regional planning framework centred around Pondicherry in association with INTACH Pondicherry too. However, strangely, I have never managed to attend a public consultation meeting especially one hosted by a development authority/ municipal body. Today, that goes off the bucket list.
Word about a public consultation for the Bangalore Master plan actually first came out in November 2014. There was a lot of furor among the city’s activist groups as to how a consultation could be scheduled without having anything to respond to. It seemed like everyone wanted a chance to see in advance what was going to be presented at the public consultation so as to be able to respond in a more useful manner. I was all set to go but for reasons unknown and unexplained, the consultation was postponed the previous night and scheduled for a week later. It did not happen the week after either. I’m not sure if another date was announced in between but today, 29th April, nearly five and a half months later from the first announcement, a public consultation was attempted. Attempted being the operative word.
I entered the auditorium and about 8-10 men were on the dais. While shuffling to find a seat, I think I caught the commissioner saying that the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) is the right organization to prepare the master plan but that the BDA as the secretariat of the MPC will make the master plan first and then have the MPC take the final call on it. After his brief address, the moderator announced that the consultant would present their work so far in order for those present to respond to it. That was the cue for all hell to break loose.
Starting with some senior citizens representing Citizen’s Action Forum (CAF) who more or less set the tone for the proceedings (a stentorian one at that) and followed by at least 25 people (or more), almost everyone seemed to take a stand that the manner in which the consultation was called for was ‘illegal’ and did not conform to any provision of law. Article 243 from the constitution was quoted a number of times as being violated. The appointment and competence of a Dutch firm to prepare the master plan was questioned. There was a lot of talk about green belts and road widening and forced land acquisition. And a lot many concerns and ideas were shared over a period of three hours. And yet, in all that time, the master planning team did not get their 15 minutes to make a presentation simply because no one wanted to hear from them. But I wonder if anyone from the master planning team was even taking notes and if they were, I wonder if those notes will be shared in the public domain as they ought to be. The proceedings were all in Kannada. It’s a language I understand only partially but it was a personal revelation that language was no barrier for me to understand planning speak… I just knew exactly what they were saying. A more profound revelation in this context ought to be that across the globe, when it came to rolling out master plans, the concerns and apprehensions of the public were more or less the same. I am also not entirely familiar with Bangalore as a city and my interest in attending this public consultation was more as an observer of how the participatory planning aspect was being handled in a city with as many citizens who are extremely vocal and passionate about the city they call their home.
Why then do we not see more engaging ways of conducting such meetings in our cities? Why is it that the authorities and agencies entrusted with the job of preparing master plans act like a coterie of conspirators who are in cahoots with those with vested interests? Why is it that communication channels between the public and the development authority are so clogged and mired in red tape at this crucial juncture when the city’s future trajectory is being laid out?
It was also extremely disappointing to see a series of very unimaginative ward maps that were not scaled and with some very basic spatial layers of information that could have very well come off Google Maps. What were they trying to communicate through these maps? Surely there are better ways to make data more accessible to the general public for a consultation on the master plan. If this is what goes on display 5 months after the first meeting was announced and cancelled, it makes me wonder all sorts of things. This was also coupled with a poorly designed ‘suggestion slip’ that one had to fill out on-the-go about one’s vision for Bangalore and drop into boxes stacked randomly in the foyer. Cities are not built out of such précis writing exercises. I thought the Dutch were good at this sort of thing!??
And finally, why is there a prevalent feeling of post-democracy? Is it not possible at all to build a coalition between civil society and city governance/ planning authorities? Or will there always be an us and them?
Like I said, it was a day of revelations to say the very least.
Photo credits: Vidhya Mohankumar