The Road Not Taken: Namma Bengaluru’s Path to Comprehensive Mobility

A comprehensive and integrated public transportation system holds transformative potential to ensure good quality of life for all Bengalureans. Popular participation and entrusting power to decentralised governance structures are key to this. The BMLTA Bill that was sought to be passed in the 2021 Winter session of Karnataka Legislative Assembly is far from this ideal.

Public transport in Bengaluru is woefully inadequate to serve the needs of the ever sprawling city and its expanding citizenry. Access to affordable, convenient, commuter-friendly and practical public transportation is the need of the hour to ensure superior quality of life for citizens. Presently, Bengalureans grapple with high costs associated with commuting, are exposed to pollution due to traffic congestion, decline in quality of public transportation (especially buses) and are constantly inconvenienced by major infrastructure projects undertaken to ‘improve transit,’ without being consulted for the same.

One of the key constraints towards a well-networked Bengaluru is the fact that different public transportation agencies- bus or metro- all work in silos and there is sparse attention given to factors like last-mile connectivity, pedestrian-friendly footpaths and cycle-friendly roads. An integrated Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) which connects these public transportation facilities in a city is one of the oft-touted solutions to these challenges. Union and state authorities at bureaucratic and political level have made attempts to deliver a better public transportation system, especially fuelled by national policies like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 and 2014 recommended the formation of a United Metropolitan Transport Authority to formulate CMP. This approach glosses over the importance of local government and public participation to foster better public transportation.

Given the disjointed nature of public transportation in the city as well as the policy impetus emerging from the NUTP of 2006, the Bengaluru Metropolitan Land Transport Authority (BMLTA) Committee was constituted in 2007. A BMLTA Act was envisioned to give a new statutory body authority to regulate and coordinate all urban mobility initiatives in Bengaluru’s Metropolitan Area. It sought to empower the BMLTA to be the one-stop authority in charge of governance, policy and planning, delivery, monitoring and oversight as well as learning outcomes for ensuring comprehensive and integrated mobility.

The BMLTA Bill has been drafted by the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) of the Government of Karnataka. The policy is at a critical juncture, with the BMLTA Bill slotted to be tabled in the [2021 Winter Assembly session of the Karnataka Government] (bmlta: Govt urged to defer BMLTA Bill). Even though the policy was not tabled in this Assembly session, it is essential to engage with the rationale behind the BMLTA, draw out some concerns inherent to the Bill and explore potential measures to rectify the same.

Presently, the key agencies responsible for urban transport include the Transport Department, the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), Bangalore Traffic Police, Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority (BMRDA) and finally the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). All these authorities have separate, defined functions over the same jurisdiction of the Bengaluru Metropolitan region. Lack of coordination among them and their parallel operation has often been cited as a key constraint to a comprehensive mobility plan. The BMLTA has been envisioned as a panacea to answer these ills. This is not new to Bengaluru, where the most convenient solution to any problem has been to create new agencies vested with the responsibility of dealing with the particular area of concern. It has led to the emergence of a parastatal jungle, where differing civic agencies battle over jurisdiction and service provision, ultimately hindering the very citizens it seeks to serve.

However, the BMLTA is more complicated than the other parastatals operating in Bengaluru as it accords greater precedence to State-level authorities in its Executive Committee. The Chief Minister of Karnataka is envisioned to be the Chairperson of the BMLTA and the Commissioner of DULT as its CEO. The only place the local city government finds is in the inclusion of the BBMP Mayor. Civil society members have all been accorded non-official positions in the Committee.

State government control over intra-city transportation is antithetical to the spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment, 1992, which seeks to empower urban local governments in all planning functions, including public transportation. The BMLTA thus should be an agency subservient to the city-level Metropolitan Planning Committee, and not an independent or state-controlled parastatal. Power should be devolved to urban local bodies with a concerted attempt to keep state-level political actors away from involving themselves in decisions to be made for intra-city transportation.

Citizen needs and concerns have not been included in the present scheme. The Bill has only been published in English, it excludes a significant population of citizens from engaging with its clauses. In addition to this, tabling the Bill in the absence of an elected BBMP Council excludes a key stakeholder from contributing to the discourse. There is no avenue to incorporate citizen concerns, beyond a two-month window calling for Public Comments. This window is useless when we consider that the Bill is available only in English. Given that there is an overwhelming emphasis on technocratic solutions like multi-modal transport, single-ticket systems and building transport corridors in the legislation, they are bound to fail in the absence of public consultation and participation at the pre-legislative stage.

The present BMLTA Bill falls short of a transformative vision for the city’s public transportation. A decentralised and inclusive vision statement, drafted through citizen participation is the first order of business. The BMLTA must be situated within the city’s specific context and should function as a nodal authority between the existing parastatals instead of a separate entity.

Keeping with the tenets of the 74th Constitutional Amendment 1992, public participation must be institutionalised at all stages of the Bill, and the popularly elected BBMP Council must be given the power and funds to anchor an Executive Committee in charge of integrated and comprehensive mobility policies.

A comprehensive and integrated public transportation system holds transformative potential to ensure good quality of life for all its citizens. Mobilising institutionalised popular participatory mechanisms like Ward Committees and entrusting power to decentralised governance structures are key to realise the vision of a well-connected city. At this critical juncture, it is imperative to engage with and advocate for better public transportation for a commuter-friendly namma Bengaluru.The BMLTA Bill must not be tabled until these concerns are addressed.