Cubbon Park has never been a space, it has always been a part of our city’s soul — and when we speak about any changes to Cubbon Park, we speak with that soul ... This is the commons that is available to everyone irrespective of any background; this is a common space that gives us not only the oxygen to breathe, but the oxygen for our minds and souls to take a deep breath and rejuvenate in the beauty of nature, celebrate its flora and fauna. So wrote Heritage Beku’s founder Priya Chetty Rajagopal earlier this year (Opinion, New Indian Express, February 2020).
Ever since the lockdown began in March this year, vehicular traffic was banned inside Cubbon Park. What flourished were: tree cover, heritage preservation, air quality, biodiversity and room for health and recreation. This was the reason for fighting to keep one of Bengaluru’s largest public lung space—an incredible 197 acres of unspoiled nature in the heart of the city—permanently free from traffic and other pollution.
On June 30, in a favorable response to the overwhelming support among citizens for keeping the park traffic-free after lockdown restrictions were eased, the BBMP Council passed a resolution that was unanimous, representing all 198 wards of Bengaluru. It proposed a complete ban on vehicular movement and parking inside Cubbon Park, except for bicycles and electric vehicles. The same day, the BBMP council also asked the commissioner, B H Anil Kumar, to send a proposal to the government.
Heritage Beku, a prime mover in the citizens’ call to action to keep Cubbon Park green, pristine and pollution-free, had reason to hope. The park seemed to have been saved, at least for now.
The blow came when a rollback on the BBMP decision on 22 August 2020 was put into effect without warning or public consultation. The Bengaluru Coordination Committee (a committee of experts advising the state government on urban development policies) announced their intention to allow vehicular traffic once again, beginning 24 August 2020.
Heritage Beku swung into action. In a letter dated 22 August 2020, Priya Chetty Rajagopal wrote to Karnataka’s Chief Secretary T M Vijay Bhaskar: “ … We were surprised to hear today that Bengaluru Coordination Committee plans to reintroduce traffic back into Cubbon Park this Monday, thereby putting an end to the current ecological status, and the painstaking build-up of the precious environment and air quality of Cubbon Park in the last five months.”
“We finally had a chance to see Cubbon Park at its pristine, aesthetic and environmental best, just like the traffic-free Lalbagh is. Now that we have seen and experienced how it benefited the park, it is a shame that our system chooses to roll back progress and good environmental practice by taking the easy route of infecting Cubbon Park with vehicles again.” The letter emphasized that when they made the appeal for a traffic-free Cubbon Park, the group had done so after consulting experts, evaluating the environmental cost, and taking note of traffic impact. “We have done our homework,” said Chetty Rajagopal, “It’s not a whimsical ask.”
Photo: T R Raghunandan
In fact, the idea of keeping Cubbon Park traffic-free had the support of Karnataka Horticulture Minister K C Narayana Gowda. According to Gowda, the park falls under the purview of the Karnataka Government Gardens (Conservation) Act, 1975. "Environmental lovers have been urging to cut off traffic at Cubbon Park in the heart of the capital. Cubbon Park is also under the purview of the Karnataka Government Gardens (Conservation) Act, 1975. This is why it is essential to ban traffic on 197 acres of land, realizing that it is a supplement to the development of the park," read his official statement.
Another strong and important voice in support of Heritage Beku’s position was that of V Manjula, Commissioner of the Directorate of Urban Land Transport ( DULT). In a letter to Horticulture and Sericulture Secretary, Rajendra Kumar Kataria, dated 2 July 2020, she had written: DULT recommends that the park be permanently closed for traffic as there are alternate routes available for motorized traffic to go toward the south of the city without passing through the park.
Heritage Beku appealed to citizens to step up. And they did: residents, experts, environmentalists, heritage preservationists, and all those who loved the park. An online petition at change.org took off, and would eventually cross 2500 signatures. The voices raised in response were impassioned and cut a broad swathe through Bengaluru’s civil society.
Quote posters: Supriya Unni Nair
The park was to open at 9:00 in the morning on 24 August 2020. By 6:30 that morning, a group of citizens were gathering at the entrance to Cubbon Park. They encased the large iron lock on the gate in a transparent silk organza bag, a beautiful symbol of their concern over the fragility of the park environment, and the strength of their determination to protect it.
Later that morning, an update from the Horticulture Secretary reached the group at the gates of the park. Given the depth of citizen and media concern, he would stay the orders, although temporarily. Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, however, would make the final call.
“Glad to hear that the horticultural secretary, the BBMP Commissioner as well as several ministers were positive about this and supported this excellent move to keep Cubbon Park pristine and pollution-free,” wrote Heritage Beku’s Chetty Rajagopal in her letter to Chief Secretary T M Vijay Bhaskar.
The final decision was only deferred for now. Although there was again reason to hope, the work of the group was not done. Heritage Beku kept up the pressure.
As always, the group embraced the principles of collaboration and cooperation, dependence on expertise and inclusion of a broad range of views and perspectives.
Quote posters: Supriya Unni Nair
Since one of the main issues seemed to be the redirecting of traffic and the viability of alternative routes, Heritage Beku reached out to traffic experts, the Traffic Police, and —once again — to DULT).
V Manjula, DULT Commissioner who had once before written in support of Heritage Beku’s position,wrote a follow-up letter to Horticulture Secretary Kataria. In a letter dated 2 September 2020, she wrote: “Cubbon Park is a vast green space in the heart of the city and its pristine nature needs to be preserved. In various cities across the world, spaces in the city core are being reclaimed for the use of pedestrians and cyclists. Cubbon Park would be an ideal place to be reserved for pedestrians and cyclists in Bengaluru."
Her letter closed by reiterating the directorate’s recommendation of a ban, not only on motorized vehicles but also parking. Her voice of support for Heritage Beku was a crucial one at this point.
Heritage Beku member Rajkumar Dugar, (also Founder and Convenor, Citizens for Citizens), developed a traffic impact analysis, the results of which were revealing. Using Google Maps, and mapping four specific routes through the park, Dugar made a comparison of traffic impact when cars used these most common routes versus finding alternative routes. The greatest traffic load through the park was borne by three roads, one from K R Circle to the Kasturba Road – Vittal Mallya Road junction, another from this junction to GPO Circle and a third from Indian Express side to the junction side. According to Dugar: “One has to travel an average additional distance of only 335m to bypass the park.”
Dugar's study established the following: The maximum impact on routes was an additional 650 meters, and the minimum, zero. The maximum additional driving time was two minutes. In effect, the only “sacrifice” required of motorists is an average of 335 meters and two minutes, for which we are putting the whole of Cubbon Park – its beauty, biodiversity and clean air – at risk. (Video with details of the analysis available here).
Traffic Impact Analysis Map: Rajkumar Dugar
In early September Heritage Beku used the support of concerned citizens to form a volunteer Traffic Survey group. With the help of Professor Ashish Verma (Associate Professor, Transportation Systems Engineering, IISc, as well as training by DULT, the group conducted a three-day on-the-ground survey to get the pulse of traffic issues as they arose.
On 2 September 2020 another group, spearheaded by Rajkumar Dugar, went to meet the Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai. Later that week, Bommai as well as Revenue Minister R Ashoka made statements in favor of keeping the park traffic-free.
The support from government officials, Home and Revenue ministers, city council members, urban transportation experts, environmentalists, walkers, joggers and citizens of Bengaluru notwithstanding, the final decision on Cubbon Park went against its protection and survival as lung space. It is not clear why. On September 8, the city’s Disaster Management Authority made the official announcement that Cubbon Park would reopen for traffic. The decision was taken at a meeting chaired by the Chief Secretary.
In the wake of this decision came Professor Verma’s technical report, released on 10 September 2020, clearly showing that travelling through the park did not add to any traffic flow improvement.
Directly refuting a survey by the Traffic Police, claiming that closing the park to traffic would result in traffic snarls, Verma's report said: “Allowing vehicles inside does not help in decongestion. Before Covid-19, when there was no ban, the adjoining roads were all congested. The only way to decongest is to promote public transport and reduce private transport.” Verma suggested improving public transport, last-mile connectivity and localized transport (such as bike sharing) for those travelling to offices located inside the park. As part of his findings, he showed a net reduction in the Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT) and emissions if the ban is enforced. (See Verma’s meticulously researched report Traffic Impact Analysis of Closing Cubbon Park in the blog post, dated 10 September 2020.) As for the directive to reopen the park for motorised vehicles, the study took a firm position: There was no net gain – not for commuters nor for the public in the park, and certainly not for the environment. So why do it?
The fight isn’t over yet. The IISc study had proposed a survey of the park that could look at finding ways to boost the last mile connectivity from the nearby Metro stations and bus stops. As proposed by the study, DULT and volunteer citizen groups are now gearing up to conduct such a survey.
Whether or not all these various efforts will one day end in saving the park, says Priya Chetty Rajagopal, they remain a testament to how much force could be exerted simply by citizens stepping up. In the end (in her words) it was a campaign of love, ache, intelligence, good minds, belief and collaboration.
In sadness, she spoke for all those who supported the campaign: Of the people said yes, By the people said yes, For the people said yes. But the Government still said no.
But we are not alone. We stand with all 10,000 trees in the park, thousands of birds, butterflies and different species. …
Video: Suresh Jayaram