Time Has Come For Next Stage In Bengaluru’s Evolution: Tejasvi Surya

Bengaluru’s future will depend on making dramatic changes to the quality of the city’s infrastructure and city revenues. Intellectual and physical capital will move to where the infrastructure is best, but Bengaluru needs to up its game.

In a conversation with India Infra Hub, the city’s youngest member of parliament from South Bengaluru, Tejasivi Surya spoke of various issues that ail the city’s infrastructure and growth and how he thinks they can be fixed. Here are excerpts from the interview:

In your assessment in the last seven months as an MP, what are the key challenges that ail the city’s infrastructure and urban mobility?

Tejasvi Surya: The city grew at a pace that was unprecedented and perhaps, also unplanned. In that sense, the pace of economic growth in the city did not match the pace of infrastructure and especially, the public mobility infrastructure that should have ideally taken place. Therefore, in that sense, the biggest problem for Bengaluru today is how to catch up with the economic pace of the city, how can the public infrastructure specifically with respect to mobility catch up with that?

So, first would be addressing Bangalore’s public mobility challenge.

The second is about how we address other issues of the city, including providing water for the burgeoning population of the city because the new areas of Bengaluru are going dry today and ground water levels are depleting every single day. And if you look at new challenges of the city where high rises are coming up, how do we ensure that the planning of the city – So far as the commercial activities in the city, the residential aspects- how all of these can be inter-mingled?

There needs to be a relook on how to approach governance in Bengaluru, so that is a very crucial second important problem. And that includes a gamut of problems- whether it is water, or solid waste management, or addressing the commercial zoning aspects. So basically, it is municipal governance of Bengaluru as a whole that is the second biggest aspect that needs to be relooked.

The third challenge that we are facing today is of revisioning or rather a rethinking of Bengaluru 2.0. The city was the cantonment, the army establishment during the British days. Later, the city evolved and metamorphosised into being a retired man’s paradise.

Then came the days where the big national PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings like the NAL, HAL)- all these national institutes, scientific institutions came and it created the much-necessary scientific infrastructure, engineering infrastructure for the city and that took it in a different direction. Then the city evolved into being the IT Silicon Valley of the country. Now the time has come for the next generation of evolution that Bengaluru should be looking at.

Now we need to very consciously think of what can be the strengths of Bengaluru on which we can work. We are very good at education, we have fantastic tech ecosystem, we have significant institutions of higher learning that can be taken to the next level of excellence and eminence- how can we build on these strengths? The city has a wonderful climate- how can that be best utilised? Geographically also, it is situated in a very substantially advantageous ground as compared to many other cities- how can we make use of this?

So, building on these strengths, we need to now think what can ‘Bengaluru 2.0’ be and that perhaps should be the challenge for us as policy makers, as law makers, as citizens- ‘to envision a city’ and think how Bengaluru will look 50 years from now, 100 years from now.

Because if you look at the biggest cities of the world, whether it is New York, whether it is San Francisco, even Tel Aviv a relatively new city for example- they had long term plans divided into smaller sub plans where people, the policy makers evolved the city in an organic fashion to meet with the changing times. London was a port city, then an industrial city, which has evolved now to be the Fintech capital of the world. So, what can be this evolution for Bengaluru and how can Bengaluru use people and governance system? How can all of these be equipped to go in that direction?

I think these are the three major issues on which we need to work on.

While cities like Mumbai are currently building 125-130 kms of metro across various lines, what do you think has been the issues plaguing Namma metro from speedy construction and completion?

Tejasvi Surya: To say that, even I was under the impression that Namma Metro is under-performing but it is not as bad as the perception is. The work is progressing in some phases at least in an encouraging manner. Having said that, the city’s infrastructure, especially the metro construction phase can be so much better and one of the reasons for that is delay in land acquisition. There is a problem with how much compensation can be given, whether it should be on TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) rates based on BBMP (Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike), whether BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd.) should pay the compensation, how much of compensation is to be paid, finance of the whole project- all that has been one big challenge.

The second thing has been the lack of coordination between central and state agencies in getting approvals and I think that has also been a very crucial bottleneck thing as far as city’s infrastructure is concerned, whether it is ORR (Outer Ring Road) or whether it is sub-urban railways. I think now that we have a very stable BJP-led government in the state as well as in the centre, these bottlenecks will be ironed out in the coming days and we will see faster pace of implementation of these crucial projects.

The other big issue is the way we are pitching for these projects. I think we can do a much better job by pitching these projects not as Bangalore-centric projects but as crucial for India’s growth story because India’s growth story depends a lot on how Bengaluru will perform.

So, I think given that kind of a priority, seeing through that lens, policy makers and government leaders sitting in Delhi will know the importance of Bengaluru in terms of its contribution to the whole nation’s growth story. Specifically, to answer the challenge that is there, the questions are raised by the Ministry of Urban Transport, the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing on how feasible the project is, where the financing will come from, how much the state government’s contribution would be, what will be the central government’s contribution and whether the stretch from KR Puram to the airport should be a metro or a mono, whether it should be a metro in the way it is in Delhi or should it take a different shape?

All these are the bureaucratic hurdles and I think a stronger political will, both at the centre and the state level is what is required at this point in time to push forward, and that is exactly what we are trying to impress upon the state as well as the centre leadership. At least that is what I have personally tried to do in the past seven months- to meet all these ministers including senior bureaucrats and people from NITI Aayogto see how this goes forward.

So far as sub-urban is concerned, it is a very long pending project of Bengaluru (30 long years) but the good thing is, thanks to the intervention from the Chief Minister, MPs from Bengaluru and also the proactive interest shown by the NITI Aayog, the most crucial part of getting the approval from the extended railway board meeting has now taken place and the file is not pending before the cabinet. I am hopeful and confident that very soon the cabinet will clear the sub-urban rail project for Bengaluru and we will see better infrastructure projects in Bengaluru.

All the stakeholders- whether it is railway ministry, state government, NITI Aayog, all of them are keenly interested in pushing this project forward. I also think that the state government must do more in investing in buses in Bengaluru. So, if you compare all these projects- the metro, the sub urban- with the number of buses we need, buses are like the Bahubali of Bengaluru’s public transport but the number of buses has not increased at all in the last decade or so.

There are about 6000 buses in Bengaluru and that has been the number for the last seven years. That has to increase multi-fold and we need buses of different sizes, of different modifications and I think we also need to invest in cleaner technologies in terms of CNG. I know that central government with respect to GAIL has been pushing for introducing CNG buses in Bengaluru and especially in BMTC for many years and it has not taken off, primarily because the diesel lobby is not allowing for the CNG buses to be on the roads.

I have spoken to the concerned authorities recently to push for these CNG buses because one, we need more buses; two, we need buses to be greener and less polluting; three, these CNG buses will come in different sizes and shapes and you can use it to address this challenge of last minute connectivity. So, all of these can be addressed.

I think that is another crucial thing we need to work on. But the last-minute connectivity, mobility as a service space is very vibrant in the city. You have many start-ups coming. Whether it is bicycles or two-wheelers like Bounce and Yulu, they are also a very vibrant space and as a start-up city, that last mile connectivity problem is something that our young people are trying to address.

All in all, I would say that things are moving in a positive direction as far as the city is concerned. And under the new government here, under the leadership of B S Yediyurappa, I think the city has finally got the kind of attention it deserved and it is happening.

Talking of last-mile connectivity, be it cycling or walking, is there really the scope of cycling in Bengaluru? There are no cycle tracks. Where does one really walk in Bengaluru? Like there are no footpaths.

Tejasvi Surya: First, with respect to pedestrian space and cycling space, see the problem again is because we didn’t plan how the city will grow, neither did we evolve with the growth. So, there was a severe mismatch with the pace of economic growth and the pace of public infrastructure and institutional governance.

Now I will just give you an example of how culturally we need to be demanding for these spaces and how we are not doing it. There is a very important road in my constituency- the VV Puram food street. It attracts a few lakh people every week. As someone who is a connoisseur of good food, who goes to that place, has grown up in that area, when I got this opportunity- the power to influence some change, the first thing we wanted to do was to make it a pedestrian-only place and a plastic-free zone.

It took us almostsix months to convince the people there that a pedestrian-only place would be better for business because people will buy more and will spend more time, and it is also good for the health of the people eating there because you don’t have fume-spewing vehicles around. So, it took six months for people to see that this is better for all of them.

You need to build this culture in your city where there is the usage of public transport, last-mile connectivity through walking or public transport option, whether it is an app-based solution or bicycle or e-two-wheeler. These things can be and should be done.

This should be a cultural change that needs to come and people should start demanding these things. And I am sure that the government is quite pro-active, like the bus lane that was tried in ORR, you can say that it has not been wholly successful but attempts have been made to address these problems. So, I think that so far as pedestrian walking space and cycle spaces are concerned, there needs to be a rethinking of how we are going to be looking at the city planning places. But we have done some good work in the central business district. Like we have made Church Street a pedestrian-only space. Even in fact, the Tendersure project was also brought in to ensure better footpaths.

Now I have another grouce. I have been talking to these authorities on the Smart City Project. Bengaluru was added to the Smart City Project scheme at a belated stage. Since then, most of the funds that have been allotted under the Smart City Project have not been utilised for making Bengaluru a Smart City in that sense.

They are using the funds to do the same work that BBMP or other agencies do. So, you’re using money to build toilets or drains or utility or shifting, things like these. But the Smart City Project has envisioned to add a different dimension to the city’s infrastructure. Whether it is building integrated urban mobility centres or a Smart City based on technology, or one card for all public mobility services, or using technology to improve the city’s taxation governance. There has been no progress, whatsoever on that count. Therefore, I have been continuously trying to push forward the authorities to look at the Smart City Project as a big boon to bring this new tech-dimension in governance for the city which will add so much of value.

Your efforts to address the civic problems in Bannerghata road received huge appreciation but do you think lawmaker hands on getting involved in civic improvement activities is a scalable model. How do we fix the delivery issues at lower levels of municipal administration?

Answering your second question about should an MP be doing what we did with Bannerghatta? What I did with Bannerghatta was out of sheer frustration and desperation. Not as an MP but more as a citizen who had to travel on that road every day to meet my constituents and attend the programs in that constituency. Ambulances got stuck in the road for two hours unable to cross a stretch of three- four kilometres. It was pathetic! And as public representatives, as a government, if you can’t guarantee basic infrastructure like proper roads, proper water, proper governance, then you have no right to be collecting taxes. So, that frustration is what led me to go, intervene and bring all these agencies together. That, fortunately, led me to understand all that is wrong with the city’s municipal government.

Now, who is in-charge of a road where the metro is constructed?
The BBMP says that it is not its job but the metro. The metro says it is not its job if there is BWSSB or water project going on, they should then take care of it. So, our city’s infrastructure, especially our urban governance is left orphaned. No single agency or no single person is taking responsibility for it.

Now, what is the solution?
I have been vocal about demanding exclusive legislation for Bengaluru. The city needs modern municipal legislation which will cater to its present-day aspiration and meet its tomorrow’s challenges. Currently, we are governed under the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act of 1976. It is very archaic in nature. It does not allow for a natural, organic evolution of the city. Most importantly, it does not allow for the coordination between all these civic parastatals in the city.

Going even further, it has completely emasculated the most important office in a city – that is the Mayor. The Mayoral office in the city is a sham. He has a one-year term where the first six months go into accepting congratulations in the office, and the next six months go into preparation for the retirement. And there are 198 wards. As an MP, I have 60 wards in Bengaluru south.

I work from morning 7 and reach home at 11 in the night. I am always on the road when I am not in Delhi. It will take you almost a year to completely cover 60 wards in the city but the Mayor has 198 wards. I challenge you! Speak to the previous five Mayors of Bengaluru, including the current one, and ask them if any of them in their one-year term has been able to make one visit, circumambulation of the 198 wards in the city. None of them have done that. So, the problem lies in the municipal governance structure.

I am firmly of the opinion that Bengaluru needs a directly elected Mayor in council, enjoying the popular mandate so that people can hold that person accountable, and they should have a full term whether it is for four years or five but there must be an extended time; one year is useless. This radical surgery is what is required for Bengaluru. Otherwise what will happen is that we will try solving traffic, garbage issues, and water problems but these are addressing the symptoms and not the disease. The disease lies in governance- the lack of institutions for governance and that needs to be addressed.

My request to the people of Bengaluru is that if we keep spending our energy in trying to solve the symptoms and forget the disease, then we will not be able to get out of this quagmire of bad governance. So, we must demand from our MLAs, our MPs, and state government to legislate this exclusive law for Bengaluru which is on the anvil from the last so many years. I have written to the honourable CM so many times, I have spoken to my party MPs and leaders. All of them are in principle agreement that this should be done. What needs to be done is some political push and I am hopeful that Bengaluru will see this exclusive legislation for its urban governance needs legislated by Karnataka.

We have almost turned into a mini protest capital. There are protests every day. Same kind of enthusiasm is not seen when it comes to voting. That is one of the reasons why people are not participating in envision a better Bengaluru, right?

Tejasvi Surya: I disagree with you when it comes to that. The problem again is with our electoral roles. The problem is that the electoral roles have a lot of duplicity, especially in urban areas where people shift from one place to another. So, many of them have rented accommodations. We don’t have a system where, if sayyou are in Padmanabhanagarand you shift to Jayanagar, then the moment your name is added in Jayanagar, your name should ideally be deleted from Padmanabhanagar also.

I would say that in Lok Sabha elections, the participation has been quite enthusiastic. Taking away the problems of the electoral roles, I think we register about 70-75% polling if the voter role mismatch is taken off. But the same enthusiastic participation is not seen in municipal elections in the city and that gives rise to a very serious problem.

When the educated people who understand the dire situation of the city’s municipal governance do not come out and vote, then we will have all sorts of bad elements who will contest and end up as corporators and councillors in the BBMP. I want young, capable, educated people taking charge of the city’s municipal governance because the most important office in a city is the office of the councillor. As an MP, I don’t have any authority to detect and identify the beneficiaries of any specific scheme. The authority lies clearly with the corporators and MLAs.

Now if we don’t have good people at that level, then how do we have better governance for the city as a whole?
So, my request to the people of Bengaluru is that we need to show the same enthusiasm in local elections as we show in Lok Sabha elections. More number of good people should go out and vote and that will transfer into better people getting elected.

Since you have been quite popular amongst the youth of the city, do you have any plans to influence better voter turnout?

Tejasvi Surya: There are two requests that I have for my fellow citizens of the city: one, please ensure that your names are found on the electoral roles. It will take 10 minutes of your times. Eight months from now, the city is going to polls for the corporations. Spend 10 minutes, go in the line and find out if your name is there in the list or not. That is something that you have to do as a responsible citizen of the city.

The second request that I have is to come out on the day of voting and vote. That is very important because your vote will decide who will govern the city for the next five years. So, whether it is the city, the state legislature or the Parliament, it is very important for you to go out and make that. We have been doing a lot of campaigns and specifically, I have been trying to impress upon the authorities to use more technology to make our electoral roles cleaner, to make it easier for people to apply and for deletions to not be whimsical.

There must be rationale for any deletion. And most importantly, I want to raise the issue of linking Aadhaar with voter ID card at the national level also because it will help address this whole challenge of duplicity of voters. The kind of technological progress we have shown as a county with UPI, FASTag, Aadhaar it would not be difficult for India to enter a stage where a person can vote from anywhere. Aadhaar-linked, domicile-based, e-voting from any part of the world should be something we must be looking at, which will again require speaking of our Representation of People’s Act but these are all doable. If you have the technological solutions, the law can always catch up.

If there has been one government in India which has used technology to the best to improve governance and public delivery, it has been Narendra Modi’s government and I am confident that the government will do some really radical reforms when it comes to electoral reforms in India.

One thing going for Bengaluru one is the critical mass it has achieved in terms of tech and engineering talent, where it now draws talent from all over India. What are the key challenges that you see in Bengaluru maintaining its edge as India’s start-up capital? There is a perception that we have reached a saturation point – how do we address these stagnation issues?

Tejasvi Surya: I think this perception that Bengaluru is falling behind is not based on actual facts and reality is different. We are still very strong because the kind of eco-system that Bengaluru has, whether it is the tech talent that we have, or the higher education institutes or the R&D institutions- all of these place Bengaluru in a vantage position.

Therefore, the city strives to be the fastest growing city in terms of GDP growth for the next 15 years in a row. That’s what the World Bank report, the IMF, all of them say. I think we need to do more. When we say more, we need to definitely address the problem of the city’s urban mobility which again is linked to the lack of institutions for municipal governance. I have been an evangelist for exclusive legislation for the city, a more powerful Mayor so whatever questions you ask, I will have the same answer, saying that unless you fix that, nothing else can be fixed. So, that is something that we must address.

As a whole, whether it is start-up India, or NSDC (National Skill Development Corporation), most of these projects are doing phenomenally well in Bengaluru. The numbers speak for themselves. In terms of the grants that have been obtained by the start-ups, in terms of funding that companies have raised, we are doing remarkably well. But again, the entire start-up story of India needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner which will have its spillover in Bengaluru.

For example, most of the investment that goes into our start-ups today is not domestic VC (Venture Capital) funding. 80% of it is foreign VCs which are funding. This is not something that the municipal corporation can address. This is something that has to be addressed at the central government level where legislation or income tax laws, and capital games systemneed to be tweaked so that our domestic HNIs (High Networth Individual) and our companies are incentivised more to invest in start-ups.

We also need to address the issue of India’s Intellectual Property Regime which is so critical for a vibrant start up industry, and a complete overhaul is necessary. What is happening today is that there are these companies which have R&D centres in India, more specifically in Bengaluru.

They invest in R&D, research in R&D, talent is ours but the registration of the patent does not happen in India because we don’t have a strong IP regime in India. Therefore, a strong IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) regime must also be checked. So, all of this must comprehensively be addressed so the India start up story will be given a fillip and after that, it is for the cities to take advantage of these laws and build on their competitions and strength.