In Gowda country, even SC is not spared
ON MONDAY, a 42-km stretch of smooth expressway, India's first private, urban expressway, was to have dramatically slashed many Bangalore commutes from up to 90 minutes to 10. It would have helped India's silicon heartland regain some of its battered international reputation -- and showed the rest of the country how world-class roads and towns could be built at no cost to the government.india Updated: May 08, 2006 00:49 IST
ON MONDAY, a 42-km stretch of smooth expressway, India's first private, urban expressway, was to have dramatically slashed many Bangalore commutes from up to 90 minutes to 10. It would have helped India's silicon heartland regain some of its battered international reputation -- and showed the rest of the country how world-class roads and towns could be built at no cost to the government.
Instead, an army of engineers - who are backed by investors from Anil Ambani in Mumbai to auto-component baron Baba Kalyani in Pune to 12 Indian banks to a venture fund in New York -- can only watch in frustration as former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda's hatred for their boss manifests in stalling the project despite a Supreme Court intervention. A spanking new peripheral expressway linking the city's six arterial highways is ready all along Bangalore's southern outskirts, but inaugurating it makes no sense: the JD(S)-BJP government is not releasing land to build entry-and-exit ramps.
The peripheral expressway is part of a 164-km string of expressways and five world-class townships aimed at decongesting Bangalore. It will eventually wind all the way up to Mysore, across an area the size of Singapore. The project is slated to have its own 400 MW power plant, water and sewage systems and even a monorail along its median.
A Supreme Court judgment on April 20 had ordered the release of all land (6,200 acres for the first phase) to project builders, Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Ltd. The land was acquired by the state itself and paid for by Nandi but it had not been handed over to the latter in the previous four months. A three-judge bench came down heavily on the Karnataka government for obstructing the expressway and said its bureaucrats were guilty of lying in the course of a public battle with Ashok Kheny, managing director of the Nandi consortium and a Kannadiga settled in the US.
The irony: Gowda, as state chief minister in 1995, had cleared the project.
After falling out with Kheny, he had leaned on the previous Congress government to stop the release of land acquired for the expressway and the townships -- Gowda called it "real-estate business", though it is an accepted way of infrastructure development worldwide.
Gowda is now keeping the pressure up through his eldest son and Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.
"We are releasing land for the road, let them build the first phase," Kumaraswamy told the Hindustan Times, a day after announcing a grandiose, Rs 33,000-crore plan to build similar townships and two expressways ringing Bangalore, one closely following Nandi's path. Only it's just that, a plan.
But for the real-estate business, we see... the (SC) judgment says nothing about the land," he said.
But the judgment is clear: remove all hurdles and hand over all land for the expressway and townships. Nandi's Kheny, battered but not bowed eight years after Karnataka had signed the formal agreement, is preparing for a final showdown if needed.
"The Supreme Court has said we can go back to it, and we will (if the land isn't released)," said Kheny from his home in Philadelphia.
The expressway project is not about a battle between Gowda and Kheny. It, say bankers and international experts, is being closely watched as a bellwether for India's commitment to honour infrastructure contracts.
"If this contract is not honoured, it will not create a good impression," a spokesman for a leading Japanese construction company said in an e-mail, requesting the company name not be used. "Companies like ours will be afraid of entering India."
All around Bangalore, industries, which are now struggling not to lose global competitiveness because of the city's infrastructure problems, await the expressway.
Three months ago Toyota (India) managing director Atsushi Toyoshima inspected it. Toyota's Indian plant is at Bidadi, a mofussil town at the end of the expressway's first phase towards Mysore. Toyoshima is waiting for the planned township there so that company managers can get world-class homes next to the factory and have easy access to Bangalore.
Yet, Bangalore's lost expressway is a pariah. Privately, the tech industry extols its virtues but few are willing to stand up for it. City planners shun it and state politicians refuse even to take a look at its state-of-the-art engineering. So while Kumaraswamy promises to release land to at least complete the initial expressway, his bureaucrats are doing nothing of the sort.
PWD secretary P.B. Mahishi claims the government does not even have the SC judgment. "We have only seen the judgment on the Internet," he said. "We are waiting for an authentic copy."
Yet, four days after the judgment was passed, HT has learned, Mahishi's own office sent a copy to the advocate-general for his opinion. Mahishi further says once the judgment is "received", the government will "examine and decide what to do".
Isn't an SC order binding? Says Mahishi: "It is a complex case, involving thousands of people and 20,000 acres (the total land needed)."
It was such obfuscation and stalling that prompted the Karnataka High Court to last year threaten prosecution of the then chief secretary K.K. Mishra (now ironically the state's information commissioner) for perjury after supplying the court with false information.
Gowda's campaign against the company has been unrelenting, even bizarre in its disinformation. At the western edge of the peripheral expressway rises the massive steel frame of what will be one of India's largest exhibition and convention halls.
It is being built by the Indian Machine Tool Manufacturers Association, guided by Jamshyd Godrej, chairman of Godrej and Boyce. This is the building against which Gowda raged to this reporter in February: "They (Nandi) are building a kalyan mantapa (marriage hall) in the name of expressway! I cannot allow it."