MUMBAI: On April 9, 1964 The Times of India reported that the Bombay Municipal Corporation planned to build a flyover at Kemp's Corner. Five roads met at the junction, situated between two hills, and the traffic congestion was bad. "The 48-foot bridge will segregate the north-south and east-west vehicular traffic," ToI reported.
Shirish Patel decided to bid. Patel would become one of the founders of HDFCBSE -1.14 % and was a director till last year, but at that time had come back from studying engineering in the UK to set up his practice just four years back. "The project was conceived by BS Nerurkar, the executive engineer of BMC," he recalls. The Rs 17.5-lakh proposal Patel submitted won and in September, as soon as the monsoon was over, they started work.
Construction was tough. At one end the rock base was deeper than anticipated and their initial design had to be scrapped. The flyover was constructed using concrete hinges, a technology that hadn't been use in India before. But they pushed ahead, with more than 350 people working 18 hours a day. IIT-Bombay, which itself had started just a few years back, helped with the final load testing and on April 14, 1965, barely a year after it was first announced, the first flyover in India was opened.
In the 50 years since that first conception flyovers have spread their spans across all our cities. The same year Kemps Corner opened, the BMC announced the Princess Street flyover onto Marine Drive. Next came Chennai's GeminiBSE -4.89 % flyover and the flyover by the side of Dadar station in Mumbai. Delhi got the Moolchand, Defence Colony and Oberoi flyovers before the 1982 Asian Games.
A few more were built in the metros, but the real boom came with the Shiv Sena-BJP victory in the 1995 Maharashtra state elections and the appointment of Nitin Gadkari as PWD minister. Politicians love flyovers. They are very visible signs of achievement, which appear to solve problems and also spread around public money in useful ways. Gadkari proved particularly adept at flyover politics, announcing plans for 50, though some were really minor junction improvements and around 38 were actually built. But these gave ample opportunity for high-profile openings, often involving senior BJP leaders, and Gadkari rode the reputation he gained from this and the Mumbai-Pune expressway to make a surprising jump from a low-level state politician to national president of BJP.
Gadkari may not be much in favour with Narendra Modi these days, but one thing both politicians agree on is flyovers. So many have been built in Modi's Gujarat that Surat now proclaims itself the City of Flyovers — a title contested by Chennai, whose many flyovers are crowned by the sweeping curves of Kathipara Junction which claims to be the largest cloverleaf interchange in Asia. Simple flyovers now extend into endless elevated roads like Hyderabad's proud 11.6-km long link to its airport. Bangalore has the peculiarity of a flyover with a traffic light on it, which may also come up on India's first double-decker flyover, set to open in a few weeks on the Santa Cruz-Chembur link road in Mumbai.
Flyovers define modernity in Indian cities. They feature as such in Bollywood — a key plot point in the cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) involves a collapsed flyover, a common occurrence in those days of poor quality cement and still evolving building practices. Kemps Corner never had problems, and still seems sturdy, but the Princess Street flyover had a collapse while being built. Today the onsite fabrication used for those flyovers has been replaced with pre-cast segments that are made elsewhere and fitted into place, which had hugely increased the pace at which flyovers can be built. There is little wonder that Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai, a dark film about the dreams and deceits of rapid urban development featured flyovers prominently in the plans for the fictional Bharat Nagar.
Politicians Step In
Sabnis, chief engineer of Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), which is in charge of building most of the flyovers in the region, explains the norms that decide when flyovers are needed: "You have to look at the time vehicles wait at a junction, and the cost of their idling, which is very wasteful of fuel and polluting, and then see if there are other ways to route the traffic and the costs." A point comes when a flyover makes economic sense though Sabnis, who is no ideologue on the subject, concedes this often pushes the congestion to another point.
This problem happens when politicians ignore the analyses of larger traffic flows that bodies like MMRDA are meant to make and sanction individual flyovers based on local demands. A study in European Transport journal of Kolkata's Gariahat flyover done by B Maitra, M Azmi, N Kumar and JR Sarkar concludes that in India "locations for flyovers have been decided based on present day operating conditions or some times even by perceptions of the decisionmaking bodies...instead of solving transportation problems, an ill-planned flyover only shifts and enhances the problem."