This Article is From Mar 24, 2023

Blog: The Bengaluru-Mysuru Highway - Politics And Emotions

Mysuru - A royal past, the city of palaces, the seat of the Wodeyar dynasty, a cultural centre of Karnataka.

Bengaluru - The bustling city of the future, the country's scientific and IT capital, the traffic-jammed startup cradle.

The road from Bengaluru to Mysuru, so familiar to me. My mother's family is from Mysuru, my father's family was in Bengaluru. Growing up, visits to Karnataka meant taking the winding, tree-lined road between Bangalore and Mysore (which were the official names back then.)

During college in Mysuru, and later in Bengaluru, there were frequent bus trips on this highway to see family members. The bus driver would stop at a halfway point for some tea or coffee and Maddur wade.

There were so many trees on that two-lane highway and the road was so patchy that it was hard to tell the difference between potholes and shadows. Still, it was green, slow and beautiful, and we loved it.

The trees were removed to make way for a four-lane highway with a divider. The cutting of the massive highway trees was painful to watch. The traffic kept increasing but also moved slightly faster. There were fewer potholes - and fewer trees to cast their shadows. Saplings were planted by the road.

Then plans were made for an even faster highway that would reduce the distance from 140 km to 119 km. Many of the saplings that were planted had to go.

The new highway connecting these two Karnataka cities, built at a cost upward of Rs 8,000 crore was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a pre-election blitz. The journey between the two cities is meant to be reduced to just 75 minutes from the earlier three hours. Alas, it also means it will be harder to stop for thatte idli at Bidadi, for wooden toys in Channapatna or for maddur vade.

Mr Modi, after launching the road, remarked, "The Congress is busy digging a grave for Modi, while Modi is busy building the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway."

Unfortunately, just days after the inauguration, March showers that cooled the summer heat also flooded this brand-new road in the portion that runs through Ramanagaram district. Cars slowed to a crawl as a highway that was all about speed gave in to traffic jams. There was flooding last year as well, when the road was under construction, and reassurances had been trotted out about the improvement of drainage. That clearly didn't happen.

The opposition Congress in the state was quick to highlight the highway embarrassment. The Congress's Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted:

Even earlier, the Congress had questioned the rushed launch of an unfinished road.

The road cuts through regions that have political significance in the state that will vote for a new government in a matter of weeks. This part of southern Karnataka is Vokkaliga heartland. The community is politically powerful, represented, among others, by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son, former chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal Secular (JDS).

This region is traditionally a stronghold of the JDS and the Congress. The ruling BJP, while dominating other parts of the state like the coastal and urban areas, comes up short in this region. Sumalatha Ambareesh, the independent MP representing Mandya, which falls in this belt, has pledged her support to the BJP in the coming election. With the Congress and the JDS determined to hold on to this region, the BJP is in for a fight and hopes the new highway will impact its votes.

It is far from the first time that this link between the two cities has been the stage for political rhetoric.

During the worst of the dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery waters, there were protests and riots along this stretch. Vehicles with Tamil Nadu registration were targeted and interstate buses were stopped on this route when the tension escalated. Blockades meant commuters had to wait for hours until the road was cleared for traffic.

In 1991, the road was lined with the bright blue uniforms of the Rapid Action Force personnel brought in to restore peace after riots broke out on the Cauvery issue.

In 2002, then Chief Minister SM Krishna, who was then with the Congress, held a padayatra from Bengaluru to Mysuru to assert Karnataka's rights to Cauvery water.

The highway was blocked by farmers in 2020 in protests against farm laws proposed by the central government. Traffic was also stopped by protesters demanding minimum support price for crops.

We drove along the highway so many times to cover these news developments. Once a year, we went to Mysuru to cover the colourful Dasara procession that started at Amba Vilas palace and wound its way through the city streets. The highway would be choked at this time of the year, a peak season for tourism in Mysuru.

For many in Bengaluru, the road has a more personal association. It is customary to immerse the ashes of the dead in the river Cauvery at Srirangapatna near Mysuru. Thousands of families dealing with loss have taken the road.

My beloved aunt, my mother's older sister, lived in Mysuru and we used to visit her at every chance we got. Her husband - my uncle - had cycled as a young medical student all the way from Mysore to Bangalore.

At each stage over decades, as a faster highway was promised, we thought - "Less time to reach our Mysuru home". The travel time never really changed significantly though, since traffic also swelled over the years.

The toll road is deemed ready now. But our darling aunt is gone. And there is no need for us to hurry eagerly to Mysuru anymore.

I am curious about the new route to Mysuru once again. So many memories on that stretch of road. For thousands of travelers, it will just be a new road - no memories attached. As the years go by, fewer people will remember that tree-shaded road. As toll roads take over, time takes its toll.

(Maya Sharma is a senior television journalist and writer based in Bengaluru.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.