Bengaluru is in a Catch-22 situation. It attracts and welcomes the world while the density of the population adds to its woeful lack of adequate public infrastructure. Naresh Narasimhan, leading architect and urban planner. He tells Sandhya Mendonca why he loves the city and why he works hard on many fronts to make it liveable and preserve its historical heritage. Karnataka state’s approachable political leadership enables him to be a critic of and partner of the government on civic issues. “All the new ideas that change India originate in Bangalore,” he says in this episode of Spotlight with Sandhya.

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Transcript of Spotlight with Sandhya ft Naresh Narasimhan | Episode 60

Naresh Narasimhan with Sandhya Mendonca in the studio

Sandhya Mendonca

There are a few people who astonished me not only because of what they do, but how they do it. The guest on today’s show is architect and urban designer Naresh Narasimhan. Of late, people have been waxing eloquent about the good old days of Bangalore. I am a Bangalorean born and bred, a daughter of the soil and one of the reasons that I like Naresh is that he’s an enthusiastic and active advocate of all things Bangalore or Bengaluru. Naresh, as a professional architect, what are the buildings in Bangalore that you’re proud to have designed?

Naresh Narasimhan

Well, quite a few but among the more important ones would be the National Gallery of Modern Art. My father, Mr. PK. Venkataraman who did the Raman Research Institute. Many other buildings. Curiously, what I’ve been known for recently is not a building at all. It was the revamp of Church Street.

SM: You feel that something is missing in today’s Bangalore that you want to add or augment? Do you believe in going back to get something into today’s back to get something into today’s Bangalore?

: There are issues mobility is definitely an issue and it’s starting to get rather crowded. The city itself, the density is starting to approach optimal limits. Beyond this, there is simply no more place the number of vehicles are almost one is to one, which is the one vehicle purpose population, which is the worst ratio in the whole world.

Mobility is certainly it is the worst.

NN: Ratio in the whole world it should be one is to 40 or one is to 50 that should one private vehicle for every 50 people that’s okay, the city can handle that. One is to one is almost impossible.

That’s an indictment on the lack of public mobility, right?


SM: Okay, so let’s come back to your interesting initiatives starting with the very high profile Church Street. The makeover certainly got its share of praise, but it’s also got its fair share of brickbats one of the most populous treats it had become a stinking garbage dump with all the restaurants and pubs and stores and offices littering the place. With the cobblestone makeover it looks fabulous but as usual, maintenance is the bane. It worth spending 23 crore rupees on doing up a road that’s less than half a kilometre? You’re asking how I got that number? Yeah, I’ll tell you how. How much was first spent on it? Eight crore. Nine crore on doing up this. That’s what the nine crore rupees makeover in 2018 under Tender Sure okay. And 2020, 18.75 crore for installing international level LED street lights.

Actually, everybody got it wrong. what we discovered that when we roughly it would have cost about the actual road across only about 9-10 crore, which is will well within the. Because it was a hundred percent initially we thought we just move all the cables to the side and put it in some organised way. When we open the road after the contract is given, we found out literally, it’s like Medusa. It’s like an intertwined nest of snakes. Nobody knows what is Patala Bhairavi under the ground. We hardly know what is above the ground in terms of maps under the ground, nobody has any clue. We dug it, so what had to be two decisions had to be taken. One, cut the cables as they are relay a new. You don’t need 32 electric cables. You need one on either side. That’s how it’s done internationally.


One giant cable from which you branch off into each building. Here there were 32. Because every time somebody wanted power, they would lay a new cable without any idea where it was and no record of where it was buried. So that pushed up the cost. Two, because MG road is a high-profile

Naresh Narasimhan

Naresh Narasimhan, architect & urban designer

road, and VIPs used to go on it, at least in the olden days. Now they go on Cubbon Road. The olden days, there is no infrastructure on MG Road itself. All the buildings on MG Road were getting power from church street, which was being treated like a service road, and that was blocking everything because transformers were in the way. There were giant street to begin, electrical infrastructure. All these panels were in the way. That had to be completely redone from scratch. That itself cost some six crore or some ridiculous five, six crore.

Because the entire electrical infrastructure of MG Road was on third street, everything had to be come. The cost actually was reasonable, if you ask me, because these two unprecedented things pushed up the cost by this. What we have achieved because of that is future proofed it for at least some 2030 years, put much bigger capacity than is required. The cables are 40% oversized, so even if new buildings come up, there’s no need to dig it up. You just connect it. The cable will take it. That’s not true. It’s easy to sensationalise everything from cobblestones coming out. Every other road in Bangalore also gets potholes, right? No. The stones itself cost nothing, okay? The most of the cost of the road is below that road, okay? The stones itself is nothing. There are one lag, but that’s the.

But that’s the one people can see, so they talk about it.

What happened was the maintenance contract got over, and before the new maintenance contract came, there was a one year gap. In that one year, all that problem happened. The contract is re-awarded now. All the problems are gone. You haven’t heard about it for some time now.

I haven’t heard about it, correct.

Most of it is all right, but it needs looking. After any road, just like your building needs waterproofing, you need to look after the road maintenance. Two, it is not designed to take 40. The reason it happened, because somebody was building a new building there, and they brought a 40 ton cement mixer full of concrete and they rolled it on that. That thing cannot it is designed to take a 20 ton fire truck.

SM: It goes back to who gives them.

NN: Permission to do that in the middle of the night? They have done it. Somebody has done it. I don’t want to point any fingers, but we should now have proposed to the government to put a height barrier so only a fire engine can come through some kind of welcome arch, which is welcome to Church Street, but closer. I have asked the government to consider that.

Okay. Which brings me to this very interesting question, and it always keeps going over in my mind. How is it that you have this very unique ability? You’re on many task force of the state government, but you are also there standing on the very same footpath and taking up issues against the government. Don’t you get any negative fallout? How are you able to be on both sides of the fence not on the same issue but at different points of time?

NN: That is one of the unique things about

SM: you Naresh Narasimhan

NN:I know that’s one of the unique things about the gentlemanly quality of politics in Karnataka. The politicians in Karnataka are reasonable people. You can talk to them, unlike maybe in other states where some are seen to be very dictatorial or top down. I’ve always found that the political leadership across parties in Karnataka was always open to dialogue. If you went and talked to them, they would talk to you. It would help if you go with ten people to talk to them, because mass leaders like to listen to the masses. So that lesson I learned long ago. When I approach, they’re all approachable, and they don’t take it personally when a policy of the government is criticised, unlike maybe other states in which the head of the state is personally vested in an idea. Here, it’s an idea,


NN: Because of that, one is able to critically talk about something in the morning on Twitter and have tea with the same person that afternoon to talk about maybe something else altogether. There will be no real it’s not about


SM: Antagonistic?

NN: it’s a point of view. I think Karnataka is great because it allows people to come from all everywhere else and listens to their point of view. The decision making is still the government right at the end. The chief minister and his cabinet are the ones who take clear decisions. I think it’s important that you listen to different points of view before you make up your own mind.
SM: You’ve never been tempted to get into politics yourself.

NN: No

SM: why is that?

NN: I enjoy being an architect more or more and an urban designer more probably for me, it’s not about power, it’s.SM: More about bringing about a positive change.

NN: Yeah, more like that more like a positive influence on the city itself, if possible.SM: All right. One of the things that you’ve been responsible for is getting rid of this problem with the stormwater drain. The dreadful smell from the drain near Shantinagar bus stand is one of my abiding childhood memories. I used to walk to school and back past it. Now it’s called a K 100 Stormwater Drain Project and it’s a citizens waterway. Tell me how it came about.

NN: That’s still a work in progress. It’ll still smell if you go there. See, what happens is that it actually goes back a long time and.

Almost all the energy of everybody in the government went to fixing the lakes. I started asking a question saying why is it catching fire? It sounds illogical for water to catch fire. What was happening was there was a lot of pollution going into it in terms of oils from unauthorized industries and all kinds of resins and all kinds of flammable things. And that surface was catching fire. I started backtracking, I said, Where is it coming from? Then we find out that it’s a strange paradox. Government sometimes in its mysterious way, it is organized. Just take the simple idea of a stormwater drain. What is it? It says stormwater drain. Fairly obvious what it is. The Raja kaluves and minor kaluves – raja is the big one. The stormwater drain is owned by the BBMP. The sewage is the product of an inefficient sewage system and is technically owned by the BWSSB


NN: They are using a BBMP asset without paying for it. Because if the sewage is flowing in the drain itself goes and ends in a lake – in a water body which is owned by the minor irrigation department.

SM: So there are three government departments, as usual

NN: Usual, working without any connection over all this.


There is a pollution control board giving gyan on what to do. There is a National Green Tribunal which keeps issuing like fairly strong addicts saying that if you don’t do it, you guys are going to be in serious trouble if you don’t fix it.

But who has to fix it?

NN: Nobody is responsible because everybody’s jurisdiction, stuff like this. I said this is an interesting, like they say, a bee hive problem. Like big hairy audacious kind of goal kind of problem. How can one bring all this together?

The lesson I learned from Church Street, one of the greatest lessons was that is best illustrated by an anecdote about two years back, just, I think after that first COVID tamasha, I had gone there on Church Street and near that Empire restaurant, these three pourakarmikas were sitting there. There are two, three of them, three ladies who control that street. They are the bosses of that area. When we did the street, we made friends with everyone because that is the point where it will fail. Things are not looked after. We made friends with all the shopkeepers, all the pourakarmikas, including the rag pickers. Everybody was roped into it at that time.
And these three ladies were my. They’re all sitting there and chewing paan and on at 10:00 on a working day, on a Monday or Tuesday. I said “Yennamma no work or what? kelsa illava type of thing chilling out.” She’s says “ayithu saar” I press her. I said by 10:00 you finished sweeping the old street? She’s saying yeah, nobody throws garbage anymore.

The pourakarmikas told you that nobody is throwing garbage and their work is getting over very fast. Wow.

NN: So what is the lesson to learn? If you bring the public into public infrastructure, it will almost look after itself. People will look after it and people get angry with you if you litter. Right one the second lesson to learn is if you move from a gray infrastructure to a green infrastructure, you remove that dullness of it and put like an environment with green in it, people will start using it.
I said let’s look at this and at that time there was a government initiative, there was an NGT order also saying that do something about it. There was a judgment of the high court also saying this can’t go on, this rampant sewage flow into. So I sort of shifted the attention from only the lake, saying that let’s fix the input into the lake.

After sometime all the kachada in that lake already will pump it out. We’ll push it downstream now and from now on we’ll shove only storm water into the lake. All the sewage from the lake will be diverted into a pipe on either side or under it or whatever crap and push it into a sewage treatment plant, treat it there and push it back into the same lake treated water.

SM: Sounds great.

NN: No, it’s worked dramatically. All the lakes of the Hoskote area are now full because of this effect of this almost this one drain. The sewage treatment plant there is pushing 100 million litres of water into the lakes of all the lakes in that Kolar district are getting filled, which hasn’t been filled for ten years.


Fantastic. But you say it’s still so then.

NN: It turned out to be a much more complicated problem than just using some maxims to do so. There was no way to access it. It had got encroached very badly. We had to use drone technology, figure it out. We brought in something called the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Authority.
There’s a very good organization. They use their flow models, reverse engineered it to work, pushed all 130 million litres of sewage pushed into pipes and pushed into the sewage treatment plant. It’s no longer flowing into Bellandur Lake to such an extent that at the mouth of the lake there are birds now nesting on Bellandur Lake. There’s fresh water going inside.


The same one that was in flames.

NN:I noticed it hasn’t burnt.

SM:I know.

NN: Now birds, migratory birds are sitting one little mud island and just inside, near the inlet that.
SM: That must be so satisfying.

Such a great it has the potential to change the real estate values of that area dramatically. Because Belandur also gets a huge amount of sewage from the north of Bangalore through that Nala Road, the drain which goes past Ulsoor Lake behind building Bangalore International Center next to KGA. That’s the other feed into Belandur that has also got to be fixed. If this ten kilometer gets done. Not if, when. It’s already about 80%, 70% done. Another 30% is the hard part. That is beyond Bannerghatta Road. If it gets done, it’ll be like a model for India. How to deal with. What it does is it also creates a walkway inside from Double Road to Belandur.

NN: Some places where it’s wide enough, it’s on both sides, walkway with bridges.
SM: So the smell behind BIC and everything.

NN: BIC is next.

That is another drain.

This is K 100 goes from Majestic. This is the oldest drain of Bangalore.
SM: Where did it get this? Where did it get it’s name?NN: A classification. All the subsidiaries are called 113 or 119. This one has 13 subsidiary drains.SM: Good heaven!
NN: We have to fix that also.

SM: So what’s the connection to Seoul?
NN: That was one of the inspirations for it.

The City of Seoul. With a name like that, it had no soul at all. Okay. Dull, dead place with a curiously high rate of self-harm. Strange. It’s one of the world capitals for it. One mayor who is also an architect, who found out that there was a flyover in the middle of the city and below the flyover, there was actually a small stream, a rivulet, not a river. Seoul is like Bangalore. It has no river in the middle. One day he just went nuts and broke the flower and exposed the Rivulet. It’s about 14 km long, the rivulet flowing through the city. He made it into a public space where people can enjoy. It became the biggest tourist attraction of tourists. That I saw it in 2012 or something. Cheonggyecheon

or something.

SM: It’s unpronounceable for me.

NN: Cheonggyecheon

SM: So it just needs the right imagination.

NN: No, you cannot take something that you see abroad like a best practice and put it into India. India is much more complicated. A project like this, for it to come through, needed six things. Five things plus one thing to come together. One was the idea itself. The boldness of the idea that you can fix interdepartmental problem if you put together a set of concepts like this. Two, it was also a conference of political interest. Three, also it was a contractual thing because it is one of the contracts of the BBMP to actually do it. The bureaucracy, then the contract means the entire bureaucratic mechanism to execute it. Five, one of the reasons it happened also was because during COVID we couldn’t let the entire construction, the government also could not let the entire industry fall apart. The government also is looking for some very people friendly projects to do.
and this fit the bill, ticked all the boxes. It takes a confluence of event and people and finance and everything for it to happen. Every 25 projects I propose, one comes through.


SM:. I think you’re pretty happy with another one that featured in the last budget, the Heritage and Educational District. Many years ago, I remember you talking about that central Bangalore. Yeah, that heritage stretch. And tell me more about it.


That whole stretch is actually Bangalore’s history in a microcosm, right? It’s the physical expression of Bangalore’s history. Literally, it’s one palace to another palace and the whole story of Bangalore is in between.


That how many palaces on that stretch?

NN: Many from Tipu’s Palace. And the other end is Bangalore Palace.

SM: Bangalore palace. And then we have all these fabulous.NN:
Educational all the educational institutions.

SM: Colleges, Maharani College.

NN: Both the universities are there, right? They’re almost like, I think, 22 or 23 separate.

SM: Many are there and most of them still have their old architecture. Is that the plan to keep it ? renovate it?NN: It’s an interesting thing because it’s both like an educational area and it’s also a heritage district. It also has about 30 odd heritage buildings. Not only on that one road, but in that area, including the Nrupatunga Toad and including the other side also where the Freedom Park and all is coming. Even that is a bit of heritage. If you look at it’s about 2000 odd acres of land which has the potential for both to become an educational, heritage as well as a tourism hub. Parts of those, many of those government buildings which are used for offices could be repurposed for cultural purposes or for educational purposes and make it like more people-friendly. It’s going to take another three, four or five years. A good beginning has been made by the government recognising that the inner core of the city is about 5 km from Vidhana Soudha . There are many buildings like that also in the Cantonment area. The government has recognized that about a five kilometre radius study has to be done to establish the feasibility and how it will be done. This kind of precinct, like educational and heritage precinct for the centre of this, I think it’s good because at least our children will know what the city looked like.

SM: Exactly. Even the new people who come to the city would know what they are entering, what is the heritage that they are the proud inheritors of now. I’m a firm believer that there can be only one Cubbon Park. Now there is a second Cubbon Park coming up in Yelahanka and it’s going to be named after the founder, Kempe Gowda. Green parks are always very welcome. I only wish that when it comes to the statue, they don’t get into this typical mine is bigger than yours. I think one nice statue to commemorate the founder of our city would be very welcome. Tell me, are you part of that project in any way too?

In a larger sense. Because I’ve been advocating for people don’t realize that the last big park in Bangalore was built in 1880. That is Cubbon Park. That’s like really long ago, like 145 years ago. I think it’s important to pick up wherever large parcels of land are still available around Bangalore. Not everything has to be a public park. Public park, like Cubbon Park, for instance, the Roerich Estate on Kanakpura Road. That should make it like a 500 acre reserve, nature reserve, like a biodiverse and allow only controlled. Anybody can’t just land up there and it’s not a park. Let it be more for our what do you call it? Natural denizens. There are many pockets like that all around Bangalore and it’s a good move by the government to give Yelahanka a large

The Yelahanka Nadaprabhu who created Bangalore. Tell me, why are you so interested in doing all this for Bangalore?

NN: Because I’ve travelled all over the world. I’ve seen more than 75 countries and cities. I think if you have a set of tick boxes, Bangalore ticks above seven of them. No other city comes close. There’s great climate, great people, great projects, great. I’ve lived almost all my life here. In terms of, I think, an accepting culture and a tolerant kind of place which allows people from everywhere to flower to their potential, if you want me to put it like that. Why do people come to Bangalore? Not just because of economic opportunity is probably there in other places. There’s a certain what do you call.

charm, welcoming attitude.

Like I would say that Bangalore is a working city of. It’s no longer a retirement home. It used to be that long ago. Now I think it’s a and we’re not really in some sense we are also not a very it’s a city of new ideas. All the new ideas that change India originate in Bangalore, if you have noticed. Many of them. Right.


NN: The national education policy, for instance, comes from a set of people who did it here in Bangalore. Professor Sridhar and many others. So many other things. Like we go to Mars from Bangalore, remember? So there are multiple things like that. For all those reasons and also not to … never to discount the climate and most of them see already as of today, summer is officially over. It’s raining outside slightly

SM: And the sight of the flowers in bloom oh my God.

NN: We have a very forgiving summer in Bangalore, to put it mildly. The rest of the time you can spend almost about 300 days a year without. you can spend outside with light clothing. That’s also important quality of life, no? My interest and to circle back to what you’re saying is I do all this because I think liveability in the city should be the big metric. Liveability consists of things which can be made into metrics in terms of air quality, water quality, mobility quality. The one thing we are very good in Bangalore is telecom quality. The bandwidth is incredible. With 5G it’s gone berserk. That’s one thing we are perfect at India. Anything virtual, we are very good. Anything physical, it’s a little bit difficulty.

SM: Your latest passion project is a book on Bangalore, Naresh. Can you tell me something more about it.

NN: In my journey through Bangalore’s heritage, I had come across a fantastic book called Bangalore through the centuries written by Mr Fazlul Hasan who was an official in the BBMP at that time. He had assembled a fantastic bibliography and historiography and written this fantastic book which was last published in 1970, more than 50 years ago. I thought it would be a great idea – its collector’s edition. Th original edition is now valued at more than 10,000 rupees a copy if you manage to get one. We met his son and his family and they have given us the rights to publish it. We have a foundation called MOD Foundation and a publishing wing arm Metaform which is going to republish this book by the end of June or so. We are all looking forward to it.

SM: I hope you will continue with doing your best to make the physical infrastructure better in Bangalore. Thank you Naresh, for joining this podcast and to our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this episode of Spotlight with Sandhya as much as I did. Do subscribe to the podcast. I would love to hear from you. The links are in the bio. I’ll be back soon with another interesting guest. Until then, take care.

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