No more ‘white elephants’ please in the Belagavi Vaccine Institute !!

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by Dr. Nitin Khot

After studying the extravagant projects planned by the Belagavi Smart City Ltd. (BSCL) for the Vaccine Depot, a number of us are felt wondering if there is a ‘disconnect’ between the planning team of the BSCL and what is emerging as the new norm in India and the world.

Let me explain.

There are two basic facts that have emerged over the past 6 months that we need to understand properly at this stage.

It has now become crystal clear to all that sources of Government revenue are depleting very fast and what is left in the Government’s kitty has to be very carefully and responsibly spent by those who are entrusted with the task of spending the poor common man’s hard earned rupee.

The second fact that is extremely clear to all is that the greatest need in the world today is for an effective vaccine against an extremely dangerous virus that is consuming lakhs of innocent lives across the globe. Covid-19 has now attacked three crore people across the globe and has jumped from two crores to three crores in just 40 days, indicating that the speed of infection is increasing rapidly.

Every few days, our Prime Minister assures all that a vaccine for Covid-19 will be developed by India and that our country will share it with all,… equally, for as low a manufacturing cost as possible.

Photo: Hemant Bhat

All of us must do our utmost to support our Prime Ministers effort – and – instead of depending on vaccines from Russia or China, – or even expecting the Serum Institute of India to bear the entire burden, we must clearly understand this need of the hour.

This is not the last pandemic to strike the world. It is expected to last at least till the end of 2021 if no effective vaccine is developed. The WHO Chief has expressed his hope that the world will be better prepared for future pandemics.

Here in Belagavi, we have a splendid infrastructure for vaccine development and production in the Belagavi Vaccine Institute, (also known as the Vaccine Depot).

Birds in Vaccine Depot
Birds in Vaccine Depot

Full-fledged research, development and manufacturing of vaccine took place here in these 156 acres from 1904 to 2004 – and Belagavi or Belgaum was on everyone’s lips, whenever the dreaded smallpox pandemic raised its ugly head.

Not only that, … the Belgaum Vaccine Institute produced a record 47 million doses of smallpox vaccine annually in the 1970’s to help eradicate smallpox forever – and this contribution should never be forgotten. This is, possibly, our country’s most famous victory.

To this ‘karmabhoomi’ of the health workers, the Karnataka State Government – which has always shown great vision and wisdom – issued a Government Order (AKUKA 84 CGM) prohibiting any construction at this spot and several very senior representatives of the people implored everyone to prevent this Institute being pushed into irrelevance by short sighted schemes.

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The Belagavi Smart City Plan was developed according to a unique idea propounded by the newly elected Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, in 2014.

What was unique about this idea was that planning for a Smart City should be from the bottom upwards, not the other way around as it was earlier, and hence, in Belagavi the largest ‘stakeholder consultation’ exercise, involving 1,02,000 stakeholders was undertaken. This consultation threw up the idea of preserving the Vaccine Institute as a park for botanical and heritage uses.

Two heritage precincts were to be “conserved” – the Fort area and the Vaccine Institute. ‘Conserved’ is understood by ‘Conservation Architects’ – as were sent to Belagavi by the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in Delhi as basically keeping an area free of modern construction.

This Smart City Plan for Belagavi, with its emphasis on, not one, but two heritage precincts was widely appreciated by the judges of the Smart City competition and we were positioned sixteenth on the very first list of prospective Smart Cities in a resurgent India. The judges even went to the extent of mentioning how this double heritage emphasis reflected the mature thinking of the people of Belagavi.

vaccine project gmap

Sometime after the funds came to be released, the Smart City Special Vehicle, seems to have ‘lost the plot’.

Treating the 156 acres of space of the Belagavi Vaccine Institute as “open country”, the BSC planners began to think of parking in this space a cluster of buildings that had no organic connect with the Belagavi Vaccine Institute whatsoever.

“Aviation Galleries”, “amphitheatres” or what passes as a “heritage museum” are structures which do not seem to have any organic connect with what is the proud heritage of this area or of our Belagavi city.

The layout of this complex of buildings as sketched by any willing architect may look pleasing on paper, but then, as the Mahatma once said, “Paper will put up with anything that is written on it !”.

Not one of these chosen structures has any link with the location chosen – and this ‘link’ is the very first principle of ‘conservation architecture’. Some of the ideas – like the Tamil Nadu enclosure with perhaps a miniature Meenakshi Temple or a Himachal Pradesh enclosure with a few statues of people in Himachali garments, are completely out of place with the character of the Belagavi Vaccine Institute.

Belagavi is a midsized town with a core population of over 5 lakhs, which is not the size of a city that generates great ‘footfall’ to galleries and museums. And tourists from elsewhere would hardly come to Belagavi to see Tamil Nadu’s heritage ! Also, open-air amphitheatres do not work well where the rains last for over 5 months and are becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Which brings us to the question of maintenance. Any structure that fails to raise revenues from private sources to cover the cost of its maintenance becomes a permanent burden to the Government’s exchequer.

There are several such “white elephants” which the Government is trying to wash its hands off.

One of these “white elephants” is the ill thought out “Glass House” constructed with precious Government funds in this very Vaccine Depot and lying unused for the past few years.

Public funds are very precious and sacred and should not be spent on without a very careful assessment of its present value and future cost. These precious funds could well be utilized at this point of time to serve more essential needs of the people of Belagavi and letting the Vaccine Depot be what it is … with its immense potential for researching and producing a vital vaccine against Covid-19.

Hardly any thought seems to have been given to the long term maintenance of these Government funded structures. Will they go over the sad path of the “Glass House” in Vaccine Institute ?

How many more “white elephants” will our cash strapped Government be burdened with ?

What about the space itself ? If we squander this irreplaceable space – which is a gift of history to Belagavi – then, in just a few months from now, when an effective vaccine for Covid-19 is ready, we Belgaumites will greatly regret not having the space where thousands of our young scientists, technicians and workers could work three shifts to save millions of lives and fulfil over Prime Minister’s wonderful dream.

It is time for all of us to reflect very deeply on the new realities that have emerged over the past six months and to come forward and gently persuade our Smart City Planner that a truly smart solution lies in a different direction.

4 thoughts on “No more ‘white elephants’ please in the Belagavi Vaccine Institute !!”

  1. The Smart City project in Balagavi is going at snail’s pace. Debris, material left at sight and digging poses grave danger to life and limb. The entire city is in shambles. The Mandoli Road is going on for the passed 3 years!
    PM made the announcement and has not bothered to check the status of works. There seems to be no transparency and accountability.

  2. Very nicely written article. But can this reach the decision makers who seem to have been deaf and unreachable earlier. So many of us have raised our voice in stopping the destruction of our heritage in the past. It is time to take a united action against so called ‘smart’ urban planning.

  3. Well written Dr. Khot. As you rightly promoted out the Smart City planners seems to have lost the plot (original plan). It looks like they have to spend the money and the best known way for them is digging, buildings, roads etc. This is a place where the Contractors and the elected members have mastered the art of making money. Any new thing they have no clue about making money. Hence they come up with these plans for art galleries, museum, building etc etc….


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