Sunday, October 30, 2005

Stuck in the middle of waist deep water on Bannerghatta road, with the imposing offices of the likes of Oracle, Accenture onlooking the deluge outside, it certainly wasn’t the best of holidays I had hoped for myself after being away from Bangalore for a long time. The city had witnessed its most fierce bout of rains in 60 years. Water logged roads and overflowing drains were a concept alien to us Bangaloreans; we in fact prided in poking fun at neighbouring Chennai which faces such hardships almost every year with even a tinkle of a downpour. The city has been in the news for all the wrong reasons- infrastructure woes, the ongoing battle of words between the ‘humble farmer’ and the IT honcho ( to be fair to the latter, its more of a hysteric monologue initiated by the ‘son of the soil’!), the industry’s clarion call to boycott the annual IT conclave of the state government organized with a view to increase investment and then as an icing on the cake, the rains and the unprecedented floods all over the city. The driver of the auto I was traveling in (rather inching in) said rather ruely- “ They have ruined our city sir, these IT companies. They are flying birds, come here today, go out the next. But their actions and inactions have ruined our city for good. Its all over, destroyed.”

While I might not fully share this poor man’s pessimism, I must concede that this is the popular sentiment of a majority of Bangaloreans- the traditional ones who’ve settled here for generations and have seen the city grow and now decay. Bangalore with the nippiness in its air and salubrious climate was hailed as a pensioners’ paradise till the early 1980’s. while the weather did impart a slightly laidback attitude to its people it was also a melting pot of culture, of intellectuals, of scientists, artists and thinkers who made it its home. Famous as the City of Gardens, this city of boiled grains ( that was what its founder the Yelahanka dynasty ruler Kempegowda named it after) was a city of vibrant minds, of people known for their softspokenness and hospitality.

And then IT happened! To all those who think the climate was the only reason for industry’s choice of Bangalore, I would say why did they not set shop in Ooty, Shimla or some other hill station? Bangalore had many other pluses to its advantage. Under the erstwhile ruler of Mysore and its illustrious Dewans like Sir M Vishweshwaraih and Sir Mirza Ismail, the city had attained a high degree of industrial growth by the time of independence. Mysore state became one of India’s first states to have a democratic system of local governance. It was also the intellectual capital of India with research centers like IISc and later on IIM and the largest number of engineering colleges in India. Bangalore was also high on the strategic map of India’s defence with HAL, BHEL and similar companies housing their operations here. With such a large pool of talent and advantages, the nascent Indian IT industry- which is more of a knowledge based one, naturally chose Bangalore as its starting point. The initial pioneers of the IT growth in India- Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji being Bangaloreans themselves only helped the city that much more. And with all fairness to our most loved whipping boy- the Government-the Karnataka Governments of the past have given sops to the IT industry that no other state in India have- the 10 year tax holiday being just one of them.

With spiraling growth, rapid influx of talented young men and women, new start up companies of ambitious entrepreneurs rearing to fly in the vast skies that the IT success story offered, the industry gave India a new identity, a new respect in the international community of the kinds that China hitherto had in manufacturing. And Bangalore was the fulcrum of this entire growth story, though the IT bug has slowly bitten other states, AP being the most notable. The IT and ITES sector generated $5.7 bn in exports in 2002 and this figure jumped to $17 billion in 2004-05 with an annual growth rate of about 34%. And the leader of the software exports of India was Bangalore, which accounted for more than 40% of the pie.

Bangalore obviously became the favored destination of people- especially the youth who flooded the city in search of good employment opportunities. The city welcomed them all with open arms and assimilated them in the cultural melting pot that it was. More success stories meant more people getting in and slowly there was the specter of unbridled influx. The city wasn’t expecting growth of this magnitude. It managed to subsume the neighboring rural areas and grow into the “Greater Bangalore” that it is today. Still, for a city that called itself pensioners’ paradise to Asia’s fastest growing city- the journey had been long and too fast to grapple with. Till it landed in the cesspool that it is in today!

Its all too easy to lay the blame on the government for its lack of political farsightedness. I mean, the bulk of the blame does lie on its doorstep, as being policy makers its their damn business to plan for the city. But then all of us are to blame for this sad state of affairs in what was India’s indigenous success story and a showcase to the world as a city of the future. The IT firms are equally to blame. With a mere 10 lakh odd vehicles in the early 1990’s to over 2 million today and with an estimated 12 lakh vehicles added every year, which city of the world can cope with such monstrous growth? Add to it the appalling public transport and the increased standard of living of people and the ease with which retail banks offer car and two wheeler loans today, no wonder the city’s roads are clogged with vehicles and smoke. Gone are the times when we barely needed a fan even in the peak of summer. Gone are the canopied boulevards and gardens that dotted the streets- road widening and fly overs have eaten into the very lung of the city.

But what alarms and irritated me more than anything else, is this orchestrated cry from all over the country of ‘Bangalore crumbling’. The media has scripted an obituary much before the patient has slipped into the proverbial coma! Pray which city in India has world-class infrastructure? Having lived in most of the large cities myself, I know that the situation is as good or as bad there as it is in Bangalore. The July rains ruined the image of Mumbai as India’s Shanghai. Did the finance industry decide to leave Bombay for good following that? Mumbai has worse roads (rather potholes) and it takes a helluva effort to ride through the suburbs. The city is choked with its burgeoning slums and uncollected garbage heaps. Gurgaon, where I live these days, and which is touted as a challenge to Bangalore has woefully bad roads too, a drizzle is enough to choke the roads and cause traffic jams. The place has NO public transport whatsoever! Chennai has its own set of problems. No drains, no water, inhuman weather, issues of language and so on. I’am not undermining other cities of India to make a case for Bangalore. What I am trying to say is lack of foresight when it comes to urban planning and governance is a pan-Indian syndrome and Bangalore suffers from the same. Don’t we realize that by deriding and writing off a city that has made the country proud, that has made the world sit up and catch attention of India, which hitherto was never on any body’s priority when it came to industry- we are digging our own grave?

What then is the road ahead? Will we sit blaming each other and let things go worse each passing day or think constructively for a change? There are organizations in Bangalore like ‘Janaagraha’ where I had the privilege of interning for a short while which strikes at the root of these problems. The key is in ‘Participatory democracy’ where citizens ‘elect and engage’ rather than ‘elect and forget and then blame’. Janaagraha’s vision for Bangalore is simplistic, yet effective and logical where the city is broken down into 100 wards and each ward plans for itself. All this in active consultation of and coordination with the local self government bodies who would be the ultimate drivers of these ideas, in a non-confrontationist atmosphere. Cant educated citizens, software professionals, young minds put on their thinking caps and come up with viable solutions to the problems that face their city? The bottlenecks of infrastructure that need our immediate attention are roads, traffic, drainages, garbage disposal (when it comes to power and water supply Bangalore ranks well among India’s cities). Cant IT companies discourage people from using their personal vehicles to office and instead insist that all of them should use a company bus which could ferry them in and out every day? After all these companies which draw so much from the city have some responsibility towards it and need to give back! On its part cant the slumbering government wake up and create a clearly demarcated IT locality- like the ones in Electronic City and Whitefield, which also house huge residential complexes so that the employees working here need not criss cross across the length and breadth of the city for work? Creating self sufficient communities of this kind all along the periphery of the city would decongest the main city to a large extent. Mindless flyovers built over a few meters serve no purpose. Instead comprehensive plans need to be made for building arterial roads, widening and repairing the existing ones- more of the kinds of the numerous ring roads that are a pleasure to drive on.

Equally important in this mad rush is also a holistic development of the city, its cultural hubs and centers. In the recent past the animosity between local Kannada groups and the ‘outsiders’ had reached quite a crescendo, leading to the ban of non Kannada films. Such things don’t augur well for a forward looking city. A sense of mutual respect, a sense of oneness and respect for the local language, customs and traditions on the part of people who inundate the place day in and out is quintessential. More platforms need to be made for the sprouting of the arts- dance, music, theater, literature; even as we proudly host the Elton Johns and Bryan Adams of the world. Its all nice to be called the Pub capital of India, but at the same time one mustn’t lose sight of the quintessential ethos of Bangalore which, unlike Goa is not in booze and wine! Bangalore represents a wonderful picture of how opposites can co-exist and in harmony and this needs to be nurtured for posterity.

So for once, why cant we junk our characteristic cynicism of ‘nothing can happen in this country’; why not junk the senseless ‘sons of the soil’ who have absolutely no vision and whose diatribes border more on the comic and come up with practical solutions to this problem of plenty. The government is also, after all run by human beings, not demigods or magicians. Its all too easy to say ‘ the government must do something about it’ but then when we actually sit down to think about quantifying that ‘something’ and how to go about it, we realize that it aint an easy task. At this point of time, it really doesn’t matter if a few companies get frustrated and leave Bangalore… ‘cos wherever else they go, be it a Hyderabad or Pune or Noida and Gurgaon- the issues that Bangalore face today will come to haunt them as well some day in the future; because town planning has never been an Indian virtue! We bask in temporal successes and forget larger issues! So it would actually be foolish for companies to leave a place which has given them such a head start and reinvent the wheel in a new location. Instead why not fix the bruised wheel before it gives way?

While I think of all this, my auto has managed to inch a bit ahead splashing the puddles of water all over, with people on their road-rage best, honking, abusing, trying to cut lanes and speed ahead. I can barely conceal my smile when, after being out of this mega jam of over 70 minutes, my pessimistic auto driver shakes his head in dismay again and says – No hope for this city sir, no hope!


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Blogger Vikram said...

WHAT? i mean, thanks for all the nice things u've written...but then i thought this post was abt the teething problems that blore city faced...whr did infertility come in it all?!?

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Blogger Naveen S N said...

hey vikram..finally u started re-posting after such a long gap. and thank you for such a sensible post on bangalore...all this media cacaphony about 'bangalore crumbling' was irritating if bangalore is all about IT and nothing else. even though me being a software engineer makes me obviously biased towards IT, i wonder why the media is not bothering about what the average joe in bangalore wants today. there are so many questions that have not been raised in the media and need to be raised.

it is the non-techie people who use the public transport (BMTC) which i must say has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years. no one bothers about them. wonder what more than 4 million people did to eke out a living before the IT boom and the subsequent techie-invasion. the media and to some extent the IT honchos talk as if the entire bangalorean economy depends on the IT sector, which is patently wrong. there's absolutely no news on the various other happening industries like textiles, auto parts etc. these days in the media.

as u pointed out, b'lore has some of the best power and water distribution and garbage disposal systems in the country, and the people seem to be using them without fuss. the only problem b'lore faces in the short term is roads and here i must blame the IT sector for atleast a significant part of the woes, though all fingers seem to point at the present govt. (neither devegowda nor krishna are saints and so i'm not blaming the present govt. for all the road infrastructure ills). the IT growth has been severely lopsided with only the east and the south-east having IT corridors while nearly 40% of the techie junta lives in the north and west and has to commute to work for hours everyday. in a radial city like b'lore (where transport corridors are difficult to demarcate), that is calling for disaster. no wonder the CBD through which these people travel everyday is perenially congested. why didn't anyone in the IT industry even once think about advising the govt. (they seem to advise the govt. on pretty much everything else) on developing software parks around the city so that software clusters could be formed at designated places all over. this would no doubt have reduced the real estate pressure in the east and south and prevented people from developing low-lying southern areas for residential purposes. now there are hundreds of unplanned and/or unauthorized layouts (wonder how the postman remembers their names:D) in the south built over precious lake beds. wonder what can anything ever be done to improve these cubby-hole layouts:(( did anyone wonder why the bangalore corporation limits didn't face the brunt of the rains and mainly these layouts were the worst affected? how come places like jayanagar, malleshwaram and vijayanagar didn't face water logging problems to a great extent while koramangala, hosur road, hsr layout and the oh-so-many new blocks of jp nagar beyond the ring road resembled lakes during the rains (coz they were built on lakes:(( )
if only someone in the media and in the IT sector just ponders over the above points, they can come up with long-term solutions aimed at spreading growth to all parts of the city and not putting all eggs in one basket (the hosur road-sarjapur road-airport road corridor).

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Blogger Nikhil said...

It's true... the city is doomed. Gone are the days when you could reach MG Road from Jayanagar in 10 minutes, when the air was cleaner and folks could breathe easy.

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