Book Excerpt
Unlike Silicon Valley, why did modernity and enterprise make Bangalore unbearable
  • Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 15:12

By T.J.S George

Before anyone knew what was happening, Bangalore became the global leader in Business Process Outsourcing. The world quickly realized that skilled staff at salaries of one-quarter to one-tenth of standard rates in the West was not Bangalore’s principal attraction—wunderkinds abounded in the region capable of handling any challenge from any quarter. Companies like Intel, Microsoft and Cisco Systems picked the city for their advanced R&D projects.

An army of whizz-kids soon emerged to turn Bangalore into India’s start-up capital as well. Bangalore acquired a newly prosperous, even bohemian, aura. The speed at which information technology altered the sociology as well as the economy produced an inevitable backlash. While intellectuals such as U. R. Ananthamurthy cautioned about newly created problems of identity, local activists questioned what was Bangalore and who was a Bangalorean. There were campaigns for jobs for Kannadigas. There were protests against Hindi signboards. The problem was that IT transformed Bangalore in ways earlier bouts of industrialization and immigration had not.

The old agreeable Bangalore was now replaced by an aggressive Bangalore where no one had time for his neighbours. Everyone was chasing success as measured by a new consumerist value system. A gladiator culture took over with the spirit of combat as its perennial feature. If the pre-IT immigrants made an effort to merge into Bangalore, the new combatants were too disparate to try. They remained Punjabis, Rajasthanis, Gujaratis and UP-Biharis, Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Latin Americans, Africans, Middle Easterners, Japanese, Koreans and Thais. What overwhelmed Whitefield and Sarjapur were only the high points of what plagued Bangalore as a whole. Cosy Town turned international melting pot, Bangalore’s face turned ugly.

California’s Bay Area did not lose its charm when Silicon Valley became a land of miracles. Neither did Boston. Why did modernity and enterprise make Bangalore unbearable? The answer was that Bangalore’s elected leaders, administrators and builders disobeyed Kempe Gowda’s mother. When the fabled founder of Bangalore set out to build his dream capital in the 1530s, his mother gave him two instructions: ‘Keregalam kattu, marangalam nedu (Build lakes, plant trees)’.

Gowda made a hundred lakes and lined the pathways with wide, leafy trees. Politicians and land dealers of modern times were born to different kinds of mothers. In about three decades they filled up 2,000 hectares of lakes, and, in the late 2000s alone, felled 50,000 trees. Under their earth movers and power saws, the urban sprawl expanded until the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) became the largest municipal corporation in the country. The population density rose to 12,000 persons per square kilometre. The Bangalore Development Authority’s Revised Master Plan estimated that the population count would cross 20 million.

Small wonder then that in Electronic City land prices rose by 300 per cent in about ten years. According to popular statistics, Bangalore had more potholes and dangerous medians per kilometre than any other city. Two of them were patched up by the authorities. In June 2015, artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy noticed a water-filled pothole, unusually large even by Bangalore standards, in the crowded Sultanpalya area. He painted its edges in greens and blues, planted a few blades of grass in strategic spots and then brought in a life-size rubber crocodile to frolic in the water. A year earlier Nanjundaswamy was appalled by the sight of a road median the detached granite blocks of which had become a danger to motorists. He turned that too into an art installation, the granite blocks shining in bright colours with flower stalks and green leaves growing out of them. Locals gathered to admire the street art on both occasions. Municipal authorities moved in fast, filled the pothole and straightened the median. Citizens who criticized them for being anti-art were pacified by those who pointed to the reassuring sense of shame displayed by the authorities.

Through it all Bangalore acquired more than a hundred slums accommodating 2 million people. New-Age gladiators appeared from nowhere and from everywhere to take care of slum management and allied businesses. In 2014, Bangalore ranked second in the number of murders (Delhi was first), third in robberies (after Delhi and Bombay) and third in dacoity cases (after Pune and Delhi).

In this urban demographic nightmare, it was inevitable that group rivalries, linguistic antagonisms and cultural confrontations would become a part of life.  Local voices often  rose against outsiders, especially outsiders who stood out as outsiders…

… The IT boom and other forces of rapid change had altered Bangalore from within, as though unseen hands had reconstituted its DNA. It used to be a city in peace with itself. It was now a bundle of contradictions, a battleground of competing constituencies, where going forward resembles going backward. Knocked off balance by the weight of its own growth, Bangalore was askew. The hand of the potter did shake when the IT chip hit him.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore by T. J. S. George. You can buy the book here.

Picture courtesy: By Utkarsh Jha [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons