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Urban Change | How Bangalore saw the big picture

Urban Change | How Bangalore saw the big picture
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 08 02 PM IST

Green piece: Trees, such as the ones lining this road, are constantly under threat in Bangalore, facing an explosion of construction. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Green piece: Trees, such as the ones lining this road, are constantly under threat in Bangalore, facing an explosion of construction. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Updated: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 08 02 PM IST
Let me tell you what this article will not talk about.
It will not talk about the little things that defined Bangalore: the sun-shaded tunnels of green created by the arching canopies of grand, old rain trees; the peaked, wooden overhangs called “monkey tops”, which once graced every window on every sprawling bungalow; a climate so agreeable that no house was built with fans; a gentility that allowed migrant and local to live a life of calm reflection and commune with the great outdoors every day; an effortless multiculturalism that accommodated a variety of cultures and beliefs; and the light wind that blows almost incessantly through the city, the Bangalore breeze.
Green piece: Trees, such as the ones lining this road, are constantly under threat in Bangalore, facing an explosion of construction. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Too many people in modern-day Bengaluru (do not expect me to use this name, for the synapses that control nomenclature in my brain resist rewiring) talk of these things and times gone by. Too many appear steeped in a past that will never return. One city tabloid has a daily column in which old timers reminisce of their Bangalore. Other newspapers reveal a similar, strange affinity for faded days and forgotten ways. For a city more globalized than any other in India, for a city that destroys its heritage so ruthlessly and efficiently, for a city that embodies the future like no other, Bangalore has a strange way of not letting go of the past.
This could be because “the past” in Bangalore is, often, no more than 20 years away.
If you live in an Indian city, you live with change—constant rebuilding, tearing down, renaming, and the acceptance of a metaphor that says, if you want to enter a new life, you must die to another. In Bangalore, whatever passes, lives on as part of city’s great brains trust. In Bangalore, the future does not come—as the American cold-war statesman Dean Acheson put it—one day at a time. It comes many weeks or many months at once.
Between 1981 and 2004, Bangalore gained the dubious honour of being one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. Its population doubled, from 3.1 million to more than 6 million, compressing what should have been a slow metamorphosis into an explosion of disruptive change. Between 1995 and 2005, more than five multinational companies streamed into the city every month.
The Bangalore breeze is about the only thing from the old town that physically survives the transition to the 21st century (so, too, do a few tunnels of rain trees, but every day they suffer new assaults). Since its great acceleration into globalization during the 1990s, Bangalore has lost about 70% of its once endless sea of trees, the local forest department estimates. In a city once known for its cleanliness, only a third of the garbage is collected, as plastic bags spill their decomposing contents on street corners. A third of the city’s 8 million people live below the poverty line—1.5 million in slums—and less than a fifth are a part of the globalized elite.
But if there is one thing Bangalore forces you to do, it is to look at the big picture, even if some brush strokes are smudged. Globalization brought unprecedented opportunity to the city that I, of no fixed address, consider my hometown. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in a city that taught me the virtues of easy living, sang froid and deep thinking.
Bangalore does that to you. It urges you to think beyond your boundaries. It helps you collaborate with new people and new ideas. It provides an atmosphere that lets you join the dots. “I was in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, when I realized the world was flat,” says writer Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat, his 2005 best-seller on globalization.
By flat, Friedman means the connectedness born from new technologies as trade and political barriers fall, allowing anyone, anywhere to do business with anyone, anywhere in the world.
For hundreds of companies and a few million people, the big picture started to emerge in Bangalore during the 1990s. It was during this decade that academic Bangalore—the city that India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru posited as the nation’s intellectual capital—sensed the opportunities offered by the opening of the Indian economy and the demand, primarily from the US, for cheap, intelligent labour for global technology markets. This was the formative decade for Infosys, Wipro and a handful of other Indian companies that were tapping global markets. In 1997, Karnataka became the first Indian state to announce an information technology policy (as we shall see later, that was the last look the government may have taken at the big picture). It was in the 1990s that some of the world’s biggest tech companies, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Philips, Intel and Nortel, entered Bangalore. Today, Bangalore contributes about 34% to India’s total outsourcing revenue of nearly $50 billion (around Rs.2.25 trillion). This flat world created for the city a wildly diverse economy. The business of technology employs a little more than half a million people, but it provides employment to maybe five times that number in sectors that closely follow the rise of a young, globalized elite. From construction to taxi services to retail to education, the demand for blue-collar, white-collar and collarless professionals is ceaseless. More than half the population is from abroad or from other parts of India, says The Bangalore Story, a 2010 report by Tholons, a global strategic advisory company.
A transformation so rapid, from small town to global metropolis, is obviously not easy on those who see change but are not a part of it. So, the 1990s saw the most visible, violent protests against change. This was the decade when farmers and Kannada chauvinists ransacked the first outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken, picketed multinationals Cargill Seeds and Monsanto, and protested the Ms Universe contest. As the economy swelled to embrace more people, such protests quickly faded, as did Bangalore’s once-regular riots and confrontations—between Hindu and Muslim, Tamilians and Kannadigas, between congregations of various languages in Christian churches.
The 1990s also revealed that while Bangalore’s citizens were going global with a speed rarely seen before in the world, its politicians and public services, which should have prepared for transformation, faltered badly. “In the early 1990s, the quality of public service agencies in Bangalore was noticeably declining,” says German geographer Christoph Dittrich in a paper, Bangalore: Globalisation and Fragmentation in India’s High-Tech Capital. “Despite being the centre of India’s information technology boom, electricity, water and garbage disposal services were unreliable, if accessible at all, and providers lacked accountability.”
The World Bank says half the middle-income population faces daily demands for bribes from public servants. Bangalore’s rise as one of the world’s hot tech cities often obscures, to those who run it, the primary source of its new wealth: global investors. There is scant regard for the fact that the city is more vulnerable than any other in India to a global recession, and there is little effort in retaining global confidence in Bangalore by transforming its infrastructure and offering more equality to its disregarded poor.
There is one other thing that remains from the old city, something that isn’t threatened, yet. If you are in Bangalore and, if, after a profitable and/or pleasing day at work, you are vexed by the traffic, the pollution, the unruliness and the acquisitiveness of people, raise your head and watch the sky. The days tend to end in a blaze of glory. As you watch the spectacular, crimson slashes of a Bangalore sunset, you cannot fail to see the big picture.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Mint and Hindustan Times.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 08 02 PM IST