Home / Opinion / Why did Bengaluru burn?

In the early 2000s, soon after Infosys Ltd had built an impressive, and expansive, new wing of its campus in Bengaluru’s Electronics City, I met the company’s then chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy.

As we walked around the campus, talking of business and people, and the brightly coloured umbrellas stacked in the reception of almost every building, he pointed to a couple of the company’s housekeeping staff in their brown uniforms. They were from nearby slums and low-income neighbourhoods, Murthy said, and it was important that they believed they were sharing in Infosys’s growth. I worry about what would happen if they didn’t, he added.

He and I knew the answer even then, and India and the world, last Monday, when the city burnt for a few hours. By numbers alone (one dead, around 100 buses burnt, 20,000 crore of productivity and business losses to companies), the violence the city saw wasn’t significant—a sign of the troubled times in which we live—but it was almost as if, for a few hours, someone had peeled back the motherboard of India’s own Silicon Valley, and shown us the ugliness beneath.

On the face of it, the protests were targeted at Tamil Nadu, Karnataka’s neighbour. The sharing of Cauvery waters has long been a matter of dispute between the two states. Neither political will (of which there hasn’t been much, anyway), nor court action, has been able to solve the decades-old problem.

Karnataka hasn’t had much rain this year, and the state is in the midst of a water crisis. Its farmers, reeling after two seasons of inadequate rains, are the worst hit.

Many farmers in the state grow sugarcane, a water-intensive crop, and have been affected by both the poor rains and the usual afflictions of the sugar business (mills that do not pay farmers in time, for instance).

Mint reported an alarming increase in the number of farmer suicides in the state last year.

These farmers are angry at Tamil Nadu, and with the Karnataka state government, which they believe is not doing enough. They are also angry at Bengaluru in a microcosmic play of the old Bharat-India fault line. In March, thousands of farmers in tractors brought the city to a halt as they protested the unequal distribution of water between Bengaluru and the rest of the state.

Water is but the most recent flashpoint between the rest of the state and Bengaluru. For at least a decade-and-a-half now, people in Karnataka have chafed at being left out of the obvious economic benefits of the information technology (IT) boom in Bengaluru. It is a boom that has bettered the lives of everyone from cooks and housekeepers to coders and marketers to real estate developers and taxi fleet operators; only, many of those benefiting from the boom are not from Karnataka. Infosys’s former chief financial officer and chairman of Manipal Global, Mohandas Pai, said recently that less than half of the 1.5 million people who work in IT companies in Karnataka are from the state. The rest are white-collar migrants.

A 2015 study by Mint titled A tale of two Karnatakas showed that the state’s development was sharply uneven.

The disparity isn’t just between the rural and urban parts of the state, but within its cities themselves. Karnataka has the sixth-highest inequality (0.29) in India in rural areas, as measured by the Gini coefficient (a ratio between 0 and 1, where 1 stands for perfect inequality and 0 for perfect equality). It has the third highest inequality (0.44) in urban areas according to another Mint study, this one from 2016.

In contrast, rural inequality in Tamil Nadu is marginally worse than in Karnataka, at 0.30, but urban inequality is only 0.35%.

According to the 2011 census, 48.5% of Tamil Nadu’s population and 38% of Karnataka’s, lives in urban areas. Two factors could explain this.

Tamil Nadu’s growth has been more diversified. The state benefited from both the IT boom of the 1990s and 2000s and the auto, auto parts, and hardware manufacturing boom of the 2000s. And the state’s affirmative action policies—a reservation of 69% for so-called backward castes in educational institutions, dating back to the 1980s, for instance—may have simply made many people, and from diverse backgrounds, employable.

In an article in The Huffington Post, T.S. Sudhir profiled the individuals and groups at the forefront of the violent protests Bengaluru witnessed last week. The Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, Jaya Karnataka, Kannada Okkoota and Kannada Sena, all fringe regional groups, have grown both in following and importance over the years. Their emergence is similar to the emergence of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai in the 1960s. The Shiv Sena tapped the disaffection of Maharashtrians worried that migrants, especially Tamils, were taking the best jobs in the city (back then, these were in the mills).

A week on, it is business as usual in Bengaluru, and last Monday’s protests will soon be forgotten. Only, what happened that day could happen again—in the city and across any city in India. Inequity and inequality are turning our cities into tinder boxes and all it will take to set them alight is one spark.

R.Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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