IT capital Bangalore fit for saving, not razing

IT capital Bangalore fit for saving, not razing

One of India’s most respected scientists, C.N.R. Rao, wants Bangalore razed by fire.

In a recent issue of Outlook magazine, Rao laments that in becoming India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore has been turned into an “awful city" by the software industry, whose success has caused everything from pollution to a demise of scholarly and cultural life. “Our people have lost respect for scholarship," Rao says. “Money and commerce have taken over." If IT, or information technology, “is going to take away our basic values, then you can burn Bangalore and burn IT."

The 73-year-old Bangalore-born professor is one of the leading intellectuals of the southern Indian city, where he spent a good part of his career at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc), first as founder of the solid-state chemistry unit, and later as its director.

Rao’s remarks can’t be discounted as rhetoric of a rabble- rousing politician espousing a cause where none exists. Nor is the chemist alone in voicing his discontent. Indeed, Outlook managed to find enough material to write a cover story, titled: Why Bangalore Hates the IT Culture.

Bangalore has seen explosive growth. Thanks to the myriad job opportunities created by computer software and back-office services, the population grew 38% to 5.7 million people in the 10 years ended 2001. Every fifth resident of the city arrived from another part of the country within the previous decade.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the inflow of young, white-collar workers has picked up speed: Downtown rents have doubled in the past five years.

No doubt this growth has made the city progressively more unliveable. Yet, the blame for all that’s gone wrong can’t be put on the software czars.

Urban amenities—such as roads, power and water—are in woefully short supply because town planners and civic administrators have been asleep at the wheel. After 24 years of discussion, debate and hand-wringing, work has finally begun on a much-needed subway system to ease the terrible traffic jams in the city.

There may be some truth in Rao’s charge that the boom in software services has sapped “the essential lifeblood of other professions" by drawing young people away from other careers. Kalpana Kochhar and other researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned of a “Bangalore Bug" last year. Their point was that the surge in India’s software and call centre industries may push up the wages of skilled workers to a point where textile, furniture or footwear makers, which have small profit margins, won’t be able to find supervisors and managers.

The IMF economists’ recommendation was that in order to promote labour-intensive employment, India should take steps to boost availability of skilled manpower.

However, Rao’s version of the “Bangalore Bug" goes a step further. “All the humours should be balanced," he says. “We must also have good poets, good economists, fine historians, quality scientists and top-class engineers."

It’s difficult to see how burning Bangalore’s software industry can lead to such a balance. The reason why India is not producing enough computer-science doctorates is that the Indian state has become both financially and managerially too weak to patronize science and culture. Yet, it won’t get out of the way of others who might have the means.

Not that private capital in the country has really done enough to articulate its vision for a modern society.

“IT people have a responsibility that they are yet to fulfil," Rao says. “If they’re making so much money, why shouldn’t they create an outstanding private university equivalent to Stanford or Harvard?"

Here, I’m in full agreement with the thrust of Rao’s argument, though he’s being a trifle unfair by limiting the field to the “IT people". The problem is more widespread: India’s elite are devoting much less philanthropic capital to education today than they did before independence in 1947.

Take the 96-year-old IISc in Bangalore, which became possible because of industrialist Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata group. He is reputed to have donated half of his personal wealth to the project, not to mention 13 years of his efforts.

The software industry is getting all the blame for destroying an idyllic, pensioners’ paradise, a city of gardens and great weather. Yet, at its core, Bangalore’s angst is really directed at inward migration from other parts of the country in large numbers and the inevitable loss of identity for locals. Even this may be more a failure of urban planning than anything else. “The unique aspects of a city’s character need to be preserved," Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Bangalore-based citizens’ advocacy group, Janaagraha, wrote this month in his weekly column in Mint. “Vibrant neighbourhoods and communities come pretty high on the list."

The Bangalore that has already disappeared can’t be resurrected. However, with a combination of corporate and state patronage and citizens’ involvement, it might still be possible to fashion something new that isn’t altogether ugly or devoid of soul. Bangalore doesn’t have to be burned. But it surely needs to be recreated.

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