Bangalore: The growth of the Indian economy is perhaps best reflected in the way its major cities have expanded. Despite this, are Indian cities vehicles of creativity and innovation?

Expert views: Moderator Ramesh Ramanathan, Britannia chief executive officer Vinita Bali and Infosys co-chairman Nandan Nilekani confer before the start of the discussion

That was the question that confronted four Bangloreans—retired senior bureaucrat and former Karnataka planning board deputy chairman A. Ravindra, Infosys Technologies Ltd co-chairman Nandan Nilekani, Britannia Industries Ltd chief executive officer Vinita Bali and Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka Rajeev Chandrasekhar. They debated on this issue at the second Mint “Clarity Through Debate’ in Bangalore on Friday.

Janaagraha founder and Mint columnist Ramesh Ramanathan moderated the discussion.

Bangalore, with a population of around six million, is one of India’s fastest growing cities, and the hub of the country’s software and technology industries. However, the city is plagued by several infrastructural problems, including a small airport (although a new one opens in a few months), and inadequate road networks—more than half the roads in the city are one-way, but despite this, gridlocks are common.

Making a point: Accenture India CMD Harsh Manglik

Nilekani claimed that the disconnect between a city’s growth and its political power is largely responsible for the problems most Indian cities face these days.

“What is happening in Bangalore, and now everywhere else, is that we have huge economic growth happening due to liberalization, globalization and outsourcing. However, the structure of power is still antiquated and rooted in our old political system," he said.

Nilekani added that while Bangalore contributed 50-60% of the GDP (gross domestic product) of Karnataka and was home to 12-16% of the state’s population, it has only 8% of the assembly seats of Karnataka. Of the 224 seats in the Legislative Assembly, Bangalore has only 16 seats. “So, clearly it is a political lightweight, even though it is an economic heavyweight," he said.

Chandrasekhar said the problem was more about people’s participation in the political process: “I disagree with the point on MLA representation. The real issue is not that there aren’t enough MLAs representing the city—I think not enough of Bangaloreans come out to vote. I’m using Bangalore as an example, but this is true of other cities. The voter turnout for the city corporation elections was 40%, the Lok Sabha elections 50-55%. Clearly, it is up to the people to make a difference on how a city is, what it does, where the city goes. If we don’t take the opportunity to participate in the democratic process, who is to blame?"

Cityspeak: (from left) Britannia CEO Vinita Bali, Yasmin Premji and HR consultant Hema Ravichandar

Chandrasekhar cited the fact that in the previous city corporation elections in Bangalore, only 1.1 million people had voted out of a total population of six million. “Cities are growth engines, but one area that we must focus and try and create innovation and creativity is out-of-the-box governance solutions," he said.

Some of Bangalore’s residents blame the state of the city’s infrastructure on the growth of the software industry that has attracted people from other cities.

Former commissioner of the Bangalore City Corporation and a former chief secretary of the state Ravindra said the biggest challenge was not just of infrastructure, but the growing inequality between the urban rich and poor, which, he believed, was caused by selective growth in sectors such as information technology and real estate. He added that it was important to identify what was required to “reduce the inequality which really makes Bangalore,or any other city not merely economically vibrant but socially cohesive."

For the government, the private sector, and citizens to play their parts in this, they need to know their roles, said Britannia’s Bali.

“Are we going to wait endlessly for the right politicians?" she asked. Citing changes that Atlanta, where she lived for almost a decade while working for The Coca-Cola Co., underwent before it hosted the Olympics in 1996, she said that “it wasn’t just the government and industry coming together, but individuals" doing so to look at what would “make a city vibrant."

Nilekani said that four pointers to a city’s health are its economic clout, its citizens’ demand for good governance, the government’s attitude towards making a city stronger, and robust financial markets. Based on these parameters, Indian cities, including Bangalore, definitely have a long way to go.

Click here for the full webcast of the debate.