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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Class divide in a gated community

Class divide in a gated community

Life in a luxurious Bengaluru apartment complex is a microcosm of all urban India and all its faults


The settlement of Kaveri Nagar is just 4km from Prestige Shantiniketan, but it might as well be a million miles away.

Shantiniketan, in Whitefield, Bengaluru, is a community with paved roads, manicured lawns and battery-operated golf carts for the security chief to drive around in. Kaveri Nagar, where some people employed at Shantiniketan live, is a low-rise neighbourhood, with a few shops selling everyday essentials and vegetables sold off carts.

Anupama and Varghese Abraham, married for 21 years with a decade spent in the US, live in Shantiniketan, while Ratnamma, their domestic help, lives in Kaveri Nagar.

The contrast between Shantiniketan and Kaveri Nagar symbolizes modern Indian cities and the problematic dichotomies within them. Mahatma Gandhi’s “India lives in its villages" has never been less true. Nearly a third of India lives in its cities now, and in some big states, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, nearly half do.

With agriculture contributing less and less to the country’s gross domestic product, more and more people are likely to flock to the cities in search of work.

A report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) said that by 2021, 60% of Karnataka’s population will be employed in agriculture but it will contribute only 6% to the state’s total economic activity. Thus leading to “massive migration towards the wealth of cities", according to Rejeet Mathews of the WRI.

This migration will strain further already overstretched urban government utilities, with the result that those who can will opt to live in ostensibly self-sufficient enclaves like Prestige Shantiniketan.

Different worlds

Ratnamma, a slim and short woman in her 40s, travels to Shantiniketan every day to work. At the apartment complex, she is subjected to a few but telling indignities.

First, she has to declare the money she is carrying when she enters the building complex. When she leaves, the guards tally the amount she has.

If either of her employers (she works in two households in Tower 8 of the 2,850-apartment, 23-building complex) lend her any money, she must carry a letter saying as much from her employer. This letter must be taken to Tower 19, where somebody from administration will then affix an office seal on it. Only then would Ratnamma be allowed to leave the premises.

She and others like her are forbidden to walk on the “podium", a raised area above the parking lots between the towers. It is a rule that many decried after it was recently publicized in a newspaper story, but the rule stands nevertheless.

One day in June, at the entrance, Ratnamma saw the photograph of a live-in maid who had been accused of theft. “When some people do wrong, we are all affected," she thought.

The apartment complex where Ratnamma works shows India’s urban problems in a microcosm. Outside the 105-acre residential and commercial complex is the India you see everywhere. Inside, though, it is an entirely different story, with well-asphalted roads, designated parking and lots of security checkpoints manned by blue-uniformed guards.

As mentioned earlier, Prestige Shantiniketan has 2,850 apartments. There are 162 guards, who stalk the 23 towers, basement car parks, gardens and playgrounds. The 60-acre residential area has allotted parking space for 2,850 cars, apart from visitors’ vehicles.

The complex once recorded a usage of six million volts ampere of electricity, and has its own power backup (like most apartment complexes in Bengaluru). It also uses some 1.2 million litres of water a day, which, for an estimated 10,000 residents, is 120 litres per person per day. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the city’s water utility, provides an average of 65 litres per person per day.

It also has an average of 1,300 to 1,500 visitors a day, according to the residential complex’s chief security officer.

Urban India

India loves its cities. A little less than a third of India now lives in areas classified as urban. In 2011, there were over 53 cities with a million plus people, up from 35 a decade before.

While income surveys in India are notorious for their inaccuracy, the India Human Development Survey from 2011-12 showed that of the 42,000 urban households that shared earnings data across 971 urban neighbourhoods, the bottom 10% of the households made only a tenth of the income earned by the top 10%. The difference is stark.

It is a similar story when you look at data on how much people in cities spend. A National Sample Survey Organisation report of 2012 showed that while the poorest 5% of the sample spent an average of Rs700 per capita per day, the richest 5% spent Rs10,282—more than 14 times as much.

Other apartment complexes too wear their exclusivity on their sleeve. Advertisements run with taglines like: “Homes that speak the good life", “Luxury lakefront living near Koramangala", “The world comes home", “Reach for the skies". Some market them triumphantly. Others are more shamefaced—one ad calls it “A walk in the clouds"—but for most, the selling point is their “un-Indianness".

At Prestige Shantiniketan, this ‘other-ness’ is manifest: on the podium it has benches, wide footpaths, and lawns lining the routes between towers. The actual ground level below, which is called the basement, houses little else but parking lots.

On 13 April, a notice was posted at Prestige Shantiniketan saying that “no maids, cooks and other help staff" would be allowed on the podium level. A report in Bangalore Mirror was followed by an open letter by Maitreyi Krishnan and Clifton D’ Rozario that a number of websites carried, pointing out the discrimination inherent in the notice.

The notice is still tacked to a notice board near the entrance to the podium in Tower 8. The apartment owners’ association, where the notice originated, maintain that they were unfairly criticized for the notice.

Not just Shantiniketan

Entrenched attitudes towards the other—domestic maids or vendors in particular, or anyone perceived to be working class—are not a problem in Prestige Shantiniketan alone.

“It happens everywhere right? It happens under wraps," says a resident of Brigade Metropolis, another apartment complex in the neighbourhood. “People don’t say it openly but I can give you a few examples. In Brigade Metropolis and in a few other societies also, there is a restriction on maids and the working class."

This resident, who did not wish to be identified, talks about certain benches where the maids and drivers were not allowed to sit and if they were to sit there, the gated community’s security guard would ask them to leave.

“It’s not that someone comes and asks them, (the) security to do that (but) it is (a) kind of unwritten rule. We had one more rule earlier—now it is scrapped—the maids are not supposed to travel in the passenger lift, they were supposed to travel in the service lift."

In a meeting called later, some residents said the rule was unfair, while the residents’ association said the rule was merely because “of safety concerns" and “hygiene concerns".

“Segregation has long been a problem in cities, with extreme forms seen in African Cities where gated communities have high walls, electrified fences and 24 hour armed security guards. Reports suggest that since the abolishment of apartheid the gating of streets and communities has exploded in South Africa symbolizing the failure of racial integration," says Mathews of WRI.

But some countries in Latin America, United States, Britain, even China are looking to impose restrictions on gated communities, adds Mathews.

Does the PM live here?

A guard meets every visitor to Prestige Shantiniketan at the gate, and directs the visitor to a small office. There, you will have to present your name, the apartment you are going to and reason for visiting. Couriers, postmen, cab drivers and those who work as help in the complex have another, far lengthier line to take.

Once the security personnel confirm that you are expected and not an unwelcome interloper, you are allowed inside after a message is sent to your phone, which you have to proffer to the guard at the next picket. After waiting for the security guys to confirm that the person in front was indeed who he said he was, it was my turn.

I had a meeting with Debashish Mishra, the president of the owners’ association. After the guard spoke to him, I was given an entry pass. As I was leaving, I asked the guard at the shack if the prime minister lived here. She smiled.

The Abrahams live in a second-floor, four-bedroom apartment in Tower 8 of the complex. The living room is tastefully furnished, with a couch facing the television on the far wall.

There is a lot of bright light from the bay windows behind the couches. Varghese Abraham sits on a couch perpendicular to me. On the wall opposite is a flat-screen television. To my right, there is a dining table between two bedrooms. Their daughter, home from the US, where she studies, is in one room.

Soon, we are talking about urban dysfunction and about Abraham being tempted to set up the Indian operations of the company he worked for in the adjoining commercial complex (they eventually chose a building a few kilometres westwards).

Abraham says when he first moved to Bengaluru, he couldn’t afford to live in areas which had basic facilities, like garbage cans. This was in 1993, when Bangalore, as it was called, was a much smaller town with no more than 5,000 software developers by his estimates.

Then he moved to the US and when he chose to shift back, to be closer to his parents in Kerala, he lived in a similar apartment complex for a few years before putting down a deposit on the Shantiniketan flat. He paid Rs2,890 for each of the apartment’s 3,000 sq. ft, which, he says is Rs1,000 more than the price when the project was launched in 2005.

‘We all suffer for what somebody has done’

Outside Shantiniketan, the heavily congested road curves past several office buildings. It’s a mishmash of shops selling everything from food to flowers. Outside Brigade Metropolis, similar in many respects to Shantiniketan, you turn right at right angles from the main road and Kaveri Nagar is just half a kilometre down that road.

You can immediately see the difference here—apart from the carts of fruits and vegetables, there is a lot more dust.

Ratnamma lives in an asbestos-roofed house here. Her late husband moved here in 1998, transplanting the family (the youngest of her four children was one month old then; he is 18 now) from a village on the border with Andhra Pradesh.

Her husband built a house on a patch of land that was once forest, she says. He used to be a mason. She doesn’t know how much the land cost. She has rented out one portion of the house to some boys who work in the neighbourhood.

There is no electricity when I walk into Ratnamma’s home and the candle she lights does little to dispel the darkness in the windowless, ground-floor house.

In the living room of her yellow-and-green home, Ratnamma talks about the rules in Shantiniketan.

“Ishta idhre bani, kashta idhre hogi (you can come if you like these rules, you can go if you don’t)," is the attitude they have, Ratnamma says.

She doesn’t like walking in the basement—a dingy, dark place—because some of the drivers, who hang out there, are not nice men. Mishra, the association president, says later that he often often walks through the basement and doesn't feel there's any problem. His wife and children use the basement too, he says.

“They say that we also go through the basement, nobody bothers us. How come they only bother you? But are they the same as (us) coolie people? If somebody spoke to madam that way, would she leave them alone?" Ratnamma asks.

Then there is the rule about declaring all your money when you enter. But the woman whose photo Ratnamma saw and who was accused of stealing gold bangles was a live-in maid, Abraham reminds me.

“I don’t know how the society would stop activities like that because a live-in maid is a choice that the resident is making. It is completely within the walls of that apartment (over) which that society or security has no influence. I am sure the society can implement rules, probably, what they like to as long as it is permissible within the construct of the law of the land. But look at the human aspect,"Abraham says.

“If somebody checks me every day like that, you know, I am being treated like a potential thief. We need to strike a balance on what is the threshold. Anyone can steal, including residents. It may not come out."

So, how do you reconcile the residents’ need for security with the larger human rights’ issues?

“We definitely need support, help from outside. People will come here to work, they are not residents here. So, you can call it profiling, whatever, but that’s the truth," says Mishra of the residents association.

Mishra says Shantiniketan was a workplace for those who were employed there and that all workplaces have rules. In his office, Mishra has to put his bag through the scanner. Even if he dislikes the rules as an individual, he still has to obey them. In much the same way, Mishra says, he has made some rules because of past experiences.

He moved here in July 2012. The builder, Prestige Group, ran the facility from when the first residents moved there until the owners’ association took over in January 2015. The association has a 25-member management committee of which there are several subcommittees. There are never enough volunteers among residents to be in the management committee, he says. Ultimately, the few like him who do step forward have to handle everything.

It is one of the biggest housing complexes in Bengaluru. There are about 10,000 people living in the apartments. A number of them are even run as commercial enterprises, functioning as guest houses and paying-guest accommodations. There is a large “floating population". Security, ultimately, is a constant source of worry for Mishra.

Just conducting probes after an incident is not enough, Mishra adds. Instead, he wants to prevent incidents outright. “By bringing in small changes also, it can work as a deterrent. Sometimes, crime is prevented just by bringing in some processes in place."

And so the process goes on.

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Updated: 10 Dec 2016, 11:31 PM IST
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