Meltdown

Till a couple of decades ago Bangalore was a sleepy city -- running to the rhythm of old trading networks and retired people taking their evening constitutionals. All that changed when the city became the Silicon Valley of India. Invaded by technological giants and the ubiquitous techies, the urban culture changed -- became hip and happening. Unfortunately, the city's infrastructure did not change fast enough. Certainly it did not change fast enough for those who were being displaced by the information revolution. Bangalore city started devouring surrounding villages, stretching basic facilities like sanitation and water supply. Mobility became the focus of skewed infrastructure development. Money is now going into flyovers, new mass transit systems and road widening, without much thought about the appropriateness of these ventures. The proposed international airport, the subject of some controversy, threatens to take over a massive amount of land without adequate recompense for the displaced. The bigger problem is that as the city has grown, it has eaten up its natural drainage channels and the source of its water requirements. A wide network of lakes in Bangalore was important sources of water supply -- they are now either repositories for sewage or have been developed for real estate projects. The same goes for wetlands and open areas outside Bangalore. It should hardly cause surprise that Bangalore experienced major floods last year -- ironically they derailed transport sector projects, which will no doubt, over the years, further imperil the city. This paradigm of urban development is, however, not new. It holds true for all the major cities in the country. But Bangalore's special problem stems from a monopolistic situation. Skewed development has been made worse because it has been powered by the needs of one sector -- information technology (it) -- that consumes resources without significantly contributing directly to the local economy in terms of, say, employment and income generation. Because it is so preponderant, the political class has genuflected to it more than in situations in which the space for negotiation is greater because of the existence of competitive interests. This has created a situation in which representative institutions have been subverted and private players have insinuated themselves into the decision-making process. The widely-publicised spat between Infosys chief N R Narayana Murthy and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Deve Gowda is an indication of the tensions underlying the relationship between the it industry and the context in which it flourishes. Nidhi Jamwal takes a tour of a blocked circuit called Bangalore.

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Meltdown

-- Stunted stunt
Driven by IT, plagued by it
Bangalore's growth has been exponential, both in terms of population and its urban sprawl. The problem is that its urban infrastructure hasn't grown at anything like the same rate, and development priorities have been skewed by the city's excessive reliance on it. That means limited resources goes into developing facilities that favour the it sector, but does not address others' needs, especially the poor.

The city's population has already touched 6.5 million, with a daily floating population of 15 lakh, and the projections for the next decade don't create grounds for optimism (see map and table : How far can you go?). At present Bangalore spreads over 500 sq km. If current projections are correct, Bangalore will spread over 1,000 sq km by 2011 and cross 1,500 sq km area by 2025 to accommodate a 10 million-plus population.

Along with Bangalore, its 10 satellite towns -- Anekal, Channapatna, Devanhalli, Dodballapur, Hoskote, Kanakapura, Magadi, Nelmangala, Ramanagaram, and Vijayapura -- are also exploding. Between 1991 and 2001, their population growth rate has ranged from 15 per cent to 57 per cent.

Tech highway
Much of Bangalore's growth has been driven by the it revolution. The United Nations Development Programme has ranked Bangalore as the fourth best technological hub in the world. "The way the it industry has grown in Bangalore is phenomenal -- way beyond our expectations. In 1999, there were hardly 700 registered it companies in Bangalore. This grew to 1,624 in October 2005. During the same time, the number of people directly employed in this sector also increased from 20,000 to 300,000. Indirect employment is three times higher. Even today as many as eight new it companies are being registered every week in Bangalore," says an official of the department of information technology and biotechnology in Karnataka.

Bangalore today is home to some of the biggest international it sector players, including, perhaps most famously, Infosys Technology Ltd. Microsoft Corporation chairperson Bill Gates was recently in Bangalore to announce that he was setting up an establishment there. What has made this boom possible is that the state government pulled out the stops to ensure all manner of incentives to attract it companies and ensure unhindered growth. Among the incentives were: exemption from payment of tax on computer hardware and peripherals and other capital goods; grant of industrial status for lower electricity tariff; priority in sanctioning power connections; exemption from power cuts; and simplified procedures for seeking clearances from the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board for using captive diesel generator sets -- the list is endless.

The state government also put in place policies supporting the growth of the it sector. For instance, Karnataka was the first Indian state to announce an it policy in 1997. This was followed by the Mahiti-Millennium it policy in 2000 with an aim "to maintain the pre-eminent position of both Bangalore and Karnataka in the field of Information Technology", in the words of a government report. Apart from giving fiscal incentives, the then chief minister S M Krishna set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (batf) in 1999, headed by Infosys managing director Nandan Nilekani, to "involve private sector in planning for and providing infrastructure for citizens".

Road to oblivion?
There's a lot of money going into roads and also transport -- the Metro Rail and international airport are two of the most contentious. The point is that this could be happening at the expense of other needs -- water and sanitation for everyone, for instance. But it needs the airport and it needs smooth transport. That is driving infrastructure development.

The government is trying hard to placate the it bosses, but it isn't always easy. Last year's floods, for instance, played havoc with a plan to upgrade and widen 19 arterial roads. "As per the original schedule, by December 15, 2005, 10 roads had to be completed. But that could not be achieved because of unprecedented rainfall that flooded the city," says an official of department of information technology and biotechnology, Karnataka government.

There is some degree of poetic justice in that. Urban planners and local residents claim the floods were caused by faulty planning resulting from the pressure of having to appease it. "Bangalore is a city of tanks and lakes. But in an effort to appease it , tanks are being sold off to real estate agents. Wetlands are being acquired for it expansion purposes," says Janardhan who works with Oxfam India at Dodballapuram.

According to George K Kuruvila of GKK Urban Planners & Architectural Consultants, Bangalore: "Road-making agencies do not even follow basic principles of construction. Take the case of Cubban road on which for the entire length of 800 m there is no rainwater outlet. Similarly on the main M G Road there is only one outlet when there should be at least 50."

The pitfalls of Bangalore's planning are not limited to logistic issues. A more profound problem is that it -driven planning is disrupting older urban rhythms and displacing people. Solomon Benjamin, an expert on urban governance, in his paper, 'Governance, economic settings and poverty in Bangalore' published in the April 2000 issue of Environment and Urbanization, looked at the impact of the K R Market flyover on the local economy and its poor. The K R market area used to house several wholesale trades located on particular streets: rice, grain, vegetables, fruit, flowers, paper, metal, wood, bamboo and various types of mechanical and electrical parts. Each had their associations and a range of dedicated services that ensured employment opportunities. "A critically important aspect of this dense economic activity was the access to financiers and chits or local group saving systems. Almost all poor groups had easy access to these with their trade and ethnic connections, despite the high interest rates. This allowed them to buy stocks, borrow and invest -- critical functions in a local economy. The poorest of the poor could generally find a niche to survive, make connections and progress in life... Much of this changed only a couple of years ago with the construction of the New Market and the elevated highway. Many of the specialized trades have been moved out in an attempt to 'de-congest' the city and increase traffic speeds...," Benjamin notes.

In the shadows
The non- it rhythms are going. At the same time, the problem, as some urban planners point out, is that not much is being spared by way of thought for the vast majority of people who are not in it. "In the entire planning process, there is neither any space for local people nor ward committees and panchayats. The sidelining of elected members was happening for quite sometime in Bangalore but it got epitomised when S M Krishna constituted batf, which tilted the balance away from constitutional ways of governance to co

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