Bangalore’s reality lags behind image


Pedestrians and traffic move along Brigade Road in Bangalore, India. (Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)

Two decades ago, this bustling melting pot was an advertisement for a new, confident India. Bangalore’s young, unapologetically cosmopolitan, English-speaking workforce drove India’s economic rise and put the city on the global map, making it synonymous with the country’s information technology revolution.

But these days, Bangalore’s reputation is taking a beating.

“The sheen is off Brand Bangalore,” the Headlines Today television channel said this month in a report about the city.

The problem here, as in many other Indian cities, is a booming population whose needs far exceed the infrastructure and civic amenities.

Such troubles are likely to worsen. By 2030, more than 600 million Indians will live in cities, compared with 350 million today. But unlike China, which undertakes urban infrastructure improvements ahead of anticipated growth, Indian cities are always several steps behind.

Given the IT industry’s enormous contribution to India’s prosperity, many in Bangalore expected that their fate would be different. Even President Obama once urged American students to work harder to compete with those from Bangalore and Beijing.

But hopes that the government would address the gaps have gone unfulfilled over the past decade, and congested roads, illegal construction projects, acute water shortages, uncollected garbage and corruption plague the city.

The problems — as well as a recent crackdown on the city’s vibrant pub culture, unique in India — have dampened the spirit of the workforce and Bangalore’s aspirations to be a global super-city.

Some see next month’s election in the southern state of Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, as an opportunity to change things.

After helplessly witnessing a decade of political uncertainty, infighting and allegations of corruption, the city’s corporate elite and IT entrepreneurs — joined by prominent artists, athletes and others — have formed the Bangalore Political Action Committee. They hope to persuade the usually apathetic middle class to elect politicians dedicated to transparent, development-oriented government, rather than the graft and the caste politics that have long dominated.

“Bangalore needs to reclaim some of its mojo,” said Harish Bijoor, a corporate brand strategist and member of the new group, which has endorsed 14 candidates from different parties. “We are focusing on fixing the reality of Bangalore, not puffing up the hype about Bangalore.”

The reality, however, is grim.

Bangalore’s population grew from 5 million to more than 8 million in the past decade, and more than 5 million vehicles ply the city’s roads. The growth has prompted a poorly planned and largely unregulated construction frenzy.

Builders are routinely given permission to construct near lake beds and over waterways, or without a plan to lay out roads or supply water to new buildings. Outdated records make it difficult to take action against safety and land-use violations.

A government help line set up in 2009 received 794 complaints about illegal buildings in its first eight months of operation before it was shut down by the city, reported Citizen Matters, a watchdog e-magazine based in Bangalore. And in a city where many rely on groundwater, a government study last year found that about 88 percent of the groundwater sampled was contaminated with sewage water.

“In Bangalore, one can write a book on how many ways in which you can ruin a city,” said Subramaniam Vincent, editor of Citizen Matters.

A residents group succeeded this year in blocking construction of an underpass that it said would lead to traffic chaos. “Building a flyover or an underpass is like an ATM for the politicians, engineers, private companies and bureaucrats. What’s not to like about it?” asked Nitin Seshadri, a leader of a neighborhood residents group.

Disenchantment

The sloppy governance has been jarring for many in India’s Silicon Valley, which is widely seen as a corruption-free industry brimming with youthful energy, optimism and efficiency. Some companies have grown disenchanted with Bangalore and are making investments in other cities rather than expanding here.

“The IT crowd is more idealistic, because their personal journey to affluence has been in a corruption-free bubble,” Vincent said.

What really shook the city, where workers have the highest salaries in India, was a garbage crisis last year, when huge mounds of uncollected, rotting trash lay on the streets for days.

Officials say the problems are exaggerated.

“If the city was in such a bad shape, how come new information technology and biotechnology workers are flooding the city every day?” said R. Ashok, the deputy chief minister of Karnataka.

Others say the city was simply unprepared for its rapid growth, but many here reject that explanation.

“You can’t keep saying that the city was caught unaware,” said Ramesh Srivats, a Twitter satirist who designs social media apps for corporate brands. He said Bangalore is still the best Indian city to live in but added that “teething troubles don’t last” for two decades.

Crafting a vision

Bangalore’s image as India’s pub capital — a city with a breezy youth culture of all-night clubbing — also took a hit over the past five years, as the government ordered bars to close by 11:30 p.m. and nearly doubled the license fee to run pubs and dance floors. About 63 percent of Bangalore’s residents are younger than 25; the national average is 54 percent.

Ashok, a member of the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said pubs, hookah bars and dancing are “spoiling our culture.”

“We are doing international work, but the city must maintain its traditional Indian culture,” the the deputy chief minister said.

The election campaign is emerging as a key battle for the idea of Bangalore.

In the heart of the city, a Congress party candidate, Dinesh Gundu Rao, greeted voters in a middle-class neighborhood this month. His campaign workers burst firecrackers, beat drums and showered him with marigold petals. Women peeped from balconies and windows. “Remember to vote for me, sister,” Gundu Rao called out.

“Remember to get clean water for us,” replied a woman in a green sari. Another told him about the broken sewage pipes, and a third pointed to a foul-smelling garbage pile on the road.

One of the new breed of candidates is Ashwin Mahesh, a former NASA climatologist who is running on behalf of a young party that has fielded about two dozen candidates, including doctors, software engineers and entrepreneurs. Mahesh has taught at a business school; helped design a public bus system and public information software; and rescued lakes from ruin. As a candidate, he is promising transparency in government, better planning for infrastructure projects and more environmentally friendly growth.

“They are not going to vote for you just because you are a nice guy,” Mahesh said. “They need to believe you can do things for them. People are used to picking from rotten apples. This time, there is also an orange available.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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