Saturday, January 13, 2007

IT is life in rush hour

Once a pensioners’ paradise and the original pub city of the country, Bangalore has seen a lot of changes — good, bad and ugly — since it donned the silicon mantle in the early 1990s. Jangveer Singh on the changing face and undying spirit of the IT-driven city

Few cities have created the kind of buzz worldwide as Bangalore, now Bengaluru, has done. The charming garden city of yore is today a pulsating international hub of IT-driven commerce. Bangalore is a metophor of an India that has arrived on the global scene.

For young Indians it is the place to be. They flock to it in endless streams to fill constantly vacated positions in the new offices that have captured the cityscape. Bangalore is no longer an air-conditioned city. Nor is it a pensioners’ paradise.

Having said this, one has to admit Bangalore still remains the city with the most pleasant climate in the country. Bangalore turns into a Kasauli or a Shimla nearly every morning and evening and the sun never sizzles except for a few months. Pensioners may no longer find it possible to wade through the suicidal traffic but the city offers them intellectual stimulation and a cultural panorama which is hard to find anywhere else.

This city with a rich culture has attentive spectators for classical music performances and Kannadiga kavi sammelans. The young have their annual Bangalore ‘habba’, a cultural event which aims at blending the old with the new besides presenting the regular rock shows. Young artists find buyers and also spill out on the roads to sell their creations.

With youngsters ruling the roost and bringing in the moolah much to the joy of their parents, the picture would seem complete. But, it is not. Bangalore is a city still in transition. Its youngsters are stuck between western and Indian cultures, while the older generation wants to reassert the traditional way of life.

Even as Bangaloreans are trying to cope with the IT rush and the multicultural lifestyle, the administration has failed to create an infrastructure that caters to the needs of the city’s population, which has grown by nearly 50 per cent in the last eight years and is currently around 70 lakh. Even the issue of bringing the metro was debated for 10 years before the project could finally be taken up. The city’s planners are struggling to establish the much-needed flyovers even as ideas like stilt roads to end bumper-to-bumper traffic are still only being discussed.

The situation is so bad on the road leading to the country’s IT mecca — Electronic City — that recently women IT professionals carried out a signature campaign to put pressure on the government to ease traffic congestion on the Hosur Road. The campaign was initiated after a few women had miscarriages on the road while travelling to work. Incidentally, it takes about 90 minutes to cover 10 km on this road.

According to traffic experts the city’s roads are simply not designed for today’s traffic. They say only a public transport system can save the city from utter chaos. Moves are afoot to reduce the wait for buses through a system of trunk routes and feeder routes instead of the point-to-point service in operation now. The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation has cleared the proposal but the implementing authority has not acted on it.

Traffic and bad roads are not the only problem. The real estate boom has sounded the death knell of the numerous lakes of Bangalore which earlier not only served as sources of water supply but also as natural drainage channels. Today, while some of the lakes have been lost forever, others are dying off as they are surrounded by concrete and their drainage channels are cut off. This is adversely affecting the city’s climate, greenery and its rich avian population.

When one comes to housing, the lesser said the better. What started as an incentive to IT companies by letting them start enterprises in residential areas in their infancy stage has today led to overcrowding of nearly all residential areas in the city. The situation is such that four persons who had filed a PIL in the High Court against commercialisation of residential premises in Koramangla were gheraoed by residents of the area and forced to withdraw the case. Offices are established in garages and entire IT companies run in residences, creating traffic bottlenecks. Building bylaws are disregarded with impunity with highrises coming up in residential areas. Builders take over a few old houses, demolish them and build apartments. With politicians openly sympathetic towards violators, there is little any regulatory authority can do to set things right.

So herein props the question again. What is right in Bangalore? A lot, including the law and order situation and an educated populace. If the enigma of the city has to be unravelled, the famous Salpa adjust maadi (please adjust a little) attitude of the Kannadigas deserves mention. It is this attitude which has given birth to Bangalore as it is known today and attracted a pot-pourri of people and cultures to it, never mind the attending ills. As long as Bangaloreans continue to adjust, the city will continue to grow by the day.

Driving force

Many malls have come up in the city since it became an IT hub
CONSUMER CALLING: Many malls have come up in the city since it became an IT hub

IT is Bangalore and Bangalore is IT. Many feel Bangaloreans periodically drum up noise about the progress made by Hyderabad to leverage its masters to give more concessions. Prof S Sadagopan, an iconic IT teacher, admits he is often asked that how long IT would keep generating jobs. "I am convinced IT is no longer a ‘fad’ but has become the key to every other industry, be it telecom, banking, automotive, entertainment, hospitality, health, and industrial automation. And, naturally, not all these key industries go sick at the same time."

The sheer figures speak about Bangalore’s supremacy in IT. The state accounted for 37 per cent of the country’s IT exports of around Rs 1,008 billion in 2005-06. Karnataka retained its top slot by exporting software services and hardware goods to the tune of Rs 401 billion. As India’s silicon hub, Bangalore alone contributed Rs 366 billion to this pool. The city attracted 201 new IT companies during the last fiscal, including 124 foreign equity companies, with a combined investment of Rs 27 billion.

At present, about 1,200 tech firms, including about 500 multinationals, employ about 375,000 people, including 170,000 in the IT-enabled services such as call centres and business process outsourcing (BPO) services.

Boiled beans to burgers

Going by legend, the city was named Benda Kaal-ooru (town of boiled beans) when the 11th-century Hoysala king Veera Ballala II was served boiled beans by an old woman when he lost his way while hunting. This was eventually colloquialised to Bengaluru. The walled city was established by Kempe Gowda, founder of modern Bangalore.

With the advent of the British came the cantonment. The walled city had the natives, speaking Kannada, in localities called Chikkapete and Nagarthpete (pete means market. In the cantonment, on the other hand, came a large number of migrants from the Madras Presidency, speaking Tamil and also the administrative language of the time – English. Colonies like Cooke Town, Fraser Town and Benson Town came into existence then.

In the olden days when a ‘Pete’ person crossed over to the cantonment area, it meant experiencing the thrill of alcohol and meat, a forbidden cinema or an outing to a coffee club, says Janaki Nair’s book Bangalore’s 20th Century – The Promise of a Metropolis. In 1949, the city and the cantonment were merged under a Corporation, signalling an attempt to join the two — an attempt which is still on.

Following this, Bangalore became the hub of a number of public sector enterprises like HMT, Bharat Electrical Limited and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. All these enterprises fostered a relationship with the academia and even the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, which was set up to cater to the public sector enterprises, had a sectoral specialisation in agriculture, education, energy, habitat and human settlements, transportation and health.

These public sector firms hired people from diverse geographical backgrounds, thereby strengthening the cosmopolitan character of the city. Nair says having passed the smokestack stage of industrialisation, there was no proletarian culture in the city which equipped its residents to better handle the knowledge sector. This tradition of accepting outsiders and an inherent cosmopolitanism made it easier for multinationals and other knowledge-based industries to set up shop here.

Colourful fare: Cinema houses decked up with cut-outs of actors in Gandhinagar, the Kannadiga heartland of the city. Photos by the writer