Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Silicon Meltdown

Even though many of Bangalore’s citizens are receiving worldwide recognition, all is not well with the city

The Telegraph

The news of Azim Premji receiving the Padma Bhushan in the 2005 Republic Day honours list was extremely pleasing because his is such a well-deserved national recognition. Along with Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and a few others, he represents the worldwide recognition of Bangalore as India’s coming of age in the era of knowledge revolution. Yet, as is now being widely acknowledged, all is not well with India’s silicon city.

I travelled from Mumbai to Bangalore recently by an evening flight. The flight was, as usual, full, including several Americans and Europeans on their way to follow up or negotiate business deals in Bangalore. On arrival, passengers were ferried to the domestic terminal. On entering the arrival lounge, the passengers suddenly found themselves engulfed in a thick smog of white fume. Fearing outbreak of a fire or worse, many passengers ran out of the arrival lounge only to be reassured that what they were witnessing was the daily practice of fumigating the terminal to get rid of the mosquitoes. The passengers, with their noses and mouths covered, had to grope for their luggage on the carousel, many of them coughing away. Welcome to the Silicon city!

The breakdown of the city’s infrastructure has been in evidence, especially since last year. Bangalore has more potholed and unfinished roads, with earth and debris strewn haphazardly, than ever before and especially since the repair and reconditioning work has ground to a halt. The public-private partnership led by the previous administration and leading citizens such as Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Nandan Nilekani, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and others, has become more or less dysfunctional. This has forced many of them to plead with Delhi to intervene with the present administration, to restore the well-being of the knowledge industries and future of Bangalore. A story, probably apocryphal, doing the rounds, is that since Bangalore has less than 40 per cent of its population made up of Kannadigas, the administration’s priority has shifted to other parts of the state. The Kannadiga movement probably has more ground-level support than may be obvious. The recent agitation to stop screening newly released Bollywood films in favour of Kannada films was, thankfully, short-lived.

The boom in the IT and biotechnology industries in Bangalore has created more jobs for locals as well as for people from outside the state, compared to any other city in India. The neon-flooded streets, the bustling shopping malls and the crowded local pubs and restaurants, are signs of wealth-creation at an unprecedented rate. Bangalore’s traffic gridlocks now put the traffic problems of Mumbai in pale shadow. Whether this is because of the growing number of cars on the streets of Bangalore or the streets themselves disappearing due to disrepair, is hard to tell. Bangalore probably has the highest number of unfinished flyovers and bypasses of any city in India.

Travelling from one point to another has become such an excruciating experience that Infosys is being forced to set up a 500-room hotel on its campus for its visitors and customers from abroad for fear of losing them, as a result of their experience of travelling across the city roads. Wipro has a world-class centre in the Bangalore suburb of Sarjapur. The site was chosen on the assurance of a motorable road to connect the centre with the outer ring road. This was a few years ago. The road remains on the drawing board, while visitors and employees navigate through potholes and debris, everyday. This is quite in contrast to Wipro’s sparkling new establishment in Calcutta and the new four-lane airport road leading to it.

Who would have believed in this state of affairs, even a couple of years ago? The story of the new Bangalore airport is another saga by itself. After several years and many false starts, work is about to begin on the new airport. When it is completed and commissioned, if the rest of the infrastructure does not improve dramatically, one may expect even more chaos on Bangalore roads, if that is imaginable! At the urging of Delhi, there are renewed attempts to revive the pubic-private initiative to halt the degradation of Bangalore. The private-sector leaders are sceptical of the administration’s seriousness regarding the task at hand.

Beautiful minds and serial entrepreneurs have transformed Bangalore into the Silicon City of India. The state has played an important role in enabling these pioneers to generate unprecedented employment and wealth. This great and successful Indian experiment is now in danger of being derailed. This is not only bad news for Bangalore, but also not a good story for a globalizing India. Given the track record and leadership of the private-sector pioneers, they will eventually be able to bring back Bangalore from the brink.


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