Sunday, October 30, 2005

What’s irritating the city’s IT industry

What’s irritating the city’s IT industry
The Indian Express

WHEN Philips Software’s Bangalore-based, Dutch-born CEO, Bob Hoekstra, invited heads of other IT companies in the city for a conference at his office in central Bangalore earlier this year, a common request from his would-be guests was: ‘‘Can you schedule my talk in the morning or late evening?’’

Given Bangalore’s daily traffic congestion, Hoekstra’s guests did not want to spend an entire day commuting 10-20 km distances between the conference and their offices. They wanted to be accommodated while they travelled to work or back home from work.

Every working day in Bangalore, nearly 200,000 IT sector employees from the estimated 1,560 IT companies in the city spend a minimum of three hours commuting 10-20 km distances to and fro work. On a Sunday, travelling these distances would take a bare 30-45 minutes.

It’s no small wonder that the Bangalore IT industry — which recorded exports worth Rs 27,000 crore in financial year 2004-05 — has been crying itself hoarse about the city’s infrastructure, even as politics has threatened to obliterate the industry’s concerns.

‘‘Bangalore’s civic agencies work in isolation of each other,’’ he mutters, ‘‘there is no system in place and no coordination. There is no governance at all.’’

WITH no proper transportation system and a vehicle ownership ratio of 36,571 per lakh population — the highest for the country — the pressure on Bangalore’s largely small-town roads is only mounting by the day.

‘‘It is not for want of plans that Bangalore is suffering. It is because these plans have come too late, after the government has slept for so long. So everything has collapsed now,’’ says R.K. Misra, vice-president, Flextronics India. Misra is also a member of the industry-government empowered committee for Bangalore’s infrastructure.

‘‘In the sadak-pani-bijli equation, sadak is Bangalore’s biggest requirement,’’ says Misra, ‘‘the Cauvery IV stage water supply plan can handle Bangalore’s water needs for a long time. Also, most IT companies are not dependent on external power generation.’’

Misra points to another, more recent cause for alarm. ‘‘Following heavy rains and the flooding of Bangalore,’’ he explains, ‘‘the management of lake beds has become a major concern. The catchment areas of most of Bangalore’s lakes have knowingly or unknowingly been lost to real estate. These catchment areas were connected to each other as a lake system that controlled flooding, we need to find a way to revive the drainage system.’’

WHILE politics does not feature as a direct concern when it comes to Bangalore’s infrastructure, every IT company head in the city appears to agree that Karnataka’s culture of political oneupmanship is the biggest roadblock to the city’s development.

‘‘There is no vision for the city,’’ says Kalpana Kar, ‘‘and there is a lack of leadership both on the private and public fronts. We need plans that are not questioned and changed with every change of bureaucrat or politician.’’

Kar has first-hand experience of such whimsy. She was once chairperson of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force — an agency disbanded when Dharam Singh (Congress) took over as chief minister in 2004, backed by H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular). The previous S.M. Krishna-led Congress government had backed the IT industry heavily, the new regime saw it as less important, articulating a somewhat vague ‘‘pro-rural’’ agenda.

‘‘Our vision for every infrastructure improvement effort keeps changing before the halfway mark,’’ says Kar, ‘‘it’s directionless, the development in Bangalore’’.

She cites the city’s half-a-dozen flyovers to illustrate the blind manner in which Bangalore is being driven: ‘‘The flyovers were built around a plan for an Elevated Light Rail Transit System. Now that the ELRTS plans have been abandoned, the flyovers have themselves become redundant.’’ Yet the one-way rules and traffic snarls the flyovers entailed remain, and now threaten to become permanent scars.

‘‘BANGALORE’S challenge is that it has grown at 11 per cent per annum over the past decade, and infrastructure has obviously not kept pace,’’ says Infosys’ CFO, T. Mohandas Pai. ‘‘The biggest problem is traffic. Industry has suggested a set of shortterm and longterm initiatives, all accepted by the government. These have to be implemented vigorously with the active participation of civil society.’’

There is a sense of unfairness to Bangalore’s neglect. ‘‘The state government derives 70 per cent of its revenues from Bangalore,’’ says Pai, ‘‘it needs to plough back a bit more.’’

HP Globalsoft CEO and Nasscom chairman Som Mittal stresses multi-layered priorities: ‘‘Just because a new international airport is being built in the longterm does not mean the existing airport is neglected in the short term. The pressure on the existing airport is constantly increasing ... Similarly, while bigger road projects are on the way, there is need to improve existing roads, footpaths.’’

FOR politicians and other decision-makers alike, much of what is happening is Bangalore is a product of complacency. The IT/BPO boom was seen as too much of a good thing to end. The infrastructure mess, the bad traffic could be surmounted, it was felt. Despite these, American companies would still save enormously by shipping work to Bangalore.

This may be yesterday’s story. At the recent IT.in, Bangalore’s flagship industry event, chief ministers and government delegations landed up to woo Bangalore’s orphans, selling Kochi and Kolkata, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad/Gandhinagar.

They had learnt from Bangalore’s mistakes. They told their potential investors that they had better roads, better infrastructure and better endowed IT parks or dedicated locations ready.

Of course, a Gujarat or a Kerala may not have Bangalore’s formidable mix of technical talent, but when other factors of production begin to migrate, some day, so will the man behind the machine.

After all, this has happened elsewhere. For a century, Detroit was America’s workshop, the automobile capital of the world. Today many of its once buzzing plants are museums, the city is itself is derelict, a hollow urbanscape that is the very prototype of the rust belt.

Of course, America still makes lots of cars and trucks and buses — even if many of the companies are Japanese owned — but the new factories are located elsewhere, in the South, as far away as California, not in Detroit.

Between Deve Gowda and Dharam Singh, they can take Bangalore forward — or drive it to Detroit.

A city and its hung program

•Bangalore has 36,571 cars per lakh population, the highest such figure in the country. But its roads are still, essentially, where they were 20 years ago. Traffic is a nightmare.
•Whether an elevated mass-transit system, on which some work was done before the scheme was abandoned, or a metro, Bangalore is crying out for commuter connectivity.
•The real estate juggernaut has played havoc with nature,in effect blocked the city’s lakes and their catchment areas. This has negated a traditional drainage system and, this week, led to floods.
•Karnataka’s government gets 70 per cent of its revenue from Bangalore but seems to be niggardly in giving back. It is in danger of losing investment in IT to cities as far apart as Kochi and Kolkata, which promise better infrastructure.
•Decongesting the city with suburban townships would be a good idea, but highway projectssuch as the one to Mysore are stuck too.
‘‘There has been no decisive action on our basic demand: just better roads and traffic management. We cannot fix lunch meetings with clients anymore in the central parts of Bangalore,’’ complains Hoekstra as he watches rainwater being pumped out of an inundated ground floor at his software centre.

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