Sunday, October 30, 2005

Systems Failure?

A former Prime Minister takes on Bangalore’s foremost icon, even as the city crumbles. Is this the beginning of terminal decline for India’s Silicon Capital? Or can it find a killer app for the infrastructure bug?

The Times of India

It was a ‘bad weather' fortnight for Bangalore. It began with a lot of heat being generated over former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda’s remarks that Infosys chairman and Bangalore airport project chief N R Narayana Murthy had contributed little to the mega project. Murthy quit the project in protest, but Gowda went ahead and charged Infosys with landgrabbing and political interference. Then the city was lashed by heavy rain. Roads and colonies were inundated, lakes overflowed and our Silicon Valley's infrastructure collapsed, raising the question: As other major metros go all out to woo IT and FDI, why is the IT hub in a seeming state of collapse? Is the great Bangalore dream over?

Not if you believe the growth statistics. Texas Instruments made its bow in 1984. That grew to 13 companies and software exports worth Rs 5.6 crore in 1991 and 1,457 firms and Rs 18,100 crore in 2004. On a roll, still.

So what's the fuss about? Bangalore is creaking under the weight of its boom: the city's population has doubled in the last 18 years, the number of vehicles has spiralled, as has the cost of living, and the infrastructure simply hasn’t kept pace.


Traffic is a major bellyache. As Fortune magazine notes in its recent issue, “In Bangalore, executives visiting the immaculate campuses of software firms like Infosys and Wipro marvel that while their data can travel to- the other side of the earth at the speed of thought, they must crawl along in bumper-to-bumper traffic for more than an hour to get back to their hotels.”

Techie Manish Chok says when he came to Bangalore five years ago, it was a dream city but now the one-and-ahalf-hour commuting time to his workplace irritates him. And George Kuruvilla, urban planner, believes Bangalore still lives on past glory. “There will be first a decline and then demise, unless things turn around. You need proper traffic planning.”

It has indeed been a swift journey that Bangalore has made in just over a hundred years — from a small garrison town, which bored the young Winston Churchill enough to make him read books by the dozens and collect butterflies — to a city where Mamas serve breakfast to children in traffic jams on the way to school. The Rama Rajya, as Gandhi described Bangalore's advanced environs in the 1930s, is unable to cope with the Information Age. For a city with about 100 years of technical expertise, lodged in the state that was the first to get electric power in Asia, enterprise doesn't come at a premium. Unlike many other world cities, Bangalore grew not on the strength of traditional wealth, but its professional repertoire.

The key is in a business plan for the city. A killer application for the infrastructure bug. As James Heitzman, author of Network City: Planning the Information Society in Bangalore, puts it: “There is no upper limit on the population of the city in the 21st century, and we may reasonably expect the number of people living in Bangalore to double within the lifetimes of our children. This challenge may seem daunting to some long-time residents, who remember the good old days when traffic was less and face-to-face interactions were standard. In fact, for a nation the size of India, a population of 12-15 million in the largest metropolis in the southern Deccan would seem appropriate. So far, Bangalore has demonstrated the ability to attract and support large populations, even if the opportunities of many citizens remain limited. By the standards of the South Asian city, this is success.”

Dipti Nambiar, an IT professional who recently moved to Bangalore from Pune, gives Bangalore 7 points on a scale of 1 to 10. “I come from Pune, which is smaller and more manageable... But Bangalore is not all that bad as it sounds.” True, it isn't easy to do business in a city where the domestic airport is not of international class, as Kean Walmsley, senior manager, DevTech, Autodesk, points out. “It doesn't look good when CEOs and decision makers come here... I’m sure some companies are considering other places. It's difficult to buy a house and difficult to travel around the city....”

Yet the argument that major firms are packing up only because of Bangalore’s poor civic infrastructure, can only be half true. IT, after all, is business: if a particular design doesn't work, the manufacturing unit is shut down; if a product doesn’t do well in one sphere, other avenues are explored. And costs, benefits and concessions matter as much.

At the same time, there seems to be little response to frequent complaints by the IT industry about how the city’s infrastructural flaws create bottlenecks for it. That’s ironic because in many ways, the industry’s own rapid growth led to the boom that now has Bangalore bursting at the seams.
Infotech in Bangalore has transformed from an independent and selfsufficient enterprise to a giant industry that needs an efficient, well-run city. An industry that also needs a congenial environment for its practitioners to express themselves culturally.


But the political leadership — both local and national — has failed to come up with a compelling vision for Bangalore, or stay ahead of the curve.
Ramesh Ramanathan, campaign coordinator of Janaagraha, a people's movement for participatory budgeting in Bangalore, points out that knee-jerk and band-aid reactions won’t do. “Saying that we should build a flyover is solving yesterday's problem. It’s not planning for the future. We should get into a proactive, not reactive mode. Else Bangalore will go the Mumbai way in the next five years.”

From the administration’s point of view, the rubber has met the road — not only in catering to the IT sector but to Bangalore's seven million-odd citizens. The political class has rained on the parade with its blow-hot blowcold approach.

The fact is, IT will make inroads wherever its convenient. If Hyderabad, Chennai, Gurgaon and Pune are in line, it is a reflection of a global paradigm — anywhere is home.

But in terms of sheer volume of software exports, Bangalore still remain king. And Brand IT Bangalore will be a trademark hard to erase. Just as Bollywood is to Mumbai.


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