Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bangalore glitter - and glitches

Bangalore glitter - and glitches
By Saritha Rai
The International Herald Tribune

BANGALORE, India When Vijayendra Rao, 24, wanted to relocate from New York to India, the lure of Bangalore was irresistible. Job opportunities were plentiful there for Rao, who was educated in the United States, and he had heard that about half the city was under the age of 25. It all sounded "cool and interesting," and Rao could not wait to get started in his job as a service manager with the consulting firm Accenture.

Since his arrival seven months ago, Bangalore has been all that Rao had expected, but for one infuriating detail. On weekends, he and his friends enjoy hanging out at their favorite pub, Pecos, off the crowded Brigade Road. But every night, on police orders that require bars and restaurants to close by 11:30 p.m., the pub's patrons are bundled out of the door.

"For a city that prides itself about working 24/7 for the world, it is ludicrous that all the fun places shut before midnight," Rao said.

Bangalore abounds in frustrating contrasts. Microsoft and Yahoo logos adorn the roofs of burnished office towers, while overloaded buses, cars and motorcycles belch fumes at crowded traffic lights below, their drivers honking incessantly. Garbage is piled high on the street corners of neighborhoods where real estate prices have increased threefold in as many years.

Newspaper advertisements for high-paying jobs and expensive real estate share space with reports of rising crime, divorce, suicide rates and recently, a terrorist attack.

Still, the combination of outsourced jobs and a hip lifestyle has made the city a magnet for multinational companies, technology start-ups and young professionals. As a microcosm of the globalized and wired world, Bangalore is often said to offer a model for replication in the rest of India.

"The city is now synonymous with a new India, single-handedly helping the country get on the larger global stage," said Rangu Salgame, managing director in South Asia for Cisco Systems.

In the mid-1990s, as liberalization jolted the Indian economy to life, academic and research institutions in Bangalore gave the city a head start in the high-tech job boom. More recently, Bangalore has drawn hundreds of experienced professionals, from developed countries and of Indian origin, like Rao. At the same time, nearly 40,000 engineers graduate each year from colleges in the region, adding to the pool of talent.

Despite double-digit pay raises recently, qualified professionals still cost about a quarter of what their peers earn in the Bay Area of California, a differential that continues to be a big draw for outsourced work from Western companies.

Additionally, Bangalore has amassed unique competencies in dozens of fields like mobile software.

"If you want to start up a mobile telephony company to generate intellectual property, then this is the only place where people can instantly deliver," said Bob Hoekstra, head of the software division at Philips Electronics India.

Salgame, too, recognizes that the city is special. "We network, socialize and poach each other's employees," the Cisco executive said. "It is tough to recreate this ecosystem."

Perhaps more than catalyzing change in India, Bangalore itself is developing and integrating into the global work force in myriad, not-so-subtle ways. Workers in its innumerable call centers are trained to speak in "neutral, global accents." Start-ups, funded with overseas venture capital and carrying out sophisticated research and development, are adopting westernized work habits, allowing their employees fewer holidays and forbidding personal phone calls at work.

Among the attractions of Bangalore are suburban housing communities advertised as "Californian living," some with "Balinese aesthetics" or "Venetian architecture," where a home may cost as much as $1 million - an unimaginable sum in most of the country.

The five-star Bangalore hotels offer Sunday brunches complete with lobsters, caviar and unlimited champagne. Its spa chains offer botox treatments as well as Thai massages.

But the growth spurt has exacerbated many problems, including poor infrastructure and inadequate government leadership. People like Salgame, who say they see the city as a catalyst for modern India, often seem to overlook the shortcomings. But the frustrations of everyday life can get to even longtime residents.

Driving a couple of kilometers may take 10 minutes or an hour, depending on traffic in the narrow, congested streets. For years, a half-completed overpass on the road between the airport and the city has symbolized the lackadaisical state government approach to upgrading an outgrown civic infrastructure.

While construction on the first privately built highway project in India has begun between Bangalore and the city of Mysore, a long-awaited elevated expressway to connect central Bangalore with a technology hub in the suburbs remains unstarted.

Alongside the inertia of the city administration is a certain indifference to practical interests.

While the city thrives on work won from the United States - to the extent that "Bangalored" is being used by some Americans as an expression for losing one's job to an offshore contractor - politicians are debating a name change from Bangalore to the local language form, "Bengaluru," a move many criticize as reeking of chauvinism.

Still, for all the downside, professionals who live in the city find it hard to move anywhere else.

"People are noticing that the infrastructure is terrible and yet, the momentum in Bangalore is so high that their perception is that it is a hot place to live and work in," said Dinesh Mirchandani, the president in Mumbai of Boyden Global Executive Search, a management recruitment agency with headquarters in New York.

Some other Indian cities are trying to emulate Bangalore, hoping that the traditional Indian strengths in math and science can provide a sufficient base to build similar clusters of development. But while Western-style housing, international schools, glitzy malls and fashionable restaurants have been duplicated in cities like Madras, Hyderabad and Pune, Bangalore has so far proved impossible to clone.

"Bangalore represents the challenges of growth within a democracy; it is an example of how democracy can hurt," Salgame said. Yet, he said, Bangalore also illustrates how a city can become so strategic to businesses, "so compelling that its negatives could be ignored."


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