Governance: Snags And The City
Bangalore is more infamous for its traffic snarls than it is popular for its spectacular IT revolution. Growing population and poor infrastructure are choking it
Many decades ago, much before the city of ‘Bangalore’ in south India became a resented verb in dictionary and was rechristened Bengaluru, it enjoyed many enviable sobriquets. The capital of Karnataka earned the title of ‘Garden City of India’ during the rule of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, under whose regime several projects such as the construction of parks, public buildings and hospitals were taken up to improve the city. The lush gardens and placid lakes still exist, making it an ideal place to settle down, which is why it’s also called the Pensioners’ Paradise. Another popular name is ‘ Science City’ as Bangalore is home to several reputed institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISC, founded in 1911), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO, founded in 1972), Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL, founded in 1964), and Hindustan Aeronautics (founded in 1940).
Therefore, in the early 90s, when Bangalore gained the reputation of being the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ due to the large concentration of companies specialising in research and development and electronics and software production, and the sudden boom in the information technology (IT) industry, it was hardly a surprise.
Statistics prove that Bengaluru leads the IT industry from the front as it roughly contributes 37 per cent of India’s total IT exports, houses 20,000 IT companies including 28 per cent of the 4,200 startups, and employs 1.4 million people in the IT and ITeS (IT enabled services) sectors — the highest in India. Bengaluru has been chosen by over 350 of the Fortune 500 companies as their research and development base as well as for offshore development operations. The city, today, is home to over 40 per cent of the 1,000-plus global in-house centres, comprising captive technology and business support services.
There is no doubt about the readily available talent pool and the culture of innovation that exists in Bengaluru. The key reason why startups and digital companies across India are migrating to this city. Taxi aggregator Ola Cabs and classifieds portal Quikr are classic examples of companies that have shifted headquarters to Bengaluru. Both companies had begun operations in Mumbai, but eventually relocated to the southern city in their quest to stay close to where the action is. There’s also chatter in the market about Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma contemplating moving base from Gurgaon to Bengaluru.
The Changing Picture
There is a dark side to the neon-lit Silicon Valley of India. Concrete buildings have now replaced the green trees, the lakes have dried and the traffic is torturous, making it the slowest city in India. Plus, the mercury is rising, and Bangalore has become Bengaluru, which sounds more local than global. Despite a few flyovers and elevated expressways in the periphery such as the one connecting the airport, the city is still nothing short of a nightmare. Bengaluru’s metro, which was planned in 2002-03 and started in 2006, is far from completion which makes it a 10-year wait and watch period — too long by any standards.
So, who is to be blamed for Bengaluru’s traffic woes? “For the most part, cars! Cars are inefficient users of road space. A car passenger occupies 30 times more space than a bus passenger. And buses, that serve four times as many trips as cars, are also stuck for no fault of theirs,” says Shreya Gadepalli, South Asia regional director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. What can the city do about it? “Bengaluru needs a diet! You can’t cure obesity with bigger pants,” adds Gadepalli. “Parking is like a magnet. It attracts cars. If we reduce parking supply and charge demand-sensitive prices, there will be fewer cars on the road.”
But restricting usage of cars is not enough. There must be effective alternatives. Gadepalli points out that the city has woefully inadequate public transport and that Bengaluru must have 250-300 km of mass rapid transit (MRT). And what is the quickest and cheapest way to achieve this? “Bus rapid transit (BRT) is the way out. It’s an MRT option that combines the quality of metro service with the flexibility of a bus. Commuters get not only high-quality rapid service but also easy access and direct connections at a low fare. Infrastructure costs less than a tenth of a metro and can be built in under half the time,” she says.
Besides the traffic condition, frequent strikes and protests further contribute to tarnishing the global image of Bengaluru. In March this year, hundreds of agitated farmers from different parts of drought-hit Karnataka stormed into Bengaluru protesting on the streets and demanding solutions for umpteen issues the farming community is facing. Most recently in April, thousands of garment workers and labourers from various garment units in the state went on a bizzare strike in protest against the Centre’s decision to amend rules governing withdrawal of Employee Provident Fund contributions. Result — hundreds of children were stuck in their school buses for hours, fliers heading to the airport missed their flights, ambulances were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and professionals were unable to reach their workplaces. Incidents such as these certainly mar the reputation of a city.
“The city needs to have a crisis-management plan that is ready, rehearsed and completely ready to roll. If there is an agitation on one route to the airport, it should be able to route the traffic onto another equally seamless pathway. We need a crisis management plan for the city to tackle both man-made and acts-of-God kind of disasters,” says Harish Bijoor, brand expert and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults.
The government is entirely responsible for Bengaluru’s poor infrastructure, says T.V. Mohandas Pai, former Infosys board member and currently chairman of Manipal Global Education Services and Aarin Capital. “The reason for the sorry state of Bengaluru is the insensitive state and central governments who don’t provide enough support to the city,” he says.
However, IT companies, which are largely responsible for the increase in the city’s population, seem to be doing their bit to address their own problems. For instance, Infosys has launched an app named RoadWise in its Bangalore Development Centre exclusively for car-pooling.
“The cycling club within the organisation encourages employees to cycle to work, while regular workshops are held to advice people on the health benefits of the same,” says Richard Lobo, senior vice-president and Head HR, Infosys.
The IT giant also focuses on the mantra of “come early and leave early” so that its buses can avoid the peak hour traffic. The buses use alternative routes so the main junctions are not congested. “In parallel, we work with the local authorities to collaborate and look for feasible solutions,” says Lobo.
In addition, startups like MoveInSync, which provides software-based automated transport solutions to corporates, help the working population breathe a sigh of relief. MoveInSync’s route optimisation software ascertains the right routing between an employee’s office and home. The app also enables seamless tracking of the cab while the passenger waits for pick up at home. The company claims to have been instrumental in reducing enterprise traffic density by as much as 20 per cent.
Amid all the gloom and doom, the silver lining is the fact that Bengaluru continues to be regarded as India’s Silicon Valley despite its poor infrastructure. As S. Sadagopan, director-IIIT Bangalore puts it, “The spirit of Bangalore is what made it a Silicon Valley.” He feels that it’s not the hard infrastructure, but the soft infrastructure like institutions (universities, R&D Labs, innovative firms), a cosmopolitan culture, friendly people and a tradition of warmth that makes Bangalore what it is. And that, “it continues to be so.”
It may be fair to say that Bengaluru’s spirit and culture continue to make it tick. One cannot blame the increase in population for the city’s problems because it attracts the people it needs. It is the duty of the government, the corporates and all stakeholders to create an ecosystem that is conducive to making the growth sustainable. Else, it’s just a matter of time before the negatives become overpowering and the whole system collapses.
î[email protected], @ayushmanb