India’s tech capital Bengaluru is falling apart — well, almost. In the second part of this article, Firstpost traces the origins of IT boom in Bengaluru and offers solutions to the infrastructural bottlenecks that plague the city.
A Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka once confided in this writer that IT industries flocked to Bengaluru not because of the state government but in spite of it. It was a remark made only half in jest, and he meant it. So who gets the credit for Bengaluru metamorphosing into India’s Silicon Valley?
If you must thank one individual for it, thank Swami Vivekananda. You can also thank Jamshedji Tata, Mysore Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar-IV and Jawaharlal Nehru.
It was a little talk that Vivekananda had with Tata aboard a ship on the way to the US in July 1893 that inspired the latter to think of setting up a science research institute in India. Though the British spiked the idea, Tata persisted. It was only five years after Tata’s death in 1904 that the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) — it’s still known as the Tata Institute locally — came up on land donated by the Wadiyar in Bangalore.
The availability of qualified scientists from IISc was one of the key reasons why, after Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru picked the city to set up sensitive industries like Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) in 1954, National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in1959 and Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in 1962.
The city at the altitude of 3,000 feet and with a salubrious climate ensured a dust-free environment essential for electronics. Besides, the Garden City was far from the troubled borders with Pakistan and China. But it was the manpower that counted most. And Nehru famously called Bengaluru the “City of the Future” and said it would one day become India’s “Intellectual Capital”.
Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) too set up their key units in the Garden City.
There was enough electricity for the industry. After Calcutta in 1898, Bengaluru was the second major Indian city to get power in 1902 from Asia’s first hydro-electric project that the Mysore Maharaja had set up. These public sector giants and the hundreds of ancillary units that they spun off in private sector needed more and more engineers. So, more and more private engineering colleges sprouted and, though a majority of them were no more than teaching shops that milk money from students, many of their graduates came in handy for the burgeoning industry. And finding the availability of talent, more companies arrived. Looking for jobs, migrants came. The talent pool continued to grow, so did the industry.
In 1978, RK Baliga, the chairman of Karnataka State Electronics Development Corporation (KEONICS), acquired 332 acres of land outside Bengaluru and founded the Electronic City on the outskirts. The buzzword was still electronics.
And it didn’t take too long for electronics to turn into information technology.
Besides everything, what made it all possible was the city’s cosmopolitan nature. According to the 2001 census, only 41.5 percent of the city’s people were Kannadigas. The rest spoke Tamil (18.4 percent), Telugu (15.5 percent), Urdu (12.9 percent), Hindi (3.4 percent), Malayalam (2.9 percent) and other languages. These proportions must have changed since then, but there is no denying the fact that no other Indian city has allowed as many outsiders as Bengaluru has. The attacks on Tamilans were too sporadic and too few to brand the local population as intolerant.
Today, Bengaluru is not just India’s IT capital. It’s also the Biotechnology Capital, Aeronautics Capital and the Space Capital. Despite infrastructural flaws, it’s already the Startup Capital of India.
And the bottlenecks notwithstanding, Bengaluru is unstoppable. It will continue to grow. No company has seriously complained of a fall in profits on account of bad roads. In fact, companies have been finding their own solutions. Many virtually run their own transport services. Many have their own captive generation of power. Some bring in their foreign guests on early mornings to avoid traffic chaos. But it’s the government that must find solutions.
Over five decades of efforts, men with vision made Bengaluru a tech capital. In two decades, men without vision created the civic mess.
But the city’s ailment is not irreversible.
Even Hiroshima returned to normal life. Bengaluru hasn’t been torn apart by an atomic bomb dropped by a B-29 bomber. It’s just that petty and greedy politicians have scourged the place. Its problems can be fixed.
Sometime in 1995, this writer accompanied former Chief Justice of India ES Venkataramiah and a bunch of ministers and bureaucrats to a remote place in Karnataka’s Bellary district.
"This is where the state can have its Second Capital to de-congest Bangalore,” he told me. His logic was simple enough:
- Bengaluru lies in Karnataka’s south-eastern corner, a bit far for people in the northern districts to visit the capital.
- The place he picked was almost at Karnataka’s geographical centre where 200 acres of government land was available.
- Bengaluru badly needed to be decongested.
- There was no need for many departments like Mines and Fisheries to be located in Bengaluru.
Two successive Janata Dal Chief Ministers — Deve Gowda and JH Patel — made sympathetic noises about it at the time but did nothing about it. In the past, satellite towns were planned and developed around Bengaluru to declog the city. Some materialised but a few of them soon became part of the city, defeating the purpose of their creation. Some remained on paper.
And for the past ten years, five chief ministers (one of Janata Dal-Secular, three of BJP and the current one of the Congress) have been talking about an ambitious 10,000-acre, Rs 20,000-crore Knowledge Park near Bidadi, 35-km away from the capital, where two lakh people can work and live with families with guaranteed water and electricity.
If someone were to say the Knowledge Park is moving at snail’s pace, snails would be offended. The project stands where it was ten years ago.
So does another ambitious venture, a six-lane Satellite Town Ring Road (STRR) to link six satellite towns to Bengaluru. And yet another project to build a multi-laned 111-km expressway — Bengaluru Mysore Infrastructure Corridor — to connect the two cities has been stalled by litigation and corruption for twenty years now.
Widen roads and build flyovers
Chaotic traffic is the most visible sign of the city’s mess. Nearly ten years ago, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) identified hundreds of roads to widen. Needless to say nothing has happened. If lack of funds is the reason, there is no visible effort by either the Palike or the state government to raise money. On the other hand, Telangana is talking of 20 multi-level flyovers, on which work will begin soon.
All the projects languishing in Bengaluru, if executed, can make a huge difference to reduce the infrastructure pressure on the city. That only mans that there are solutions available to mitigate the misery, but there has been no leader with enough political will to translate plans into realities.
That’s not surprising if you have politicians, barely capable of heading village panchayats, heading governments and key ministries.
Karnataka needs a leader like:
- a Chandrababu Naidu (who dreams big, promises a lot and delivers at least some of it) or;
- a KT Rama Rao, (the son of Telangana Chief Minister and the state’s IT minister, who is bubbling with enthusiasm and wants Hyderabad to replace Bengaluru as India’s IT capital) or;
- a Jayalalithaa (who, despite her famous flaws including alleged megalomania, encouragement of personality cult and corruption, spends a good deal of time on governance) or;
- a Naveen Patnaik (who generally talks little and has been quietly minding his work as Odisha Chief Minister for 16 years).
I am not a fan of any of these politicians, nor am I a supporter of their parties. But they do more work for their respective states than any of recent Chief Ministers of Karnataka — or the one elsewhere, who uses twitter to constantly spout venom and accuses the Prime Minister of trying to kill him.
Karnataka’s young minister Priyank Kharge shows enthusiasm. But he is too new, and it’s infrastructure that is crying for answers, not IT, BT and tourism which are his portfolios.
Karnataka has produced dynamic tech leaders. It now needs a political one, who can make Bengaluru a liveable city once again. Yes, it can be made liveable again. It just needs plenty of work.
The author tweets @sprasadindia