Two years I penned an intra-organisational note about the need to step up coverage on Bangalore. I argued the nation’s IT capital represented an interesting and exciting new agglomeration of people, views and thus news. And this deserved tapping into. For not just what it was but how it could lead by example, in a manner of speaking
What was interesting about this new agglomeration ? For one, it is a high concentration of knowledge workers. From across the country. It also represented a fair smattering of expatriate hands and diaspora. Many of the latter have returned to India out of choice. Together, they constitute a modern, contemporary world-view that has not, perhaps, been commonly heard.
Finally, there are the fighters. From ordinary citizens to CEOs of companies, they are unafraid of expressing their views. And band together at the slightest provocation. And despite everything the system does to bend their will, they somehow triumph. Or so subsequent events always show. Collectively, they represent the Bangalore State of Mind.
Last June, I was driving towards Bangalore airport in the morning. And hit a long traffic jam. The problem, as always, was a build-up at the Indira Nagar intersection. There should have been a flyover here several years ago, but wasn’t. An attempt to build one ran into pointless litigation between the government and the contractor.
After crawling for maybe 20 minutes, one found an additional cause for the slowdown – 250 children of the New Horizon English School with colourful banners protesting the stoppage of construction. They were brought together by the Public Affairs Centre, headed by former IIM Ahmedabad director Samuel Paul.
Floods wreaked damage in parts of Bangalore in August last year. The picture was eerily similar to Mumbai’s deluge a month earlier. Down to the causes, like choked drainage systems. And the residents of affected Bannerghatta responded, by bringing traffic to a halt. Mind you, this was middle class Bangalore, not displaced slum dwellers.
CEOs Who Fight
The Bangalore CEO fraternity is equally militant. Karnataka’s annual IT jamboree, BangaloreIT.com, has been greeted with howls of protest for three consecutive years now. Philips Software CEO Bob Hoekstra (an expatriate) usually leads the protesting brigade, demanding that the state provide better infrastructure for existing players before laying out the red carpet to new ones.
Infosys MD & CEO Nandan Nilekani made his displeasure known when he compared the inaction on the (same) Indira Nagar flyover with the lightning infrastructure progress in China. Infosys chief mentor N R Narayana Murthy fought a messy battle over the Bangalore airport, with Deve Gowda again. And CFO Mohandas Pai is known to march into offices of public servants and demand accoutability. More recently, Jerry Rao attacked the tax hole caused by the Special Economic Zones. Nilekani and Rao vented their ire in columns in national dailies. So no chance of being misquoted.
Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE) CEO Ashok Kheny has fought pitched battles with the state government. He even threatened to take a senior politician and a former prime minister (HD Deve Gowda) to court, for defamation. His Bangalore-Mysore expressway project has meandered through the most amazing roadblocks. Ironically, Gowda, as chief minister in 1995, cleared the project. Kheny lived in the US for 23 years before but hails from Karnataka.
A Playback Singer Protests
Contrast all this with the Peddar Road flyover mess in Mumbai. The focus seems to be playback singer Lata Mangeshkar's threats to leave the area if a flyover was built through this south Mumbai arterial. Local residents' associations are fighting the proposal. Only because the flyover might sail over their balconies. The singer first opposed the project in 2001, threatening to relocate to Dubai. Five years have passed since and the might of Mumbai with all its influence and money did not move to find a solution.
Not one individual of some influence, particularly in business, has said a word. Either for or against. Like the problem went away the moment the noise died down. The same businessmen have created billions of dollars of assets elsewhere. So, this is the Mumbai state of mind. Tackle the problem by working the corridors of power if you can. Or keep shut.
Bangalore’s problems are no less than other cities. With matching official apathy. And yet the people there clearly have a fighting streak. From Azim Premji and Jerry Rao (both have homes in Mumbai) to the school children at Indira Nagar. There is clamour for execution, as opposed to announcements and intentions. And, despite the scepticism, there is also a desire to tackle problems of governance. Even realtors in Bangalore talk about public-private partnerships. And have actually contributed to building roads. And, I suspect, are viewed a little more favourably than their counterparts elsewhere.
Balance, If Not Solutions
Which is obviously not to say that Bangalore has or will find all the solutions to its many infrastructure problems. This is the same city where the landmark public-private Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) initative was rendered defunct by the Dharam Singh government. And the metro rail project drags on. But the state of mind surely helps. In finding a balance, if not quick solutions. And of course in pressing on without losing sight of the larger objective. Cities like Mumbai can learn from this.
This article appeared on the edit page of Business Standard on Tuesday, April 4 !