Jan 5, 2009

Columnists - Nandan Nilekani;Imagining Bangalore

If there's a place that can be described as ground zero for a new India, it is my home town Bangalore. This is not due to its identity as India's IT city, or its aspiration to be the Silicon Plateau, the next stage after California's Silicon Valley, but because in its successes as well as its struggles, this city is a microcosm of the new, emerging India.
Nehru had called Bangalore 'India's city of the future'.

For him, the city was relatively free from the imperialist architecture that dominated the Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta skylines; for the entrepreneurs entering Bangalore in the 1970s and 1980s, the city — then a hub mainly for textile and public sector industries — was also untouched in another way. Bangalore was distant from the chaos and politics of Bombay and Delhi, which had limited the rise of firms without the connections and clout to get past the red tape and old boy networks.

For this new breed of first-time entrepreneurs — and Infosys was among them — this city was a refuge. The companies that came here were, therefore, disproportionately young and new-industry. The focus of both IT and the textile industry on the international market also meant that Bangalore developed as a city with a global outlook, welcoming to outsiders and strongly aware of international standards and practices when it came to doing business.

The city's firms, especially in the IT industry, have tried to envision a more responsible role for the private sector, focusing on transparency, fairness to their stakeholders, and ethical management. And they made early efforts to expand the role of business within the broader community, by participating in India's first public-private partnership, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (that I chaired), which worked to improve the city's governance systems.

A different kind of business also attracted a different kind of community — a large proportion of Bangalore's workers are educated, white-collar and middle-class. These workers have often either lived or travelled abroad, and have a global outlook, fully aware of best practices when it came to public services, governance and social welfare.

With these entrepreneurs and workers have come new possibilities, and a potential framework for reforms in India. Civil activism is vibrant and thriving in Karnataka — from Myrad’s (Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency) work in microfinance-lending to the poor, to Srikanth Nadhamuni's eGovernments Foundation which is working towards technology for urban management and Akshara Foundation's work in primary education.

New experiments in entrepreneurship and government are also seeing success here, from Sriram Raghavan's internet community kiosks, to the Bhoomi land reform project led by the bureaucrat, Rajiv Chawla. In these efforts, we are seeing a push for positive change that is reshaping the growth of the city.

Even the struggles that Bangalore faces, foretell what India shall encounter as we develop. The whispers of future conflict are right here — as the city faces the influx of millions of migrant workers. It is telling for instance, that the death of the Kannada actor Rajkumar in 2006 triggered violence across the city, with cars and buses attacked and glass-fronted offices pelted with stones.

Rajkumar was an icon for many of the older city, a quieter, less modern and chaotic place, one whose identity was unequivocally Kannadiga. Bangalore today, with its growing migrant middle and working classes, its industries and restaurants that are so obviously cosmopolitan, has become an uneasy melting pot. The challenges of inequality emerging across the country are also all too visible here.

Nowhere is the secession of the middle classes as stark as it is here with the walled gardens of corporate campuses and gated communities. And the rapid growth has laid bare the complete inadequacies of our urban governance.

But this city is exceptional in that it is also relatively young, and has the opportunity to tackle the challenges of inequality and of housing and land shortages. Left unaddressed, these have sharpened the disparity between haves and have-nots so severely in cities like Bombay and Delhi. Bangalore's entrepreneurs, NGOs and civil activists are fighting for better urban planning and infrastructure, with the support of the city’s residents.

Citizen groups pressure the government towards better environmental practices; a variety of organisations have cropped up to manage waste and sewage disposal issues that the government has ignored.

We can thus see tentative steps forward to the future as Bangalore searches for better solutions, and attempts to overcome its divisions. Rural politicians have tried to capitalise on the urban-rural divide by championing the ‘common man' of the rural country while inveigling the city’s 'elite'. In recent years, however, this pitch has had far less power over Karnataka's voters, as even our farmers aspire to educate their children, and send them to the city for a better life. The 2008 state election, the first after delimitation, has also increased urban voice.

Bangalore is where we will have to look closest when we try to predict the long-term success of India's rise — in how we address our divisions, the tensions of large-scale migration; provide equitable access to education, health and housing; empower our cities; build infrastructure and reform governance. It is the city at the vanguard for imagining a new India.

No comments: