Impressions of Bengaluru (Bangalore)

This was published by the Irish Times on 1st December 2014 last.

The “Garden City of India”, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), has an attractive climate, being about 900m above sea level and thus much cooler than many other parts of the country. When India gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, the population of Bengaluru in the southern and rural state of Karnataka was just 400,000. By 1961 it had grown to just over 1 million. Today it is about 10 million, and is the third most populous city in India. I visited recently as part of the work to replicate the Science Gallery, founded at Trinity College Dublin, to various other cities around the world.

With the severe distension of the city, the civic infrastructure has clearly struggled. In the city centre I found little evidence of garbage collection, and rather frequent dumping pretty much everywhere. There are few pavements, and most are severely potholed. Some suburban streets are unpaved, and turn to mud in heavy rain. The main thoroughfares are far too narrow for the traffic volumes. Lane discipline – what lane discipline? Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuktuk auto-rickshaws blare their horns to compete for every centimeter not just in front but especially for gaps to the right and left. Bicycling would be suicidal; walking is perilous, and attempting to cross the road foolhardy in the extreme.

The Karnataka pollution control agency is now proposing to physically confiscate horns from all motorbikes and tuktuks so as reduce unnecessary noise. Seven major city thoroughfares are going to have their already narrow width further reduced so as to make room for safe pavements and cycle lanes, in the face of very considerable public debate. As one politician I met forcefully put it: Bengaluru is not like a western city, since you cannot casually drop in anywhere; rather you must plan every single trip and fight your way through the traffic.

Despite the difficulties of physically moving across the city, Bengaluru is the centre of the Indian IT industry, also a major biotechnology centre, and the focus of the national aerospace industry. The Mangalyaan satellite went into successful orbit around Mars last September, and was managed by the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bengaluru, the first Asian space agency to do so.

Almost half of India’s biotechnology companies are headquartered in Bengaluru. The most well-known is Biocon, which is quoted on the NYSE and was founded by an Indian female entrepreneur who at one time was a trainee manager at a biochemical company in Cork. Kiran Mazumbar-Shaw struggled because of her gender, youth and novel business model. Financing her start-up was extremely difficult, the power and water infrastructures for a biotechnology start-up were highly unpredictable, and yet she has built a major global biopharmaceutical company now employing 4,500 people. Coincidently, she has been Honorary Consul-General to Ireland since 2007.

But perhaps Bengaluru is best known as the Silicon Valley of India. Major Indian-founded and owned IT multinationals operate from Bengaluru, including Infosys, Microland and Wipro. Many of the US multinationals operating in Ireland also have operations in Bengaluru, and choose Bengaluru despite both the corporate taxation rate (at 40%, much higher than our own 12.5%) and its weak infrastructure. Many US venture capital funds are active across the city, including Accel Partners, Lightspeed Ventures, Charles River and Sequoia Capital. Last January, Facebook acquired the Bengaluru-founded Little Eye Labs, whose software tool analyses the performance of Android apps, in a deal whose terms were not publicly quoted but strongly rumored to be “very attractive”. As a landmark deal, it has added inspiration and further momentum to the already strong start-up culture.

Across India, infrastructure is improving, not least broadband access. In turn, the Indian population now expecting internet access as a basic right. Global IT players are reacting fast: Microsoft has just announced it is building three major cloud data centers across India. IBM is increasing its investment, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos noted last September that at last India is at long last ready.

The national Government has just announced an open source initiative, launching its own software repository for the source code of hundreds of custom-built government applications nationwide. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a prolific user of social media (some 25M Facebook likes and 8M followers on Twitter).

Despite the economic benefits from the high technology sectors, nevertheless there is tension. The electoral base for the Karnataka political elite is largely rural, and so politicians are naturally keen for balanced state-wide development. The IT sector however is deeply unhappy with the slow development of infrastructure in Bengaluru city. Infosys are rumored to be seriously considering moving away from the city, citing that Bengaluru can no longer be the IT centre of India. Karnataka state leaders have reacted strongly and angrily to the aggressive wooing of Infosys and other Bengaluru companies by their peers in other states.

Perhaps most of all, the greatest concern for Bengaluru is a rising gap between the well-paid professionals in the high-technology sectors, and the rest of the city population and of the rural areas. There is severe pressure on land and property prices across the city, which in turn has consequences for social cohesion. Bengaluru has work to do to reconcile its modern reputation as the Silicon Valley of India with its older reputation as the Garden City of India, if it is to be a modern, green and healthy metropolis.

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About chrisjhorn

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