Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Jefferson fellowship: Bangalore a janus-faced city?

What comes into your mind when you hear the word “Bangalore”? Probably the following: India’s IT hub, an innovative city, sophisticated city, beautiful high-rise buildings, efficient airports, and every thing else that tells you it’s the best thing that could ever happen to humanity.

Let me tell you the truth: only the first two descriptors are correct! For Bangalore is very much like any other very ordinary city in Asia.

When we landed in Bangalore, we were expecting somewhat like those we have seen either in Beijing or Shanghai, but we were disappointed to see a crowded, dirty, and dilapidated airport. Alfred (from the squeaky clean Singapore) complained about being swarmed with mosquitos. Jay from Korea wondered if we instead landed in Peshawar (with my apologies to the people there). The roads were crowded, with motorcycles darting in and out like daredevils. Traffic congestion is a serious problem. Everywhere every one could see that public services are not catching up with the city’s rapid growth. And its retail sector is certainly sub-par. From a purely physical planning perspective, Bangalore has a long way to go. I mean, its a mess!

But yes, Bangalore is growing fast because of its very dynamic IT sector. Most of the innovations we see in IT these days come from there. Big multinationals like Cisco, Microsoft, Dell, Motorola, Texas Instruments, etc have set R&D laboratories there. There simply are too many engineers and science guys that they could tap for research and innovation. For that, I admire the city.

But are the benefits of growth trickling to the ordinary people? Most of the Indians we met there argue that the growth of IT is the best thing that ever happened to India. And I agree. But they also said it’s not really reaching up to the lower classes of society. Signs of poverty and inequality are everywhere—just like the Philippines. The city’s extensive use of walls and barriers seems to punctuate that society has to exclude some groups of people from certain land uses. Each month, there are four million subscriptions to mobile phones, probably an indication of a growing middle class, just like the Philippines. But they say it’s not enough to soak up “mass deprivation” (that’s their term, not mine). The Indians may have to leverage its strenght in IT and the sciences to develop its manufacturing and farm sectors before they could address the growing social divide. Well, that's what they told me and I believe them.

Sounds familiar?

But hey, the Bangalore example tends to tell us that innovation and growth could be achieve despite all the physical and governance constraints, that transformation is really all about people. If people, cities, places, and countries are investing in human resources, they could find their places under the sun. And that makes Bangalore a very interesting city!

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