Bangalore Diary
COMMENTS PRINT
Pipe Dreams
We all have our paranoias about old age, but mine has always seemed decidedly peculiar. I see myself in an unruly queue at a handpump, waiting for the day's water supply. In Bangalore, this obsession does not seem so bizarre. This year, the headlines have once again been dominated by the Cauvery water dispute with Tamil Nadu. There have been bandhs and demonstrations as politicians vie with each other to protest against the Supreme Court decision that requires a more equitable sharing of water with Karnataka's neighbour. S.M. Krishna is already warning of a water crisis this summer and says the "only solution" is the linking of our rivers.

Amid all the name-calling directed at Tamil Nadu and yet another mega project "solution", little is ever said about water conservation. In Bangalore and elsewhere in India, we receive water at a price that's a fraction of what it costs the municipality to get it to our doors. Most of us have no idea what we pay for water because it amounts to little more than a rounding-off error in the household expenses. About four-fifths of the water used in the city is not recycled.

Bangalore is a microcosm of the crisis we face across the country. In Gujarat, the credit rating agency CRISIL has suggested the government raise water tariffs by 300 to 800 per cent and has repeatedly downgraded the bonds for the Sardar Sarovar Project. At any rate, I'm in good company in worrying about water. The late Dhirubhai Ambani repeatedly wrote to successive prime ministers about the need for desalination plants and more proactive water management. Predictably, this was one subject on which even the well-connected Ambani received little attention.

Too Good and True
Software, credit-card call centres and the service economy at large require teams of employees able to tackle problems independently, without seeking approvals up and down the command and control chain that characterises old economy Indian companies elsewhere. At Kabab Magic, a fast growing tandoori chain in the city, I watched in amazement as the owner pitched in on a busy evening, stuffing bags full of rotis and kababs alongside the other staff. During Bill Gates’ recent visit to the city, I received press credentials the afternoon before one of the events in about the time it takes to click a mouse.

In a country where egotism is elevated to an art form, Bangalore’s software engineers with plastic access cards around their necks wear their success just as casually. The city may have become a model for software success, but the lessons it offers about how we manage our offices and live our lives are much more profound. Sometimes nice guys really do finish first.


(The author is Hong Kong bureau chief of The Financial Times, London.)

Godsend Godse
No one would describe T.S. Shanbhag’s bookshop as plush, but the world would be a better place if every city had at least one store like his. Books are in rows that closely resemble tottering skyscrapers; the risk of setting off a collapse of encyclopaedias is ever present. The reason I go back time and again is that Premier Bookshop has the quality of serendipity; you find books you did not know had been published. From Shanbhag’s desk, I recently picked up a collection of essays on V.S. Naipaul and The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain, a hilarious tell-all about the up-and-down relationship between the biblical couple. I also came away with Ashis Nandy’s equally irreverent Exiled at Home in which he argues that Nathuram Godse and Gandhi were, in a sense, made for each other. After the Partition riots, Gandhi fervently wished to die "bravely" rather than through illness.
On Civil Lines
The paradox about cities is that even though we live in greater proximity to each other, we steadily grow apart. As civic amenities come under strain, so too does civic spirit. Bangalore is an exception. Collide with someone by mistake on crowded Commercial Street and you are likely to receive a smile, not a glare. A former editor of mine moved here from Delhi and was bemused to find a neighbour of his, a retiree, offering to help out with the inevitable paper chase with new telephone connections and the like.

The city’s multiplying band of entrepreneurs are also tapping this reservoir of social capital. It helps that Bangalore is egalitarian and informal. (Even the traffic seems a metaphor for this. The time-honoured tradition that the largest vehicle has right of way is turned on its head. Here, two-wheelers rule the roads.)

Infobahn to Heaven
Bangalore, at least, boasts of a handful of energetic urban planners, something of an endangered species today. Foremost among them are the city’s software CEOs who play an important role through the Bangalore Agenda Task Force. The group has been responsible for more public toilets and shower stalls for the poor around the city and a second green revolution of the Garden City, with corporations sponsoring parks in every other neighbourhood. And there has been a war on illegal construction by the incorruptible head of the Bangalore Development Authority, Jayakar Jerome. The successful inauguration of the Delhi Metro may even have shamed the local government into dusting the cobwebs off its plans for a metro in the city. The multiplier effects of E. Sreedharan’s achievement could be felt beyond the precincts of Shahdara and Tis Hazari.

At drinks the other evening, I heard about a recent initiative that made me wonder if I was on another planet. Last year, the municipal government responded—within a couple of months—to requests by NGOs and others to make their accounts public. While the exercise quickly confirmed that the most wasteful consumer around is the government—the cost to the municipality of schooling a child is bafflingly more than at good private schools—it is remarkable that it happened at all. For uplifting theatre, I wish I had been at the first meeting in August with the city government at Infosys’s swank conference room during which a diverse cast, including NGOs and slum-dwellers, quizzed local government officials about the city’s budget. Making our babu raj accountable to the people may be a heretical democratic idea, but it is worth trying.

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