Rated among the most dynamic cities of the world, Bangalore has a pulsating momentum, a self-assured thrust towards the future. One finds it in excited exchanges between office colleagues on the metro, in crowds at the Tin Factory bus station on Old Madras Road, en route to sprawling, ultra-modern office complexes of tech giants like Infosys, Amazon and Google, in teenagers strolling, backpacks slung over shoulders on Church Street and in mothers of all social strata purposefully ferrying children back and forth from tuitions, games and school.
Bangalore’s palpable youthfulness is a consequence of its timeliness. Drawing from its strength as the site of scientific research institutions and technology-based public sector organisations such as the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Space Research Organisation, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Hindustan Aeronautics and Hindustan Machine Tools, the city rode the infotech revolution to emerge as the world’s fourth largest technology cluster and India’s answer to Silicon Valley.
Known as a garden city for its numerous green spaces and once considered suitable for retirees because of its salubrious weather, Bangalore has burgeoned rapidly in the recent past, expanding from a 70-sq-km town in the early 1940s to 700 square kilometres today. Its population too, a mere 1.6 million in 1970, has multiplied to 11 million. As many as half the city’s residents are said to consist of migrants drawn by the employment opportunities it offers and its renowned educational and research institutions.
The sudden growth has created enormous problems, visible in endless traffic snarls and the unsettling sight of lakes foaming with pollutants. The city’s increasing prominence in the national and international scenario has also evoked several narratives about its evolution. The best-known one is probably the vision of a technologically-powered and youth-oriented, futuristic city. This ideal and the perceived roadblocks in its realisation, forcefully articulated by various political leaders and prominent business personalities such as Infosys founder Narayana Murthy and Biocon Limited’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, have received much media attention.
As cities go, Bangalore is still comparatively safer than most urban centres in India.
Another narrative, well-encapsulated in historian Janaki Nair’s 2005 book, The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century, focuses on the injustice done to the subaltern citizenry by grandiose projections, whether it is a flamboyant Vidhana Soudha complex pushed through by former chief minister K. Hanumanthiah in the 1950s or the elitist foundations of the contemporary drive to remake Bangalore in the mould of Singapore while ignoring basic needs such as public housing.
The thoughtlessly perpetrated inequity is best illustrated by Harini Nagendra, author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, when she talks about how gated colonies and the upper class penchant for decorative flora have deprived the poor of once freely available natural commodities like tamarind from which they drew basic sustenance.
Nair’s argument is about ownership of a city and the power that comes with entitlement. Such power can persuade official agencies to favour the wealthy over the rule of law, with building norms bent to suit speculation in land. This phenomenon points to yet another narrative generic to most expanding cities, which is the booming business in real estate and the unholy nexus between speculators, politicians, bureaucrats, criminals and the police.
Much of Bangalore’s criminal activity can be slotted within the matrix of these competing but complimentary narratives. Every day one finds in the news, reports of internet fraud and stories of crimes committed in the high-stress, mixed-gender world of software arising from suspected adultery. Periodically there are attacks on BPO staffers returning home from a late night shift and on passengers heading into the city in the early hours from the airport. Men riding the now ubiquitous motorcycle snatch chains and cellphones from unwary pedestrians.
A couple from Uttar Pradesh is found dead in the busy Balapet area. A man working as a senior executive for a multinational is discovered to be on the run after murdering his wife in another city. In a case of road rage, a man driving a water tanker assaults a motorist, telling him that North Indians like him are taking up his place in the city. Two Bhutanese women are molested in a bus. A man follows a woman returning home from work, breaks into her apartment and molests her. A man is found mysteriously dead; police suspect a property dispute. A rowdy is killed by a group of men including a corporator’s son over land dealing.
As cities go, Bangalore is still comparatively safer and more liveable than most urban centres in India. Its annual count of approximately 45,000 violations of the Indian Penal Code, puts it far behind metropolitan centres like Tokyo and London which have an annual crime rate of almost a million. But the signs are telling.
(The author is a journalist and former editor of Debonair)