Bangalore vs Bengaluru: The Tale Of Two Indian Cities

Feb 10, 2017


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s panel discussion with Naresh Narasimhan (Architect), Vinay K Sreenivasa (Alternative Law Forum), Pawan Kumar (Film-maker), and T M Veeraraghav (Resident Editor, The Hindu Bengaluru). The discussion, titled ‘Bangalore vs Bengaluru: The Tale Of Two Indian Cities’ was a part of The Huddle 2017, held on February 10, 11 & 12 at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru.

When thinking about Bangalore vs Bengaluru and whether they are two different cities, I would argue that there are many cities in Bangalore, cities within cities. This is perhaps because there are many different interests that compete with each other here. So it’s not surprising that the elites and the poor have very different ideas of what their city should be. But in terms of understanding each other in these cities, I don’t think Bangalore is inclusive. Over the last few years, we have seen that the elite are receding behind their gates and walls. So while there are some issues where all of us come together, I don’t know if we have the means to protest together or push the political class to do something for the city.

As T M Veeraraghav explains, if we look at the recent protests that have taken place — be it the Cauvery protest, the garment workers protest, the steel flyover beda campaign, or the Outer Ring Road (ORR) protest – we can see that they have been disparate, and that the people taking part were not the same. For example, the people who took part in the Cauvery and garment workers protest were not present in the steel flyover beda protest or the ORR protest and vice-versa.

The city has certainly changed. In the 80s when we first arrived here, it was obviously a different city. One of the things I remember writing about at the time was the ‘Bangalore boom’ going bust. Today, that seems like a naive thought, compared to the problems we are facing at the moment. In fact, I have been asked about what it feels like to be associated with Infosys and the changes that came with it, and the truth is, a lot of people blamed us. They said, “Infosys started it all. We are such a nice city and look at what happened. You tech people came in and destroyed a beautiful city.” In that sense we got the bouquets and the brickbats. Given that context, we were definitely part of making the city’s face change, and I hope in the end it’s going to be a good force, and not a bad one.

Bangalore Divided

As Naresh Narasimhan says, in our imagination Bangalore has been two cities for a long time – it is the city and the cantonment. The British cantonment was set up in 1809, more than two hundred years ago. Post independence and the regional formation of Karnataka as a linguistic state, the city of Bangalore came together, but there is still an invisible dividing line. Even an architect like Naresh can’t always tell which spaces in Bangalore are part of the city, and which part of the cantonment. That is one of the reasons why Freedom Park was chosen as the site for the steel flyover beda campaign. Freedom Park is actually a physical representation of the difference – that side city, this side cantonment.

Vinay K Sreenivasa also explains that before independence, Bangalore was actually two municipal corporations, the cantonment and the Old City. While there is integration in the sense that the physical differences are not visible for the most part, the unification has happened by class. Bangalore has a stark class divide. It exists because we never took care to accommodate working-class people through the BDA layouts. So we have a deep class divide, which goes beyond talking about whether people are able to come together for protests. Given this context, Vinay asks us to consider a simple example like friendship – how many of us can really claim that we have friendships across class today?

This context of protests and class reminds me of when I first came to Bangalore. Once we knew we were going to be living here, one of the first things I did was seek out an activist group called Vimochana which fought for women’s rights. I would go and do anti-dowry marches and other things, and it really helped me make this city my own. Having said that however, I also know that back then, there was more of a broad middle class, and less of the high elite that you see now. Given the competing class interests we have now, I don’t see how we can get everybody to come together. Perhaps for an issue like water, but other than that I can’t think of too many causes where the concerns of the super-elite are the same as the concerns of the poor. In fact, as we know, they’re in competition in many cases.

While it may be desirable for us to be liberal and progressive enough to fight for the rights of the poor, we often don’t while fighting for our own rights. Even if we look at the emergence of the hyper-local residents welfare associations (RWA) governance structures, we will notice that they’re only fighting for their own block. Very rarely do they come together (with the exception, perhaps of Koramangala). In the absence of good governance in the city, citizens are taking up issues that concern them directly and coming together with like-minded people to solve them. There are advantages and disadvantages to this new phenomenon – one that we have not seen in the last 20 years.

Planning Bangalore Today, and For the Future

Naresh has pointed out that in the last five to seven years, the city has been viewed differently by two main sets of people. The first is people who see Bangalore as a city they want to inhibit. They want to live here, send their children to school here, they want to have access to spaces to walk in. The other set of people are those who are part of the political class, are not from Bangalore, and view this city as a site for exploitation. The fact is that Bangalore is an enormous economic machine. We spend close to Rs. 30-40,000 crore across all the government agencies, and there are more than 36 such agencies fiddling with Bangalore and not communicating with each other. Even the BBMP, the corporation of Bangalore does not talk to the planning authority which is the BDA. In this way, we have created a structure which allows people to continuously exploit the city.

Importantly, here, Naresh also asks us to reconsider what we view as ‘development’. For the Indian bureaucracy and as well as for local politicians, building more roads, widening streets, and cutting trees, is what planning and development looks like. Meanwhile, the more enlightened cities in the world, look at planning through a completely different framework. They look at what it takes to make spaces safe for women and children, or how to make cities walkable, and plan accordingly. This is what we need more of. We need to abandon this model of bureaucratic, top down decision making about how the land in the city is used. And while doing so, we need to pay attention to areas like affordable housing, which is something that has been neglected in India. We need to spend our resources on providing housing and opportunities for people to enhance their own capital. Not on projects which make clearly visible the nexus operating there.

As Naresh says, human beings are not apart from nature, despite the whole city running on the basis of economics. If we allow the pursuit of money to be the only reason you develop a city, then the ecology will fall apart and the air will become unbreathable. Why would we want to create a system which will harm us and kill our grandchildren? In this regard, I learnt a lot while travelling through South Bangalore for Nandan’s campaign. I saw first hand how cut off we are from the people in the slums and the problems that they have.

Here, Vinay brings up a good point, which is that slums are not a housing problem. There are two things we need to consider. The first is that the people who are living in slums are doing so because we have a very unfair wage structure. With the kind of wages they get paid, they cannot go rent a house in Koramangala or Jayanagar. The other aspect is that, while we want to give people who live in slums housing, we don’t want to give them land rights. But that is what they want. They want you to say, “There is tenure security, you will own that land, and then you can develop it.” For years, they’ve been asking for land rights, but we don’t want to give it to them. So do we need a campaign for land rights and what will that take? And can we, as people who have benefited from the system, be the ones leading the campaign? The onus is on us to recognise our privilege and not use it to decide how problems should be solved for other communities, because that further deepens the divide.

As Naresh says, any major change in the way society is structured is always the result of mass movements. We need to remember that the one thing that politicians cannot resist is public pressure. So if we want our city to be different, we have to go out there and shape the city through our elected representatives. We are lucky in a way, because Karnataka has one great advantage over many other states in India. And that is the fact that it is a very open society in terms of access to leaders – when you call a politician in Karnataka, they call back within 24 hours. There is a certain amount of civility in public discourse, which is missing in many other states in India. But there are many other power centers now. You don’t have to be in electoral politics to be able to shape your city anymore.

Here, we can consider what Pawan Kumar notes, which is that people need to feel connected to the causes that they engage with. For example, movies are a very strong medium to create a huge public opinion, and as a result can put pressure on government bodies. But, a filmmaker needs to feel connected to the cause to put in the time to make a movie out of it. However, if all of us only focus on the issues that matter to us, does it mean that we’ve become self-centered about how we represent our activism? Personally, I think it’s natural that people will want to come together for something that they need for themselves first. There are some pan-Bangalore issues that people will come together for, and while I wish they would do so for land rights, I don’t see it happening in a big hurry. An important factor here is the language barrier. If we look at the current discussions around urban planning, we’re not even able to have these discussions in Kannada. A lot of conversations around the city tend to happen in conferences which are largely English. To overcome this, we need effort, and time.

When we talk about making people connect with causes, we need to consider click-tivism, or slack-tivism as well. This is where people are sitting at home and watching the news or posting on social media and saying, “Yes this is bad” but are not really connecting or engaging with the issue. Here, Vinay asks us to consider the garment workers’ protest and the number of people who said, “How dare these garment workers come here? If they want something why did they have to block the roads.” People were angry that the garment workers who blocked Hosur Road, Magadi Road, Mysore Road etc, without thinking about the fact that these are workers earning Rs. 6,500 a month and facing sexual harassment at work. Meanwhile, people were taking photographs and posting them online, without considering that the Bangalore city police are on Twitter and Facebook. There are street vendors who have been evicted in certain parts of south Bangalore as a result of this.

We don’t need people to either be apathetic or to say, “I will decide what is required for the garment workers and slum dwellers.” Instead, we need people who are allies and provide support. But how do we make the middle class more empathetic to these larger issues? I think it’s a political process by which people will begin to realise that the fates of the poor are linked with their own. If we all breathe the same air and if we are going to poison that air, then we will share the same concern. Having said that everyone seems to be looking out for their own interests right now, and I hope this phase ends.

Inequality and Bangalore’s Billionaires

Vinay explains that one of the problems in Bangalore is that we’re not concerned about inequality. We know that we are creating millionaires, so many more people are millionaires today than ever before and so many others have a much higher salary. This is what we end up focussing on, however we need to instead try and create a society which is equal and sustainable, that works for everybody. Right now, nobody is bothered about inequality, and instead they are okay with the idea that some people are millionaires, mega-millionaires, billionaires, etc. because they think there will be a trickle down effect. Even if that were the case, we need to start thinking about how we are going to bridge this gap.

To understand this further, consider what Naresh says – there are currently less than 1000 people in Bangalore who are holding this city to ransom. They are a mix of politicians, contractors, businessmen, and many other people who drive the fortunes of the city without listening to anybody else, and it is our duty to start calling them out. The only way to do this is collectively. Perhaps it is on us to look out for a mass opportunity and find an issue that will unite people.

Given the fact that Bangalore or Bengaluru is India’s only truly globalised city – in the sense that a large part of the city is connected to the global economy and ecosystem rather than the local one – does the divide we’ve been discussing make it possible to sustain such a dichotomy? Is it possible to have one portion of Bangalore which is entrepreneurial, innovative, high technology-led, connected to the global economy; and have them living in Bengaluru, which is a city with a million problems? Given how much creative, innovative, technological, energy and expertise we have in this city, how can we tap into it to solve the issues that it faces? I think Bangalore has more reformers per square inch than any other city in the country. All these people have been working hard to create better, more democratised citizen movements, and global or local, I think both will come together soon.



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