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Infra Vaani | Infra Woes are Chipping Away at India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru is Battling for Survival

By: Akhileshwar Sahay

Last Updated: April 25, 2022, 16:17 IST

Bengaluru’s problems are legion, but none more critical than ‘exceptionally poor quality and quantity of physical infrastructure,’ argues Akhileshwar Sahay. Photo for representation: Shutterstock

Bengaluru’s problems are legion, but none more critical than ‘exceptionally poor quality and quantity of physical infrastructure,’ argues Akhileshwar Sahay. Photo for representation: Shutterstock

Bengaluru may soon find its ‘crown jewels’ deserting it – initially in a trickle, but sooner in droves. The writing on wall has been there for a while

infra vaani

In Infra Vaani, noted urban infra expert Akhileshwar Sahay dissects infrastructural challenges of Indian cities and offers solutions. This week, he looks at Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley.

In my fortnight-long stay in Bengaluru this month, I found ‘India’s Silicon Valley’ fighting numerous existential battles for survival.

First was a clarion call – “Pack your bags and move to Hyderabad” – to Bengaluru’s IT and start-up firms by K.T. Rama Rao, Telangana’s IT minister, citing Hyderabad’s better infrastructure, world-class and well-connected airport, and Telangana government’s focus on “innovation, infrastructure and inclusive-growth”. Palanivel Thiagarajan, Tamil Nadu finance minister, soon joined the fray – ‘Tamil Nadu was ready to welcome companies wanting to move out of Karnataka’.

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The debate was stirred by a tweet of Ravish Naresh, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Housing.com and Khatabook. “Startups in HSR/Koramangala (India’s Silicon Valley) are already generating billions of $ of taxes. Yet we have v bad roads, almost daily power cuts, poor quality water supply, unusable foot paths,” he had tweeted. Calls from Telangana and Tamil Nadu ministers remind me of a late 1990s slogan, “Bye Bye Bangalore, Hello Hyderabad,” coined by N. Chandrababu Naidu, then Andhra Pradesh chief minister, who wanted to make Hyderabad India’s true Silicon Valley.

Naresh’s tweet prompted Bengaluru IT industry veteran T.V. Mohandas Pai to tweet to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Bengaluru paid second highest income tax at 1.69 lakh crore in 21-22, but we are ignored by Delhi! Our roads are bad, traffic sucks, quality of life down? @NarendraModi? Sir as our PM pl intervene and help.”

We have not yet heard the last word on this Twitter war.

The Road to Corruption

A common grouse is Bengaluru’s pothole-riddled roads. Last month, a Karnataka High Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, hearing a seven-year-old PIL filed by activist Vijayan Menon (WP 42927/2015), ordered the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to survey and repair all potholes in Bengaluru’s Central Business District in 15 days and file action taken report.

Unsurprisingly, this sorry state of roads is despite Rs 20,000 crore being spent in five years (2016-2020) to repair city roads, at a whopping Rs 1.54 crore per km.

Tied to the problem of roads is rampant corruption in the award of construction works. The ‘political economy of corruption’ in infrastructure works torpedoes development. Corruption is not unique to Karnataka – over decades it has destroyed the country like termites – but the uniqueness of the latest Bengalurean twist is this: Karnataka Contractors Association has threatened to stop all construction works and has written to the Prime Minister about 40 per cent commission.

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When Bangalore Became Bengaluru

This is not the Bangalore (city had not yet changed its name to Bengaluru) where in 1987 I first landed as a young probationary officer of Indian Railways.

Back then, the city that Kempe Gowda founded was known as the ‘garden city’, ‘city of hundreds of lakes’ and ‘pensioner’s paradise’. Pedestrians and cyclists owned the city roads. Bangalore had most hospitable climate among Indian cities, Kaveri provided plentiful potable water and roads were garbage- and litter-free.

This was an era when a walk in Cubbon Park, Lalbagh left one awestruck, with bright red flowers of Gulmohar trees in full bloom.

Around that time Bangalore was taking baby steps to become India’s Silicon Valley. Infosys, incorporated in Pune in 1981, had made Bangalore its home in 1983. Western India Palm Refined Oils Limited, after renamed as Wipro, had entered computer hardware (1981), software (1983) and was raring to enter the BPO business. Texas Instruments (1985) became the first global multinational to set up R&D facility in the city.

The Y2K propelled the IT boom. The first visit of legendary Jack Welch of GE was still a decade away. Bangalore was touted as ‘not only India’s Silicon Valley but also a city which will give global Silicon Valley bests a run for their money’.

Time moved fast and so did Bangalore.

In 2006, Bangalore officially became Bengaluru. Come 2007, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) was born to usher transformational changes in Bengaluru infrastructure, and to bring the city on par with global peers. And why not?

Bengaluru by now was India’s IT and new technology hub and its largest IT export earner. Global IT and non-IT firms dotted the city. Soon, Bengaluru was home to almost half of Fortune 500 companies. The path that Texas Instruments and General Electric showed catapulted the city to global R&D capital at the cutting edge of frontier technology.

A City in Terminal Decline?

Fast forward to 2022. The glory of Bengaluru seems to be gone with the wind!

But what are the signs of terminal decline of this city?

One, it is fast losing its sheen as India’s Silicon Valley – Bengaluru’s loss is Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi-NCR’s gain besides some other tier-2/3 cities. To add to city’s woes, the work from anywhere culture in the last two years has also changed the graph.

Two, Bengaluru has ceased to be India’s start-up capital, after ceding the pole-position to Delhi – between April 2019 and December 2021, Delhi added 5,000 plus start-ups against 4,514 in Bengaluru (Source: Economic Survey 2021-2022). Mumbai is fast catching up.

Three, if business as usual continues, Bengaluru may soon find its ‘crown jewels’ deserting it – initially in a trickle, but sooner in droves. The writing on wall has been there for a while.

Bengaluru is in ICU, terminally ill, fighting for survival. Its problems are legion, but none more critical than ‘exceptionally poor quality and quantity of physical infrastructure’.

Bengaluru’s Many Problems

Let us look at the problems that Bengaluru faces:

One, the population of Bengaluru, the third most populous metropolitan city in the country, has exploded, from 2.9 million in pre-IT boom era of 1981 to 13.2 million in 2022 (Source: World Population Review). An addition of 10 million with last five million in last one decade. Worse, as per estimates, the city will have 20 million-plus inhabitants by 2031.

Two, the city has grown rapidly and haphazardly, bereft of commensurate growth in infrastructure, be it road, water supply, solid-waste management, sewage and public transport management.

Three, Bengaluru creates more than 5500 MT of solid waste every day, more than 25 per cent remain uncollected, what is collected is not properly segregated; a third of the waste disposal plants are non-operational, all old landfills are full and new ones are not enough.

Four, half of the city is forced to use contaminated and heavily depleted ground water or totally dependent on tanker water. The situation is worsening by the day. The city’s lakes, a source of clean water, have become polluted.

Fifth, sewage storm drains are largely open; even a couple of hours of rainfall (like what happened on 15-16 April) is enough to fill hundreds of houses with 4-6-metre-high sewage water. Open drains have also proved to be death traps for young children.

Sixth, Bengalureans have made their peace with frequent power cuts lasting several hours, sometimes through the day. I had first-hand experience of a day-long power cut in HSR Layout area twice last week. The erratic power supply hurts industry; at home, it damages electric appliances.

Seventh, nothing hurts Bengalureans more than the exceptionally poor roads and woefully deficient public transport.

Why Traffic Jams are So Common

Bengalureans always knew their city suffered from terrible traffic gridlock. In January 2020, their concerns were validated when the city was declared as having ‘worst traffic congestion on Planet Earth’. The ninth edition of annual Tom-Tom Traffic Index was an eye opener: Bengalureans driving in peak hours spent 243 extra hours annually.

Two, reasons for the city traffic gridlock are numerous, but few are enumerated here. (a) Bengaluru and Ahmedabad have similar population density, but Bengaluru road-density (8.2 km per sqkm) is half of Ahmedabad and one third of Delhi (b) 2/3 third of Bengaluru roads are single- or double-lane. (c) City roads are perennially dug-up by utilities agencies (d) Potholes and damaged roads define Bengaluru better than its status as India’s Silicon Valley (f) Peak-hour traffic even on supposedly faster outer ring road is no more than 4-5 km per hour; it takes three hours to reach airport from the city centre.

Three, Bengaluru had an enviable urban bus service run by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), next only to Mumbai’s BEST bus operations. Unlike Mumbai, BMTC operations were profitable for decades while it catered to more than 40 per cent of the commuter trips.

But gone are those days. After hitting 5 million daily passenger trips in 2015, both operational and financial fortunes of BMTC nose-dived. The decline got accelerated during COVID-19 and in the last financial year, it recorded little more than a million daily passenger trips.

Four, Bengaluru’s tryst (56 km operational) with metro rail has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The city was second after Delhi to get the green flag for metro rail construction. Sadly, phase-1 construction took 15 years (four km a year) and the original estimated cost galloped to more than double, to Rs 14000 crore.

Worse, daily metro patronage remains below 3 lakh.

One may cite many ‘justified reasons’ for this fiasco. The post of Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited CEO being reduced to a musical chair between bureaucrats is one of the reasons for the mess. DMRC, in contrast, in the last 25 years, has had only two MDs (the third one has just taken over), and in the time frame in which Bengaluru constructed 56 km of metro rail, DMRC made 400 km-plus metro rail operational in Delhi, NCR, Kochi and Jaipur.

Understandably, Bengaluru Phase-2A, 2B and Phase 3 of metro rail are either in construction or planning stage. But these are not enough. For a metro-rail network for a city of the size of Bengaluru to make meaningful impact, it must provide connectivity from home to places of work, markets and places of recreation. It should also provide connectivity to other modes of transport along with seamless last-mile connectivity.

Look East for Inspiration

One has to just look east.

Shenzhen in China is comparable to Bengaluru in population and its importance as a global city. Shenzhen began metro construction around the same time as Bengaluru. Its 411 km-long metro-rail network is the fourth longest in China; it aims to expand the network to 1142 km by 2030.

One may ask, are infra woes of Bengaluru beyond fixing?

The answer is no.

All the city needs is commitment at the highest level, smart project selection, complete adherence to the principle of completion within cost and time, putting right people in right jobs, giving them security of tenure, making them accountable and protecting them from witch-hunting in a politically sensitive state. Money is least of its problems. No city of India has more vibrant citizenry – individuals, corporate and non-governmental organisations – to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government.

Bengaluru need not be Bangalored. It still can shine as the crown jewel of Mother India.

Akhileshwar Sahay is a noted urban transport infrastructure expert and President, advisory services at BARSYL, a consulting firm. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication or the company he works with.

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first published:April 18, 2022, 16:44 IST
last updated:April 25, 2022, 16:17 IST