Bangalore is not thriving, it is broken

Bangalore is not thriving, it is broken

President Obama often evokes the example of Bangalore to motivate the next generation of Americans or to satisfy his protectionist Democratic Party base. To the US, Bangalore is the bustling metropolis that threatens to outdo their iconic cities. The reality, however, is different.

Bangalore hosts almost 400 of Fortune 500 giant corporations, contributing 0.7 percent to India’s national GDP and more than 50 percent to Karnataka’s state GDP. It is the tech capital of India, with renowned Indian scientific institutes and Indian firms including Wipro and Infosys working alongside global IT firms, consultancies and disruptive start-ups.

Being the most cosmopolitan next only to the financial capital Mumbai, it attracts human capital from all over India and the world. The Economist intelligence unit marks Bangalore as one of the hundred global cities.

What many might not know is the fact that Bangalore was a sleepy lush green city that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned making into India’s intellectual capital. Instead, the city has become a thickly populated urban sprawl. In hindsight, it seems that the city was never really prepared to transform in to a livable metropolis.

The living standard of Bangalore is dropping by the day. A survey on quality of life carried out in 2013 by a prominent NGO concluded that the city had become worse off than it was in 2010. Worryingly, there was a steep decline in basic services, especially in sanitation and water supply. Bangalore has earned the ignominious title of ‘garbage city‘ due to abysmal planning and a highly corrupt waste management system. With an uncooperative middle class and a poor civic administration, the public health time bomb continues to tick.

The city also faces a twin challenge of ensuring quantity as well as quality of potable water. Water supply has become a gargantuan task as the cost of pumping is almost ten times higher than in other cities. Localized corruption also favours inadequate supply so that it is capitalized on by the powerful water mafia. There are also doomsday reports saying that Bangalore will be without water in just a decade.

Though public transport is way better than in other Indian cities, the clogged arterial roads are a disincentive to take city buses. As a result, the annual vehicle growth is 14 percent compared to 7 to 8 percent in other Indian cities. With potholes and infinite bumps, the traffic on Bangalore’s terribly planned roads moves at 25kmph. And during peak hours on some roads leading to the leading global firms, it could be as slow as 12kmph.

Adding to these troubling factors is the rise in crimes. Even the tag of Bangalore being a safe city is being challenged as the home ministry’s crime statistics indicate an uncomfortable increase in crimes against women.

The underlying cause behind this decline in living standards is systemic. The civic agency that manages Bangalore is ineffective, bankrupt and corrupt. On one hand, it makes unrealistic budgets with overstated revenues, and on the other it fails to pay its contractors and employees. Inept financial management stretching almost a decade has resulted in an outstanding debt close to 1 billion USD.

The government is serious about resolving the issue, but through dubious means. A scheme that has broad political support intends to regularize illegal properties through penalties. With money raised from heavy fines, the government intends to rescue the city. The logic is difficult to follow. The only silver lining for the city is an active civil society with broad expertise in urban management. What ails is the lack of will and intent to reform.

Research has established that in order for a city’s economic contribution to overall growth to be sustained, it requires better livability. As Bangalore’s quality of life worsens, the sustainability of its growth is under serious stress.

The story of other Indian cities is no different. Inept urban governance has been a function of centralization and fragmented institutions at the local level, which have made inter-agency coordination a perennial problem across cities. Prime Minister Modi’s smart cities project leaders must pay attention to this reality and its economic consequences.

About Author

Sundar Nathan

Sundar is currently a contributing analyst for IHS. Prior to that, Sundar was a project member at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He also worked at the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy where he helped launch a comprehensive study of urban governance in India. He has a Masters in International Public Policy from University College London.