By now you may have seen the video that has gone viral. It shows someone is a spacesuit walking over potholes in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. Now, someone might leap up and say, ‘It is Bengaluru! And not Bangalore!’ Sure. I am merely using the old name more familiar to readers around the world, and if you were so proud about the city, it is not the name you would be shouting about.
This is what happens these days on Twitter each time one points out the tragedy that are Indian cities. When, a few months ago, I pointed out the irony of the plans of building a gargantuan statue of the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji off the coast of that other failed city, Bombay (I argued that Shivaji had built great forts that still stand, but Bombay cannot even usually build roads that last a monsoon or two), one cantankerous chap started shouting that miraculous feats of infrastructure building were supposedly unfolding in India’s financial capital, drawing attention to a coastal road project. “Shut up!” he hollered in the manner that people think they can scream at anyone who holds up a mirror to India’s failed cities.
The coastal road project is stuck in court, and one more monsoon has come and gone. And guess what, Bombay sank again! At this point some people will scream that it is, Mumbai, and yes, so its new name is, but since acquiring it the city hasn’t become any better. The pride in a name change makes perfect sense if it goes together with transformational urban rejuvenation. Otherwise people like me are forced to be the bearer of the bad news that this false pride in a name change has meant nothing, and that the city, like the emperor, is not wearing any clothes.
That, indeed, is the state of Bangalore. Up until a decade or so ago this was by far the most pleasant Indian city to live in. A city of all-year-round ‘air-conditioned’ climate, of lakes and gardens. Why do you think India’s information technology boom unfolded there in the first place? Because it was a city which could attract and keep the best talent. It was open-minded, relaxed, a city of bookshops and beer gardens. A city that combined the fierce ambition of tech start-ups with the languor of a place that, even today, has India’s finest second-hand book stores.
If Bangalore has not already become a city that is impossible to live in, it is becoming one. In 2017, in the Annual Survey of India’s City System (ASICS) conducted by the famed not-for-profit Janaagraha, it ranked last among 23 Indian cities that were measured across a range of civic parameters. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of vehicles in Bangalore rose by a dramatic 74%. After Chennai, it might well be the next major Indian city to run out of water (most ironical, for Chennai is a sea-facing city, and Bangalore is a city of lakes, or was). Bangalore also ranks among the top 10 cities with the worst traffic in the world: by some counts, commuters spend around 250 hours in traffic every year in Bangalore. Isn’t it ironic that perhaps the only city in India which could have built a mass mobility plan based on rapid public transport and good, old-fashioned walking, spectacularly failed to do? Which nativist troll, I ask, is ever ashamed of that?
When I looked up what was being said about the city online, apart from the now legendary Quora question ‘Why is Bangalore becoming the worst city to live in?’, there were other masterpieces that popped up such as ‘Eight reasons to stay away from Bangalore’ and ‘5 reasons I hate Bangalore’.
Like the tragedy of Bombay, Bangalore is burdened by the fact that politicians who govern it mostly get their votes from the rest of the state of Karnataka (as they do in Maharashtra) and therefore they care more about the hinterland than the city—even though the riches that the city brings far, far outstrip any other region of the state. Will Bangalore get a directly elected mayor? Unlikely. Citizens in Bombay have been demanding this, including politicians of some prominence, and cutting across party lines, for a while now, but nothing has moved.
India cannot let this happen to Bangalore. The city is just too important as the home of India’s $150 billion tech industry. It is the world’s fourth largest tech cluster. If the Indian economy holds, it might even become the world’s largest tech cluster. But if poor infrastructure continues to haunt it, Bangalore’s future looks bleak, as the moonwalker video shows. And no number of nativist trolls screaming their guts out on Twitter will change the reality. The reality of Silk Board junction—perhaps the most notorious choke point in a Bangalore full of notorious choke points—is as brutal a slap on the face of the petty-pride trolls as the every-year-without-fail photos of Bombay sinking in the rains. Guess who should be shutting up?
Views are personal.