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Bangalore crumbling? Not just yet

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Last updated on: July 15, 2005 15:38 IST

Our car has not moved for roughly 30 minutes and there is no sign it will in the next 30. The young driver at the wheel seems quite frustrated himself and jabs the horn intermittently, as if the sound would cause vehicles ahead to miraculously make way.

His frustration adds to your own. Its past 8 p.m. and I'm already running late for a dinner appointment in central Bangalore.

Earlier, on emerging from the airport terminal building, for a moment the weather actually felt like a Bangalore this writer once knew. Once we turned off the airport driveway and hit the main road going into the city one was reminded, once again, that this was quite definitely not the same place.

We are stuck, jammed solid and standing still. A mess like this in a city like Mumbai, no stranger to traffic jams, would qualify as a big one. At the end of it, as you finally reached the point where the problem appeared to originate, you would expect to find an overturned car with glass strewn all over, a burning bus or cops with bulletproof jackets turning over bodies after an 'encounter' killing.

You want to gaze out and connect in some way with the inmates of neighbouring cars and riders on motorcycles, to see if their expressions betray a similar sense of being trapped or nonchalance if this is like any other day. The dark sun-film which tourist cars in this part of the world have a tendency to slap on, effectively prevents that.

You want to switch off the engine and air-conditioner, roll down the windows and take in some fresh Bangalore air. And then you think again, who knows what kind of emissions the idling vehicles around you are emitting.

The good thing about Mumbai is that vehicular pollution is terrible, but you know precisely how much. You desist from using the cellphone any more, saving the battery for some catastrophic moment.

This is not the first time one has been stuck on this stretch and surely will not be the last. The problem ought to be at the Indiranagar signal a kilometer ahead, an intersection which needed a flyover perhaps a decade ago. In February 2003, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) thought as much and decided to build one.

It should have been completed in April 2004 but what stands there now, instead of a simple Rs 26-crore (Rs 260 million) flyover, are a few concrete pillars and the steel skeletons of a few pillars.

It is as if this part of the city suddenly saw a regime change causing the previous rulers to abandon and flee.

The problem & the solution

The story of the Indiranagar flyover is symptomatic of the problems and the solutions to Bangalore's crumbling infrastructure. The problems are the same as any city, including Mumbai. But the solutions, unlike Mumbai, lie in its highly charged citizenry.

If Bangalore is able to manage its infrastructure mess, it is the people who can take credit. Not many Indian cities or towns can claim that.

Why didn't the flyover get completed on schedule ? Well, it's a familiar tale. The BDA fought with the bridge contractor, the UP State Bridge Construction Company (UPSBCC), ostensibly for not honouring its time and project commitments. Then, unusually, the BDA terminated UPSBC's contract.

Not surprisingly, the contractor dragged the BDA to court.

Elsewhere, little would have happened. Not so in Bangalore. Recently, on June 7, some 250 students of the New Horizon English School staged a silent protest on the streets near Indiranagar. 'We demand action,' said their simple banners. Their move did not shame any authorities into any action except, as subsequent events would show, make some conscientious high court judge take note.

The Public Affairs Centre, headed by the mercurial Samuel Paul spearheaded this agitation. In true Bangalore-IT style, the call to arms was put up on the PAC Web site ( Apart from the 250 students, a fromer chief secretary, police commissioner, cricketer and an artist were involved.

They also submitted a petition to the chief minister who in characteristic style must have promised 'to look into it.' Blaming a court case for inaction is the easiest recourse for most, if not all, non-performing governments and politicians.

Didn't plan for a jam

Co-incidentally, this writer got delayed by the protest as well, passing by on the way towards the Leela Palace Hotel for a Nasscom seminar that morning.

While the first reaction was to curse the cause of the slowdown, watching the young and old people with black arm bands standing in silent protest, one felt consoled, even happy. At least one national news network was there, filming live.

Rajeeva Ratna Shah, member-secretary, Planning Commission, bound for the same venue, was caught too. On the way from the airport, he could have saved a good 20 minutes had he had alighted from his car and crossed the road to the Leela instead of going up to Indiranagar junction and U-turning.

He did not, and hundreds of India's BPO czars, ranging from GE Capital and E-Serve to WNS and EXL, fidgeted till he arrived, more than half hour late for his keynote address at 9.30 a.m.

Nasscom chairman Kiran Karnik used the opportunity to make another case for better infrastructure in the city even as he apologised for Shah's late arrival.

Shah himself talked of the government's support to Bangalore, but only in what seemed to be an afterthought after a rather long slide presentation where the key point was: a manpower shortage is around the corner for the ITES-BPO industry, 260,000 less workers than the required 1 million workers by 2009. Nasscom subsequently refuted that.

If Shah had instead spoken off how the government could manage infrastructure, quickly, he would have had a far more grateful and attentive audience. The IT & ITES industry recognise the manpower shortage perhaps better than the government does and are working furiously to battle it; Nasscom and most large companies are working on training programmes, certification modules, talking to educational institutions and so on.

But they can't build flyovers, at least not yet.

The dapper Karnataka IT secretary Shankaralinge Gowda was late too, apparently he stopped to make peace with the protestors at Indiranagar junction. Gowda is not smug, quite unlike his present political bosses, and gives the impression of a man who is working to find a solution.

Like all good bureaucrats, he's armed with facts and figures and facing him in a debate is not a good idea unless you are too. But he too has been unable to get the flyover up.

Moving on. . . slowly

There is some movement in the cars up ahead and my energetic driver whips the car to the left and squeezes it into a gap that just opened up.

Another agonizing 15 minutes pass before we reach the end of Airport Road and the beginning of MG Road, now closer to Taj West End, the destination for the evening. The traffic is no less fierce here but it's moving.

Late last year, in a public debate, I asked Infosys CFO Mohandas Pai on whether the IT industry should invest in infrastructure since the government had obviously failed in doing so. Pai lost his cool. "We (the private sector) have generated employment and contribute so much to the city by way of revenue. It's the government's job to build the infrastructure. If we have to finance the infrastructure too, why do we need the government?"

He may be right but being right is not the solution. The Indiranagar flyover is one of Bangalore's many problems, the still, still-born International Airport at Devanahalli is yet another. As is the Mysore Expressway. All projects stuck for no apparent reason except that someone has not been kept happy.

In the same debate, both PAC's Samuel Paul and Nandi Infrastructure (the folks behind the Mysore Expressway) MD Ashok Kheny felt that the private sector should take charge. Kheny felt the industry should wrest the task of development into its hands, while PAC's Samuel felt the private sector needed to contribute more than just more income for cars for which there were no roads.

There is one example already. Right in Bangalore, the IT companies and the National Highway Authority have joined hands to build a Rs 450 crore (Rs 4.50 billion) flyover to Electronics City. Having realised complaining was a waste of time, the solution-oriented IT giants decided to put money down. Now to see whether and when this project sees the light of day.

The court steps in

For a poster city, things are not moving fast enough, note that every head of state visiting India includes Bangalore in his or her itinerary, even capital city Delhi seems an afterthought. Bangaloreans are proud and working hard to ensure things move but the government seems particularly uncaring.

Bangalore still can be rescued, unlike Mumbai which is going the Kolkata way. Meanwhile, only the judiciary seems to offer some respite.

Two weeks after the citizen's protest and the Nasscom forum, the Karnataka high court rapped the BDA and held it responsible for the delay in completion in the Airport Road flyover. The court also set aside the BDA order that had terminated the contract.

Last week, perhaps the day that followed the Airport Road jam, the BDA said work would resume and announced a new completion date: August 2006.

Lots of people and organisations are concerned and working for Bangalore.

Here are some links: I particularly recommend the first two.

The author works for CNBC-TV18. The views expressed here are his own.

Govindraj Ethiraj