Bangalore Best Indian city to live in

Bangalore Best Indian city to live in

Vienna has been ranked as the world's best city to live in on the global list, which has five Indian cities - Bangalore (141st), New Delhi (143rd), Mumbai (144th), Chennai (150th) and Kolkata (151st).

Despite its top Indian ranking, Bangalore's worldwide rank is very low at 141st position in a list of 221 cities globally in terms of standard of living, compiled by the 'Quality of Living Survey - Worldwide Rankings, 2011' by the global HR (human resources) consultancy major Mercer.

If you wonder about Bangalore, how the city used to be and where it is headed, this is the piece you must read. Despite divisions, the city appears to be miraculously free of the fatalism seen elsewhere.

“You know you’re in Bangalore, you know you’re in the Silicon Valley of India, when you go to play golf and the caddy on the first tee says you can either aim at the Microsoft building or the IBM building. You know you’re in Bangalore when you see the Pizza Hut advertisement says ‘gigabytes of taste’,” famously said the US journalist Thomas Friedman in 2004. Ever since, reams have been written on outsourcing, the software boom and the rise of the uber-smart, uber-rich new technogeeks of Bangalore.

An upmarket mall in the Koramangala, IT heartland. Pic: Meera Iyer.

As a city, Bangalore was industrialised fairly early on. Sir M Visvesvaraya, Diwan of Mysore state during the early 1900s, spurred this process with his belief in the maxim, Industrialise or perish. Several technical and academic institutions, including the Indian Institute of Science, were subsequently established in Bangalore. Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, the city saw the establishment of several large public- and private-sector industries, including Hindustan Aeronautics, Bharat Earth Movers and Indian Telephone Industries.

Still further on, Bangalore became a centre for the automotive industry, with the establishment of the Motor Industries Company, a collaboration with the German company Bosch. The Indian Space Research Organisation came to Bangalore during the 1970s. By then, with its tradition of knowledge-based industries and academic excellence well established, Bangalore was thoroughly primed to exploit the coming computer revolution.

“If you live here, work here, eat here, if you respect this place and its culture, you are a Bangalorean.”

- Velu K, an autorickshaw driver

Despite the number of glitzy malls and departmental stores, many people still prefer shopping in street markets like this one in Basavanagudi. Pic: Meera Iyer.

The greater cause of resentment, however, is the perceived erosion of the importance of Kannada. Most upper-class migrants, such as ‘Subroto’ (name changed on request), who works as a software manager in a multinational company, feel no need to learn Kannada, which is important only if one needs to “talk to an autorickshaw driver, milkman or vegetable vendor.” A visibly distressed Y M Balakrishna, the former head of a research and development unit at the Motor Industries Company and a long-time resident of Basavanagudi says, “If you go to Gandhi Bazaar (a bustling market nearby), you hear Tamil, Hindi and Telugu – but no Kannada. I don’t know where all the Kannadigas are – perhaps they have gone abroad?”

 “If you go to Gandhi Bazaar, you hear Tamil, Hindi and Telugu – but no Kannada. I don’t know where all the Kannadigas are – perhaps they have gone abroad?”
- Y M Balakrishna, former head of a research and development unit at the Motor Industries Company (MICO)

Economic divide

If language divides in Bangalore, so do economics and geography. As the city’s IT sector was growing by leaps and bounds, so too were its slums. Official statistics vary, with some sources like the 2001 census giving a figure of 733 slums and others, like the City Development Plan of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission of 2006 giving a figure of 542 slums with a population of 1.4 million. But unofficial estimates from civil-society organisations, such as the Alternative Law Forum and the Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City (CIVIC), estimate that there are actually closer to 1000 slums today, housing a third of the city’s population.

In addition, according to Kathyayini Chamaraj of CIVIC, there are approximately 800,000 construction workers who are often ‘hidden away’ on construction sites. Most slums and construction-site staff quarters have no proper toilets, roads, streetlights or garbage-disposal, and lack access to drinking water.

A little girl from a lower middle class neighbourhood watches the 32 floor upscale Lakeside Habitat apartment building that exists close-by.
(Pic: Vivek Muthuramalingam)

Any way you look at it, this situation has only become worse since Bangalore morphed into India’s Silicon Valley. “The rich enjoy a degree of luxury unimaginable earlier, while the poor have become poorer,” says Kathyayini. Wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, which has spiralled so high that, for most urban poor, there is little left over at the end of the day to spend on health or education. Kathyayini cites work by sociologists that shows that urban poor households can earn Rs.5100 or more a month, but only if all members of the family work, including the children.

Even so, there is usually a shortfall every month, which is made up through informal sources of credit such as chit funds and moneylenders, with the latter charging anywhere between 60-120 percent interest. The situation forces others to turn to prostitution. In fact, according to a 2007 study by German social scientist Christoff Dittirch, 30 percent of Bangalore’s population survives on a monthly household income of just Rs.2250 or less. At the other end of the spectrum, just two percent of Bangaloreans have a monthly household income of more than Rs.83,000, or about 37 times more than the bottom 30 percent. 

Quarters for construcution staff working on a high-rise apartment block in Bangalore. The open ground behind the quarters serves as the toilet. Pic: Meera Iyer.

Government initiatives for the urban poor are few and far between. Perhaps symptomatic of the attitude is the Bangalore Development Authority’s Comprehensive Development Plan of 2005, which omitted mentioning slums altogether, instead referring euphemistically to “shadow areas”. Meanwhile, even as funds flow towards urban infrastructure projects that enhance Bangalore’s image as a ‘global city’, the poor and their problems fall increasingly off the radar.

For example, in the recent state budget released this July, Bangalore received Rs.240 crores for road improvement, Rs.350 crores for the construction of 10 flyovers and underpasses on just a single road, Rs.700 crores for the city’s showpiece metro rail project (construction of which began last year, with an estimated total cost of almost Rs.6400 crores), an unspecified amount of money for 40 multilevel car parks and plans for a 65-km ring road costing Rs.3000 crores.

Meanwhile, allocation for housing programmes for all of Karnataka – which would include slum improvement and housing for the poor in Bangalore – stands at just Rs.820 crores. “The government’s idea of development is at significant variance with what development experts think of as development,” says Kathyayini. “They only think of flyovers and expressways, not of enabling human development.”

Clifton Rozario of the Alternative Law Forum says the lack of political will to work for the urban poor cuts across party lines. As an example, he cites an earlier government’s Bangalore Agenda Task Force, through which “the government solicited all advice on Bangalore’s development from the heads of IT companies – but not from anyone else. The problems of the poor are lost in the glitz of IT.”

Lower and lower-middle income housing with no open spaces. In the distance are some high-end apartments and glass-fronted IT office buildings. (Pic: Meera Iyer)

It is not as if the city’s rich are completely unaware of the economic disparities. A few in the upper echelons do feel that while there is indeed more money circulating in the lower sections of Bangalorean society today, it has certainly not been shared equitably. But such is the case “anywhere in the world”, says ‘Subroto’. “And what is the definition of a fair share?” he adds. There are also firm believers in the trickle-down theory. “We eat out every week, we go shopping … definitely, the money is reaching an end-user somewhere,” says Durga Prasad, a vice-president in one of the city’s top IT firms. “If you compare an autorickshaw driver with a techie, of course there will be a difference between the two. But if you compare a driver here with a driver in Vishakapatnam, then the Bangalore driver is definitely better off.” Adds Shwetha Krishnan, whose husband is in the IT industry, “People have full-time maids nowadays, and someone to look after their babies, someone to look after old people … things are very, very different from the 1980s.”

Ezhumallai, a vendor who sells fruit in front of the Bull Temple in one of Bangalore’s oldest suburbs, Basavanagudi, is one of those who see things a bit differently. An operation some years ago left him with a large scar running down his stomach, and an inability to walk or push his cart long distances. The software boom “hasn’t really affected me”, he begins uncertainly, before trailing off. Then he adds, “Except that the price of everything has gone up. I have two children to look after, as well as a wife and a mother. How can I keep pace?”

It is a plaint that is echoed by many. “Rents are up, food is costlier. It is very difficult to manage with an honest day’s work anymore,” says Ravishankar, who works as an office boy in a small transportation company. “Unke liye to fayda hua, hamare liye to nuksan hi nuksan,” says Syed Saleim, an autorickshaw driver. “They have gained, but for us it was only pain.” But hasn’t the influx of people and money led to more business for him? Saleim chuckles, “You think they travel by autos?”

A mushrooming middle-class housing area with no parks, playgrounds or open spaces. (Pic: Meera Iyer)

A major casualty of the expansion of Bangalore has been its open spaces. A city that earlier went by the sobriquet of ‘Garden City’, and was traditionally known for its many parks and lakes, today offers about half of its population less than a single square metre of open space per capita – several times lower than the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of 11 square metres. In contrast, the National Capital Region of Delhi has roughly 17 square metres of green space per capita.

Remaining green areas, such as Lalbagh and Cubbon Park, are indeed used by many. Saleim, for instance, says that he likes to spend a free day now and then with his family at the latter, because “you don’t need money to get in.” Both these large parks have gradually been whittled down over the years, while several smaller parks have succumbed entirely to real-estate pressures; in their place have sprung up roads, flyovers, sewage-treatment plants, government offices, places of worship, tennis courts and houses. Or, they have merely been made unavailable for anything other than jogging and walking, activities in which only the upper sections of society indulge.

Two percent of Bangaloreans have a monthly household income of more than Rs.83,000, or about 37 times more than the bottom 30 percent.

This crush has been repeatedly shown to be bad for an urban area’s overall health. As D S Ravindran, a Conservator of Forests in the Karnataka state government, says, “Open spaces like parks and playgrounds are important not just for health reasons like ventilation, but are also vital for social interactions and the general quality of life in a city.”

Some migrant labourers such as Lalit Kumar, who hails from Darchula District in Nepal, wish the city had more parks. “The markets are nice,” says Lalit, “but there is no greenery here, no places you can go to.” But Shilpi Mathur, a young software engineer, speaks for the majority when she notes that the absence of greenery may be how a community “pays the price for growth”. Evidently, wider roads with the promise of easier commutes are more important than the trees that might have to be axed to make them.

Indeed, it is precisely this perception that NGOs in the city, such as the Environment Support Group (ESG) and Hasiru Usiru (which loosely translates as ‘Greenery is Life’), have been actively trying to change. Vijay Narnapatti, of Hasiru Usiru, suggests that while “the majority experiences and appreciates the trees, for many, this experience may remain in the subconscious, without being expressed.” The solution, Narnapatti feels, might be to increase exposure and organise more awareness campaigns. But according to ESG’s Leo Saldanha, more than lack of awareness, it could be Bangalore’s somewhat apathetic ‘wait and watch’ culture that impedes wider public participation on these issues. The silver lining: the younger and newer residents of Bangalore are among those who are more responsive than the older generation, and are willing to stand up against the loss of green spaces.

A busy street in bustling Gandhi Bazaar area. (Pic: Meera Iyer)

Along with the reduced greenery and public space, Bangalore is also witnessing an erosion of its built heritage, both of which have perhaps contributed to a disconnect with the city for some residents. When Evelin Hust moved to Bangalore from Delhi to take over as director of the Max Mueller Bhavan, one of her first impressions of the city was that it seemed to have lost much of its identity. “Or maybe because of the traffic crises, people don’t want to move around much,” she adds, “so their engagement with the city is rather low.” This apparent loss of identity was what prompted the Max Mueller Bhavan’s recent series of heritage walks in the city. “Heritage is so much a part of one’s identity that we thought we should start with that to establish an identity,” Hust explains.

Like in other Indian cities, public spaces have shrunk, and young people in Bangalore with plenty of time and money to spare, have sought out other ways of spending both. Hanging out at Forum, an upmarket mall seems to be one particular favourite. “Have money, will shop. Have no money, will gawk!” jokes Aparna, who also likes spending time in the many restaurants and cafes that dot the city, where “you can relax over authentic German apple strudel”.

But, a lot of other Bangaloreans are decidedly uncomfortable with the habits of the young rich – Rohini Donkar, a nursery teacher says “All this mall culture is just a blind aping of the West”; and office boy Ravishankar squirms when he talks about the “free mixing of boys and girls…it is their money and their business, but how can I say it is alright.”

Moving with the times

Bangalore Now!!!

Bangalore now, by Narasimha Vedala.

Despite these inherent conflicts across the economic divide, there is a discernible pride in living in a city that has had such epithets showered on it as the ‘City of the Future’.

With the lure of opportunities and jobs in the city, there is little talk of packing up and leaving Bangalore anytime soon. For unskilled migrants, there is the increasing push of agrarian crises, low wages and unemployment in rural areas. A daily wage of Rs.75 in Bangalore remains attractive compared to the Rs.25 that many were receiving in their hometowns. Madhu, 22, currently working as a driver for a businessman, came to Bangalore three years ago from his village in Hassan District, with a small bag of clothes and little else. After a few weeks of working as a waiter in a small hotel, a few months as an assistant to a chemist and two years as a taxi driver, he now talks about his plans to buy his own car. “This city can be frightening at times, especially when you have no friends, and no money,” he says. “But thankfully, I was lucky. Now I can ask my parents to move here with me.”

In Bangalore, for every lucky Madhu, there is no doubt an unlucky someone else. But despite the ostentation and a growing gap between the two ends of the income spectrum, Bangalore continues to miraculously free itself of disaffection and fatalism. Janaki Nair, a historian, contrasts the situation in Bangalore with that in Calcutta, where she says, economic disparity has led to utter resignation among the lower classes. In Bangalore, though there are murmurs of resentment, most, like Madhu, dwell instead on their plans and hopes of eventually partaking in some of the wealth.

Globally, Vienna is followed by Zurich, Auckland, Munich, Dusseldorf, Vancouver, Frankfurt, Geneva, Copenhagen and Bern among the top-ranked cities in terms of quality of living, Mercer said.

In another list of the world's best cities in terms of personal safety standards, Luxembourg has been placed on the top, followed by Bern, Helsinki, Zurich, Vienna, Geneva and Stockholm.

On this list, Indian cities have been ranked a little better, as Bangalore has got 117th place, New Delhi and Kolkata shared the 127th position, Mumbai is at 142 and Chennai is placed at 108th.

The personal safety ranking has been on measures of internal stability, crime levels, law enforcement effectiveness and host-country's international relations.

A host of Indian and foreign IT companies, as also many multinational companies from other sectors, have set up shop in Bangalore for their outsourcing and R&D (research and development units).

On the other hand, Mumbai plays host to the companies mostly from the financial services sector, being the financial capital of the country, while New Delhi's attraction has been its status as the national capital. Chennai and Kolkata are have also been catching up fast in the recent past as major industrial hubs within the country.

Like all major Indian cities, Bangalore - a metropolis of about 5 million people on southern India's Deccan Plateau - is a sprawl of decaying single-story houses and shops, Soviet-style apartment buildings, crumbling colonial offices, and abominable shantytowns that extend miles into the countryside. The potholed roads look like they've been hit by an air strike. People are everywhere, lounging on their front stoops, buying goat carcasses, gliding through the crowded streets in colorful saris. Poverty is everywhere, too: Through the van's window I see an orange-clad devotee of Shiva the Destroyer begging for change, two cripples on all fours, and a leper with half a leg and rotting hands.

The source of these contrasts is Bangalore's digital economy, which in recent years has gone from being a sort of novelty act - Hey, India has a Silicon Valley! - to a humming, world-class engine of wealth. Bangalore is now home to 300 high tech companies that employ 40,000 people. Combined, these enterprises - plus the firms in lesser hubs like Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Pune - pumped out software and computer-related services to the tune of 176 billion rupees ($4 billion) last year. High tech accounted for 15 percent of the market capitalization on India's premier stock market, the Mumbai stock exchange.

India is also making a splash in American markets. A year ago, one Bangalore-based firm, Infosys Technologies, debuted on the Nasdaq exchange, becoming the first Indian company to appear on a US stock market. Opening at 373/8, Infosys stock was pushing $300 in late 1999. John Wall, president and COO of Nasdaq International, says more of the same is on the way, because American investors have finally figured out that India is loaded with highly trained IT professionals. So thrilled is Nasdaq that it recently led a press trip to tour some of the hottest companies and expose American reporters to the Bangalore vibe. "We've only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's out there in Bangalore," Wall says. "In the next 24 months you'll see a dozen more Indian IT firms list with us. They're already in the pipeline."

The effects of the Bangalore explosion - boomtown riches dropped into the middle of a third-world city - are dramatic, varied, and often unsettling, but one thing's for sure: A lot more people want in. Balbir Singh, a salesman who has no background in technology, hopes to make it as a dot-com player himself. He's the founder of a fledgling Web site ( devoted to the people, businesses, and news of Koramangala, the southside neighborhood that's home to most of Bangalore's software companies. I happened across his site and emailed him before I left for India. Hospitably, he has invited me into his home and offered to show me around town. In return, all he wants is a little exposure.

 The traffic gets nasty again. Singh, his pulsating carotid artery causing his beard to rise and fall, lays on the horn. "You've got to get in the game now," he says, peering at me through his thick lenses, "or you're gonna be left behind."

The annual income per person in India is still about Rs10,070, or less than $320. But since 1980, as Bangalore has become a high tech superpower at the heart of the Silicon Plateau (see "Bangalore," Wired 4.02, page 110), hundreds of millionaires - even a few billionaires - have been minted here. What's more, high tech has given thousands their first chance to buy into the middle-class life that's taken for granted in the United States.


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