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Bengaluru’s solutions are Bengaluru’s problems
The Nutgraf is a 10-min newsletter sent at 10 AM IST every Saturday. It connects the dots and synthesizes one big event in business, technology and finance that happened over the week in India. In a way you’ll never forget.
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Just 10 mins longSynthesis not analysisSometimes memes
10 Sep, 2022
Why air-conditioned railway stations are political
A paid 🔒 weekly emailer that explains fundamental shifts in business, technology and finance that happened over the last seven days in India. In a way you’ll never forget. Someone sent you this? Sign up here
Good Morning Dear Reader,
I’ll start with a personal story.
A few years ago, I used to work at an office on Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru. Technically, the road encircles the entire city, but when people talk about ORR in conversation, they usually refer to a 6 km stretch from Bellandur to Marathalli. Along this arc lie hundreds of companies which make up the beating heart of India’s Silicon Valley. Flipkart. InMobi. Intuit. Bosch. Intel. Microsoft. Morgan Stanley. LinkedIn. Collectively, there’s probably more value in that stretch than in several nations.
Every weekday morning, along with tens of thousands of developers, managers, and executives, I would arrive on Outer Ring Road on a public bus in front of my office and grapple with the hardest problem I’d face that day.
I had to figure out how to cross the road.
There are just two scenarios on the Outer Ring Road. Either it’s at a standstill, or it’s three lanes of cars and buses zooming by at express speeds, usually driven by drivers who’ve fought traffic for hours and are in no mood to slow down and let you cross. And so, everyday, all morning and all evening, people would wait on one side of the road, waiting for others to join them, seeking safety in numbers to scurry across whenever the slightest opportunity arose.
Fortunately, I didn’t get run over, but many did. There were several accidents.
So, these companies went to Bengaluru’s authorities and asked them to do something so their employees wouldn’t get killed on their way to work.
And so they tried again. There were online petitions.
And finally, these companies did what you’d expect them to do.
They built a solution themselves. It cost Rs 4.7 crore (~US$600,000) and they even had to fight cases during the construction phase. But finally, it was done. It’s a fairly distinctive skywalk, in red loops.
And if you’ve been following what’s been happening in Bengaluru last week, it probably looks familiar.
Last week, when Outer Ring Road was flooded after rains lashed Bengaluru, most videos and photos documenting the situation were shot from this skywalk. Take any video, and it’s usually in the foreground.
A lot of people see this skywalk as a success story. It was built as a public private partnership by companies to solve a specific problem their employees faced, in good faith. In fact, companies all along the Outer Ring Road tried to build footbridges, overpasses, and did all kinds of things to protect their employees. They helped the Bengaluru government get funding and accelerate the construction of a metro line. Many companies collectively even hired cranes and kept them on standby so that when a vehicle broke down it could be removed quickly to keep traffic flowing.
Everyone knows that Bengaluru’s public infrastructure is broken. There are tons of pictures and videos of dug-up roads, abandoned flyovers, and encroached lakes. We know this. We’ve seen all of this.
A lot of people think that the big problem in Bengaluru is the lack of development.
The bigger problem is what people think successful development is supposed to look like.
The solution is part of the problem.
Let’s dive in.
Can a bridge have politics?
[Illustrated by Adhithi Rajagopal at The Ken]
Back in 1980, a political theorist named Langdon Winner published a journal article titled ‘Do Artifacts Have politics?’
Don’t be fooled by the dull-sounding title. Winner’s paper is one of the most influential academic papers ever written. It’s been cited thousands of times, and is usually mandatory reading if you work in an area that involves society, politics, and technology.
The central question that Winner asks is this:
Do technological objects have political properties? Do they inherently have attributes that give them power and authority?
You may be tempted to say no. You may argue that technology is generally neutral and can be deployed by human beings in all manner of ways. Some of this may either be good, bad, or for evil purposes. The prevailing argument is that technology isn’t inherently political, its usage is what makes it political.
Winner disagrees. He says that objects have politics inherent to themselves. And as a result, objects create massive social consequences just by the way they are designed and made, independent of who wields them.
In broad strokes, to understand how Bengaluru’s urban structures changed, we need to understand how India changed. For the first few decades after independence, most urban development happened through a system of robust central planning, usually all the way from the top to the bottom, to decide on acquisition, allocation, and distribution of resources. Central governments made five-year plans. Cities made Master Plans. And India grew and expanded under this model.
Post-liberalisation, this approach started to change. Private capital entered into sectors one by one, and over time, the state began withdrawing from all these spaces. Sure, some of this was good for people like us, because the state was doing a terrible job anyway. But as private capital went deeper, the state lost the incentive to do the basic stuff for the people who needed it the most. Think about, say, public schools. When education was the exclusive domain of the government, it gave it its full attention. But when private schools emerged, the quality of public education fell even more steeply.
This is also true about urban development.
Right in the middle of Bengaluru’s business district, there’s a skyscraper called the Public Utility Building. If you drive down M G Road, you can’t miss it. It’s the tallest building in the area, overlooking the Chinnaswamy Stadium and Cubbon Park. I’d argue that it’s located in the most desirable location in the entire city.
The Public Utility building was constructed in the early 1970s and was a shopping destination for the next couple of decades. The building was filled with shops, offices, and even had a wonderful restaurant at the top-most floor, with a stunning view of the city.
If anything, you’d expect this building to be even more valuable today.
Traders who have set up shops inside the Public Utility Building hardly receive any new customers. Out of 85 shops in the complex, which occupies the first and second floors of the building, only 30 to 35 are now open for business.
Those who still run their businesses there say that one of the main reasons for traders to close their shutters was the landlord – the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).
Members of Public Utility Building Traders’ Association (PUBTA) alleged that maintenance and security arrangements have been neglected by the BBMP. When The Hindu visited the building recently, the hallways and stairwells were stained, while the stench of washrooms could be smelt from a distance.
Inside the washrooms, there were no doors in some stalls and the taps on washbasins were not running. At many places in the complex, there were also electrical wires hanging out of boxes.
The traders here also said that BBMP increases rent by at least 7% every once in a while, and it becomes a huge burden on them.
“They now demand ₹50 to ₹60 per square feet, much like the private spaces on M.G. Road and Brigade Road which is not easily bearable by the traders here. As most floors here are occupied by the BBMP offices, all of the rent which is missed out there is being forced on us. First of all, apart from our fixed customers, nobody new turns up here at all. Even if they come, the state of complex is so poor that they will not revisit,” said K. Ramachandran, president of the association.
While it was a premium shopping hub in the 1980s and the 1990s, some traders confessed to now regretting staying at the complex for decades. Some said that they open their shops and sit there the whole day and on some days, not even one customer shows up.
They say that they cannot relocate to different places as it will not be financially feasible.
Height of neglect: Bengaluru’s Public Utility Building a shadow of its former self, The Hindu
For many of us, this seems to be a simple story of corruption, negligence, and incompetence. It seems obvious to us that the BBMP can make this building into a cash generating machine. Tons of startups, companies, and commercial establishments would pay top dollar to get access to this prime location if the basics got sorted out.
Just stop the political bickering, privatize it, and make money off the building, you’d argue.
But what if the building itself had politics inherent to it?
Winner argues that there are two ways artifacts have political properties.
The first way is by decision. It may be the choices made to develop or make a product, and the specific features around its design and arrangement. These things by themselves add political properties to an object, independent of who uses them.
In his paper, Winner gives a memorable example to illustrate this—the height of bridges in Long Island, New York.
Here’s what it looks like.
As you can see, the bridges are quite low, and only permit certain types of vehicles to enter Long Island. This was done deliberately by Robert Moses, who was responsible for designing the urban landscape of New York. As a result of this design, buses couldn’t enter this part of the city, which automatically excluded poorer and black Americans from moving into this area. The only people who could go here unhindered were those with cars of their own, which were usually well-to-do, white people. To this day, these bridges have decided who lives in Long Island, and who doesn’t.
On the face of it, bridges feel like development. But as we now know, artifacts have political attributes. They aren’t neutral.
In Bengaluru, if you walk in the Central Business District, all the way from Church Street off MG Road and all around St Marks Road, you’ll notice that the footpaths and pedestrian crossings seem amazing. In fact, the rest of the city is practically unwalkable, but this area is an exception. And that’s because of an initiative called TenderSURE, which was responsible for building these spaces.
TenderSURE is part of something called the Smart City Project through funds released by the central government.
And how does the central government decide which city needs the funds?
It makes them compete with each other.
The programme has put Indian cities in competition with each other to access a share of government money. Ninety proposals have received funding for a wide variety of projects, from building mobile applications to housing to new “greenfield” cities from scratch. Cities are expected to leverage the national funds to attract additional public and private investment.
Two years into it, many urban experts are asking whether the initiative is addressing the real problems facing too many people in India’s teeming cities: crushing poverty, a lack of basic services and an ever-present risk of being forced to leave one’s home.
The latest critique comes from the Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network, a civil society coalition. The group recently released a study that looks at the Smart Cities Mission through the lens of human rights and social justice — and finds it seriously wanting.
The study makes the point that while “smart” city proposals offer a varied menu of technological solutions for better cities, it slips up massively by not outlining a comprehensive vision that takes into account the shortfall of basic services many urban Indians face.
“We have to deal with the basics first,” the network’s executive director, Shivani Chaudhry, said in an interview with Citiscope. “The fact is that a large part of our urban population is living in really dismal conditions, without basic services.
“Smart cities are not based on city-wide plans,” Chaudhry continued. “They cater to a select population within a city. More than smart cities, we need smart solutions in an inclusive policy framework. Equity should be at the heart of urban planning.”
New report adds to mounting criticism of India’s Smart Cities Mission, Citizen Matters
Twice a week, when I go to the office, I use those lovely pedestrian crossings to get to work. They are liberating.
It feels like development.
But is it?
When cities lose control of their destiny, usually because the money for development comes from other sources through a competition, it forces cities to build what they can get their hands on. There’s no cohesive plan anymore. And all of this capital comes with its caveats, clauses, and conditions. Like how TenderSURE is a form of development using funds given by someone else to build something in isolation through a competition. This approach also has consequences. Like how Bengaluru has spent five years trying to build a flyover nobody needs in Koramangala because the funds were originally given and then withdrawn by the Union Government.
And just like with central planning, this approach of making entities compete to get access to funds for development starts from the top and goes all the way down. The message is that everyone needs to fend for themselves and fight for what they want. Nothing is given without conditions. You can be the best at what you do, or the one who needs it the most, or the one who deserves it more than others, but capital cares little about all of those things.
Here’s how Mohandas Pai describes how this happens to Bengaluru.
"Bengaluru is the wealthiest city in India today. It has a per capita income of about $10-11,000. It receives one of the lowest investments for its governance. We are the country's second-largest payer of income tax, third-largest deposit base for any city, and fourth-largest in lending. But then, what do we get for all our taxes? Peanuts!
We have only 26-28 seats in the legislature out of 228 seats. We have a political class which rules Bangalore, takes all our tax money, puts it in the rural areas, gets the votes and comes back to show us the finger."
The political attributes of artifacts around us also distorts our understanding of what development really means.
For instance, I bet you didn’t know that just last month, India’s first fully air-conditioned railway station was inaugurated in Bengaluru. The pictures are remarkable. It looks and feels like a modern airport.
And it’s practically on the Outer Ring Road.
Yeah, I know. I was surprised too.
That’s an actual railway station. There’s a food court, a VIP lounge, and several modern facilities. It was built at a cost of Rs 300 crore (US$3.8 million), funded by the Indian Railways.
Again, an air-conditioned railway station feels like development.
Saritha (name changed) said she waited for 25 minutes at the bus stand near Baiyappanahalli metro station, but came across no bus to the new terminal.
Anusha waited at the bus stop near Swami Vivekananda metro station for about 45 minutes, but found no bus towards the new terminal. “I couldn’t even get an auto from there. Finally, I managed to find an Ola cab, but it cost me a lot,” Anusha said. DH spoke to several people in the vicinity of the new terminal and they confirmed the lack of buses.
Those who use private vehicles to reach the terminal have to negotiate the narrow stretch of road.
The poor suffer the most as they walk the two km from Old Madras Road to avoid shelling out money for an autorickshaw.
The auto rickshaw fare from the Baiyappanahalli metro station to the new railway terminal ranges from Rs 80 to Rs 180.
The Swami Vivekananda and Baiyappanahalli metro stations are just 2 km and 2.5 km, respectively, from the terminal.
So why the high fares? It turns out that autorickshaw drivers do not get passengers in the return direction. “There is a bus available from the other side. There is no bus from here that goes to the new terminal. The sharp bends make it difficult for the buses to ply on that route,” a driver said.
So near, so far: the agony of accessing Sir M Visvesvaraya railway terminal, Deccan Herald
Remember those bridges in Long Island?
Bengaluru’s urban development has always been dictated by the accessibility and availability of capital. Sometimes it’s from the central government, or the state government, or by government entities like the Indian Railways. And this results in situations where the state government has to mortgage public buildings, like the Town Hall, yes, the city’s Town Hall, to get access to funds to pay contractors.
And sometimes, things get built because the money comes from private individuals and companies.
There’s an elevated expressway in Bengaluru that runs from Silk Board Junction all the way to Electronics City. While the traffic below crawls and snarls and is incredibly slow, the expressway is a breeze.
So how did this marvel of engineering get constructed?
Well, here’s a news story about how it happened, published back from 2004. Read it and see if any of it sounds familiar in 2022. Note the stakeholders involved in the project, and who asked for it.
Would Langdon Winner agree that the elevated expressway, by the way it was designed and arranged, has political properties, independent of who uses them?
I think he would.
But according to Winner, there’s another way artifacts have political properties.
And that’s not by decision, but by necessity.
His argument is that certain technological artifacts need certain kinds of political arrangements to exist. Like how nuclear power plants are more compatible with a centralised authority that’s able to get land, capital, talent, specialised infrastructure, and a lot of other things. On the other hand, something like, say, solar power is decentralised and does not need a strong authoritarian government to get wide adoption.
Right now, what’s happening in Bengaluru is that the political properties of its bridges, buildings, flyovers, and railway stations are derived both by decision and by necessity. A skywalk is built across a road to solve a specific problem asked for by a specific entity, which cares about nothing else except to prevent its employees from getting run over. Flyovers are built because someone else in another part of the city wants it, even if it excludes the vast majority of people in that area. Air-conditioned railway stations are made because the Indian Railways will fund it, without any regard for how people will get to the station. A building languishes in the heart of the city. Bungalows worth crores go underwater.
Bengaluru’s solutions are Bengaluru’s problems.
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