Indian city has work to do on its high-tech reputation

Bengaluru is the centre of the Indian IT industry, a major biotechnology centre, and the focus of the national aerospace industry

Downtown Bengaluru: Many of the US multinationals operating in Ireland also have operations in the city.  Photograph: EPA/JAGADEESH NV

Downtown Bengaluru: Many of the US multinationals operating in Ireland also have operations in the city. Photograph: EPA/JAGADEESH NV

 

The Garden City of India, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), has an attractive climate, being about 900m above sea level and thus much cooler than many other parts of the country. When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the population of Bengaluru in the southern and rural state of Karnataka was just 400,000. By 1961 it had grown to just over a million. Today it is about 10 million and is the third most populous city in India.

I visited recently as part of the work to replicate the Science Gallery, founded at Trinity College Dublin, to various other cities around the world.

With the severe distension of the city, the civic infrastructure has clearly struggled. In the city centre I found little evidence of garbage collection and frequent dumping pretty much everywhere. There are few pavements and most are severely potholed. Some suburban streets are unpaved and turn to mud in heavy rain.

The main thoroughfares are far too narrow for the traffic volumes. Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuktuk auto-rickshaws blare their horns to compete for every centimetre, not just in front but especially for gaps to the right and left. Cycling would be suicidal; walking is perilous and attempting to cross the road foolhardy in the extreme.

The Karnataka pollution-control agency is now proposing to physically confiscate horns from all motorbikes and tuktuks so as reduce unnecessary noise. Seven major city thoroughfares are going to have their already narrow width further reduced so as to make room for safe pavements and cycle lanes, in the face of very considerable public debate.

Plan every trip

Despite the difficulties of physically moving across the city, Bengaluru is the centre of the Indian IT industry, also a major biotechnology centre, and the focus of the national aerospace industry.

The Mangalyaan satellite went into successful orbit around Mars last September and was managed by the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bengaluru, the first Asian space agency to do so.

Almost half of India’s biotechnology companies are headquartered in Bengaluru. The most well-known is Biocon, which is quoted on the NYSE and was founded by an Indian female entrepreneur who at one time was a trainee manager at a biochemical company in Cork.

Kiran Mazumbar-Shaw struggled because of her gender, youth and novel business model. Financing her start-up was extremely difficult, the power and water infrastructures for a biotechnology start- up were highly unpredictable, yet she has built a major global biopharmaceutical company now employing 4,500 people.

Coincidently, she has been honorary consul-general to Ireland since 2007.

Bengaluru is perhaps best known as the Silicon Valley of India. Major Indian-founded and owned IT multinationals operate from Bengaluru, including Infosys, Microland and Wipro. Many of the US multinationals operating in Ireland also have operations in Bengaluru, which they choose despite both the corporate taxation rate (at 40 per cent, much higher than our own 12.5 per cent) and weak infrastructure. Many US venture capital funds are active across the city, including Accel Partners, Charles River, Lightspeed Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

Last January, Facebook acquired the Bengaluru-founded Little Eye Labs, whose software tool analyses the performance of Android apps, in a deal whose terms were not publicly quoted but were strongly rumoured to be “very attractive”. As a landmark deal, it has added inspiration and further momentum to the already strong start-up culture.

Across India, infrastructure is improving, not least broadband access. In turn, the Indian population now expects internet access as a basic right. Global IT players are reacting fast: Microsoft has just announced it is building three major cloud data centres across India. IBM is increasing its investment, while Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos noted last September that India was at long last ready.

The national government has just announced an open-source initiative, launching its own software repository for the source code of hundreds of custom- built government applications nationwide. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a prolific user of social media (some 25 million Facebook likes and 8 million followers on Twitter).

Balanced development

Perhaps most of all, the greatest concern for Bengaluru is a rising gap between the well-paid professionals in the high-technology sectors and the rest of the city population and of the rural areas.

There is severe pressure on land and property prices across the city, which in turn has consequences for social cohesion. Bengaluru has work to do to reconcile its modern reputation as the Silicon Valley of India with its older reputation as the Garden City of India, if it is to be a modern, green and healthy metropolis.

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