Infrastructure Islands

This my first post and it is not a pretty one. There is the real Silicon Valley and there is the Bangalore of 2014. The Bangalore where shoddy planning has resulted in lakes filled with sewage; pothole-ridden, vehicle-clogged roads; and believe it or not, traffic jams on the 3g airwaves. Take the Whitefield area as an example. Incomes are high, villas and apartments are coming up but the quality of life is poor. The erstwhile industrial zone is connected to the city via two arterial roads about 6 km apart. During rush-hour it takes 60 minutes to navigate from either of these gateways to the heart of the IT zone for a distance of only 7 or 8 km. Other than more frequent buses, there are no improvements in connectivity in the last 10 years. On a weekday it is impossible to connect to leading mobile networks to make or take calls during office hours. It can take up to 2.5 hours to reach a city pub on Friday evenings. Short of water surrounding Whitefield, it can truely be described as an island – an infrastructure island. The property prices in Whitefield are high partly because of this – closeness to offices be damned!

A city that can expand in all directions can sometimes do so haphazardly and resources are stretched too thin to accommodate this. An initial boom in infrastructure was cut short by State Governments that were keen not to be seen as developing Bangalore – a city far from the Kannada heartland and politically difficult to explain. The city government was quick to adopt IT to help citizens manage public services but infrastructure was never on the table. The metro (a relatively expensive public service) is designed to fail because it does not connect the major IT zones in the much delayed first phase.

The impact is not insignificant even if this study gets the numbers wrong by a factor of 10! Working from home is not a great option because of power cuts and difficulty in accessing high-speed (10 MBPS or higher) broadband speeds.

Since constructive criticism is better than ranting, here are some ideas:

  • Concrete trucks and office traffic do not mix well! Pollution and residential populations do not either! Shift industries from today’s de facto IT and residential zones that are de jure industrial areas. Use that land to build up infrastructure – metro and shuttle bus stations, parking lots, replanned and wider roads and what not.
  • Do the same for cantonment areas. Convert them to green parks traversed by fenced off arterial roads and metro lines.
  • Better zoning: A simple example, convert a couple of airfields in the city’s outskirts into academic zones where existing institutions can move to or new ones can be setup.
  • Roads: Build the next ring road and start planning for the one after that! (Think Beijing). Build redundancy into the road networks.
  • Re-prioritize and redo metro plans pragmatically. Offer large campuses (office or otherwise) access to metro stations if they provide land.
  • Garbage is a huge problem. Garbage segregation works and kids can teach their parents. Teach the kids how to segregate!
  • Building sewage treatment plants and connected systems accompanied by rejuvenation of lakes over a 10-year time-frame
  • Fibre-optic backbones need better penetration. Since digging roads is a favourite hobby in Bangalore, some common sense and coordination would ensure this since every road in Bangalore is dug every few months. Provide incentives to older lay-outs and apartments to ensure last mile connectivity.
  • Power: Honestly the situation isn’t too bad where I live in Bangalore but millions of Indians don’t have it good. The Central (Federal) Government needs to act on it. Solar power can help and is definitely under-used.
  • Cellular networks: Get Defence spectrum reallocated at decent prices. The towers and networks will take care of themselves! Except for the diesel generators that power these towers! So we have to address the previous point about power.

Finally, a tribute to those who did the opposite of what I did – The Ugly Indian. Their motto is simple – stop talking, start working. Something that works very well for keeping a city clean. Getting the government to fix infrastructure needs more supporting voices though and my small note is another drop in the ocean. Hope all this improves because a lot of talent sits in Bangalore each day and gets burnt out. A move to greener pastures is an option that the cream will take very easily. This will be followed slowly by the cream of the technology companies and India could ill-afford this with its burgeoning population of aspirational job-seekers who cannot get off the islands!