Bob Hoekstra looks at the potholed, jammed road from his glass-clad office and shakes his head. But the crumbling road is only part of a larger rot that worries the CEO of Dutch multinational Philips’ cutting-edge research centre.
India’s tech homeland urgently needs an international airport, a metro, and—most important—a government committed to a work-plan that should be under implementation every day, says Hoekstra, 59, a Dutchman who’s watched the city’s four-year upturn covert into sharp decline during 2004.
‘‘In the last six months, we have gone back ten years,’’ said Hoekstra, a Bangalore loyalist who said his board could now question a recently approved $50-million new investment. ‘‘Bangalore represents India. If the city does not scale up fast, why come here at all?’’ argues Hoekstra, who in October startled the government by boycotting India’s signature infotech event, BangaloreIT.com. ‘‘If we lose out now, we lose out to China.’’
The damage to India’s biggest brand couldn’t have come at a worse time. Foreign investors have poured a record $7.3 billion into India this year ($1.4 billion in November alone). The topping to the rising cake of success will come tomorrow as some of the globe’s biggest names descend on the World Economic Forum’s summit in Delhi to take stock of India’s journey.
Here, that journey is wobbling—literally.
Lines of vehicles back up along the roads sealed off to allow free access to the three-car motorcade of Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh.
ON LIFE SUPPORT
‘‘If we don’t do something very quickly, fallout as far as foreign investment goes could be serious.”N R Narayana Murthy, Infosys
‘‘I’ve never seen it so bad ... we’re all shouting ourselves hoarse, but it’s all falling on deaf ears.”Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Biocon
‘‘We don’t see the scene improving. Hence, our decision to look beyond Bangalore.’’Azim Premji, Wipro
‘‘In six months, we’ve gone back 10 years...My investment is threatened,’’Bob Hoekstra, CEO, Philips Software
“Madtaiddivi, Madtaiddivi (We are doing it, we are doing it)”Dharam singh, CM, Karnataka‘‘Running this government is a very difficult task, it requires a lot of patience,’’ Singh, 67, tells The Sunday Express with a sigh as his Ambassador Grand barrels down the four lanes of a 12-km stretch of Hosur Road, a ramshackle highway that is the main route to Electronics City, the heart of India’s knowledge economy.
Down a side road, waiting as usual—even on a holiday—is India’s biotech icon and richest woman, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. ‘‘How can this happen even on a holiday?’’ fumes a frustrated Shaw later, narrating how growing jams are making two-hour commutes normal, crippling employee productivity, shocking foreign partners and forcing many meetings onto the cell phone.
In July, India’s richest man, Wipro Chairman Azim Premji in a rare public outburst said his future investments would not be in Bangalore. Dharam Singh promised redressal. But like Hoekstra, every CEO The Sunday Express spoke to said the downslide since has only gathered pace: if it continues, there will be no option for many but to move.
The patience that Singh prides himself on has worn thin in the gleaming glass towers and lush campuses of 1,200 IT firms and their 2 lakh employees. About a million people and industries feed off them—taxis, retail, banking, auto sales, hotels—firmly driving Bangalore’s booming economy. At stake, then, is much more than the future of investments worth about $15 billion (Rs 64,500 crore) made in this gridlocking, crumbling city of 7.2 million.
Since the Congress party began its coalition government with Singh—an affable leader with a love for Ghalib and ghazals—at the helm in June, Bangalore’s attempts to transform itself are rapidly unraveling: flyovers are stuck, so is a new international airport and metro, and the roads are simply falling apart.
Worse, the signals are all bad: a dedicated team of officers overseeing the upgradation of Bangalore has been systematically dismantled; and a unique government partnership with the city’s big names (headed by Infosys MD Nandan Nilekani), which oversaw the city’s progress over the last four years, has not just been ignored but even mocked by ministers in Singh’s government.
‘‘If people know you’re trying, they give you the benefit of the doubt,’’ says the CEO of one of India’s top three IT companies, requesting anonymity. ‘‘The previous improvements weren’t Nirvana, but the system was manfully coping, the investments came on the assumption that improvements would continue.’’
The sense of doom couldn’t come at a worse time. Bangalore accounts for 35 per cent of India’s software exports: expected to cross $16 billion (Rs 70,000 crore) this year.
A superheated IT growth rate of about 30 per cent means you can’t get a five-star hotel room in Bangalore unless you book more than six months in advance. And no bargains: you must pay the rack rate, which now hovers around $250 a night. Visitors are often sent to resorts upto two hours out of town when the hotels clog.
So six months in a city so besieged by growth implies (thousands of new techies, new companies and an explosion of support industries) that if support infrastructure doesn’t keep up, collapse is around the corner.
As he explains the difficulties of running a coalition government with a previously implacable foe, former Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), Singh does not see the irony of a nine-minute zip down a stretch of road where the Premjis, Narayana Murthys and Shaws spend at least two hours every day stuck in a daily commute that is now among the nation’s worst urban journeys.
ON LIFE SUPPORT
• 131-km peripheral ring road, critical to decongesting the city. Plans ready since January. Land acquisition hasn’t even started. The Flyovers • 3 flyovers started last year now deserted construction sites. No sign that deadline will be met. TheRoads • In shambles, pavements once laid with tiles chaotically dug up. PWD minister H D Revanna (Deve Gowda’s son) is bizarrely turning the blame on the IT industry, saying its representatives should have fixed the roads. The Airport • The Bangalore International Airport, despite getting a Central go-ahead, is grounded. No reason is being given. ‘‘We will clear it this month,’’ Dharam Singh said in November. It’s now December. The Task Force • The Bangalore Agenda Task Force, a body of bureaucrats and industry that planned and implemented civic works, helped revamp and skyrocket the city’s revenues, even built public toilets, has been ignored, even mocked by state govt‘‘I met Narayana Murthy and Premji, and I told them for four years we had no rain, this year we had lots of rain,’’ says Singh. “I told them we are pro-poor, pro-farmer. Don’t you need political credibility?’’ It’s a veiled reference to the rejection of the government of his predecessor S M Krishna—who promised to convert Bangalore into another Singapore—by rural voters.
‘‘At the same time,’’ Singh adds, ‘‘Krishna did good work. Bangalore now has a place in the world.’’ Isn’t it time then to keep that place instead of losing it to not just to Kochi or Kolkata or Chandigarh, but China?
‘‘Madtaiddivi, madtaiddivir, (we are doing it, we are doing it),” says a defensive Singh, who’s promised 15 new flyovers. ‘‘You can ask the people of the state, they are very happy.’’
‘‘Yesterday,’’ Singh continues airily, ‘‘I opened a flyover’’. He doesn’t mention it was built by the railways over a rail crossing, and had nothing to do with his planners. ‘‘I have a fixed time-bound programme. I have released Rs 400 crore for roads, I am monitoring day to day. There were heavy rains first. Now, work will begin.’’
But the work is sporadic, there is no urgency. At two major flyover sites, workers and engineers have been scarce for the last six months. “We are sorry for the delay,” proclaim signs with December 2004 and March 2005 deadlines, which simply will not be met. At one intersection spanning the crucial road to the airport, not a worker was visible over all of the last two weeks.
Not surprisingly, rivals are now seeing great opportunity in Bangalore’s distress. ‘‘We are closely tracking developments in Bangalore after the statement by Mr Premji,’’ admits West Bengal’s IT minister Manab Mukherjee.
At BangaloreIT.Com, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy tried luring IT further south. Wipro Software has got itself 200 acres in Thiruvananthapuram and Infosys 50 acres. Consultant McKinsey has set up an outsourcing centre and Tata Consultancy Services is building a training centre. All this despite Kerala’s big problem—poor English skills.
In Tamil Nadu, English isn’t a problem. TCS has acquired 70 acres for a 20,000-strong development centre, Wipro intends to ramp up its campus to 20,000 and Infosys to 25,000. A new technology park at Hosur is only an hour’s drive south of Electronics City.
As for China, it seems closer than ever before.