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A chip on their shoulders

K. Jagannath is catching up on lost sleep these days. The gram panchayat president of Bellandur village, on the outskirts of Bangalore, spent a tense five days this week. This is an annual ritual with him. The cause of his discomfort was Bangalore's high-profile software fair, BangaloreIT.com.

Bangalore's annual software mela, held from November 1 to 5, hoped to lure ITwallahs to set up shop in the city. And this is just what Jagannath dreads. 'More companies would mean an increased requirement of office space. This means more farmland will be flattened,' he says.

In the cyberpolis of Bangalore, Jagannath is a bit of an oddity. There are bright lights all around him, for the BangaloreIT.com exhibition showcases the city's software industry as a world of glitz, growth and money. 'There are a record number of 1,322 companies registered with the Software Technology Parks of India (STPI), Bangalore,' reads one 150-type- size banner. 'Karnataka is IT's favourite destination,' reads another. The big daddies of the IT world ' from Microsoft downwards ' have set up stalls.

The city's sprawling Palace Grounds are covered in red carpet from boundary wall to boundary wall. The ground is bursting with people, a Rs 50 entry ticket no bar. There are nattily designed software stalls, peddling everything from animation to BPOs to the tourism sector.

All this while, Jagannath is quietly praying for every business deal to fall through. Jagannath has seen the IT boom from the other side of the fence. He has seen Bellandur village's metamorphosis from a laid-back paddy-growing hamlet to a prime satellite township, facing the problems of a sudden and unannounced urbanisation.

Bellandur village is situated on the Sarjapura Outer Ring Road, which falls bang in the centre of the Karnataka government's proposed IT corridor. This means that the humble Bellandur farmer is sitting on a gold mine. And big money can sometimes lead to big trouble. As it happened at Bellandur.

Jagannath is not your regular mundu-clad gram panchayat president who sits beneath a banyan tree and holds court. The chief of Bellandur village wears Nike shoes, sports a sleek black cellphone, claims to be a wizard with his PC, keeps tabs on the movements of every software company in town and has no qualms about taking on N.R. Narayana Murthy.

Jagannath had accused Infosys of acquiring fertile wet land in his village in 2002 at the World Economic Summit meet in New Delhi. Infosys hotly denied the charges but finally pulled out of Bellandur. The K. Jagannath versus the software industry battle has been raging ever since.

Fifteen years ago, selling farmland was considered a social crime in Bellandur. But economics has rewritten the local social norms. In the early Nineties, one acre of land along the Sarjapura Outer Ring Road cost Rs 4 lakh. Today the price has increased to Rs 2 crore. The money is often too good to refuse.

Land sharks are always the first to smell big money. Jagannath says the real estate mafia rules over the construction industry in the area. 'They make false ownership papers and illegally occupy our farmland,' says Jagannath. Land sale brought in big money but sealed all work avenues. 'No farmland meant no work. Easy money translated into increased alcoholism. The IT industry was of no help to the uneducated villagers,' he says.

The environment also took a beating. The Bellandur lake was once the life source for the village. 'We would drink the water from the lake, fish and swim in it. Bird-lovers visited Bellandur to study migratory birds,' remembers Jagannath. Urbanisation changed all that. The lake has now become a dumping ground for the city's sewage and industrial waste. And the migratory birds have made way for mosquito breeding.

Though Jagannath says his campaign is against the ills of development, not everybody concerned about the death of villages sees it as a strait-jacketed battle between urban and rural Bangalore. 'Bangalore presents a strong case for urban expansion. The IT companies are jacking up the GDP and they have to be catered to,' says Bangalore-based urban planner Swati Ramanathan, who has written a white paper on urbanisation for Berkeley.

But urban expansion, she stresses, has to follow a logical and democratic system. 'The development process needs to carry everyone with it,' she says. Ramanathan's field tours have revealed that the villages have had no say in the land-acquiring process.

That the villagers have no voice in Bangalore's urbanisation is apparent in the hamlets that surround the city. The Bellandur story has been repeated in a series of villages around Bangalore. Take the case of Bomsandra, which shares space with Electronic City, the nerve centre of Bangalore's IT industry.

The Electronic City campus, on Hosur Road ' which houses big IT players like Infosys, Wipro, HP and Siemens ' could pass off as a luxury suburban township. Men in orange dungarees continually clean the broad, tree-lined roads. Office buildings look like villas set in landscaped gardens. Security is top priority ' high walls with electrically charged barbed wires are built around each office complex. Every crossroad has detailed address boards.

The Infosys campus brings up one end of Electronic City. Take a right turn and you cut to a different world. Bomsandra looks typically rural Karnataka. The broad tar road gives way to a narrow mud track. A row of shanty shops and kuchcha houses replaces the villas. A hand pump substitutes for the hi-tech water coolers. The local barber's shop has a portrait of Anil Kapoor ' in dark glasses, a punk hair-do and magenta shirt ' proudly painted across the wall. Loud local music blares from a run-down radio in the shop.

Bomsandra stands as a pocket of poverty in a rich neighbourhood. Nagrappa, a veteran resident of the village, is still to acclimatise to the changed geography around the village. 'Bomsandra fell in a green belt area,' remembers Nagrappa. The village was surrounded by jungles and farmland. The local coir industry did a thriving business, what with coconut trees growing wild in the area. Nagrappa worked in the paddy fields by day and made coir ropes by night. His two cows fetched him some add-on income, and he earned enough to sustain his family of seven.

The IT boom changed the course of Nagrappa's life. The farms were flattened and the coconut trees hacked down. The coir industry gradually collapsed. Nagrappa had to sell off his cows as procuring fodder was becoming a problem. 'I was left jobless,' he says.

The unemployed farmhand applied for a small-time housekeeping job in one of the IT giants. 'My application was rejected outright,' he says. The software company wanted educated employees and Nagrappa had never been to school. He now runs a tea-stall in a small shed near Bomsandra.

Shikaripalaya village ' situated at another end of Electronic City ' would not have looked so scrawny, were it not for the swanky Wipro office a 100 yards away. Two worlds exist side by side. The American and Japanese flags flying outside the glass buildings speak a first-world language. The village down the road is a study in contrast ' mud roads, garbage heaps, clogged drains and shanty dhabas are the high points of a walk through Shikaripalaya. 'With time Shikaripalaya will develop into a slum area,' warns Ramanathan.

Frantic construction work is happening on every fringe of Electronic City. US-based Timken Industries is constructing an office near Bomsandra. Wipro is expanding its premises. For some villagers, the expansion means disappearing farm land and vanishing jobs. 'We are being pushed into a corner,' says Manjunath, a resident of Bomsandra.

Officialdom at the Electronic City adopts a had-to-happen stand towards the industrialisation overdrive. 'It's a logical process of growth,' says Raghav Rao, secretary of the Electronic City Industries' Association (ELCIA). The organisation claims to be doing its two-bits to improve the lot of the villagers. The ELCIA Trust is running a mid-day meal scheme in local government schools. It also plans to provide books to poor students in the near future. 'Once educated, the villagers can benefit from the IT boom,' says Rao.

Jagannath does not want to read that far into the future. His worries are grounded in the present. The village chief points to a band of young boys loitering aimlessly outside the gram panchayat office. 'These boys are the most visible faces of Bellandur,' he says. 'They have no work and can be spotted on the streets all the time.'

This is Bellandur's low-opportunity, static present. It's a life caught in the shadows of the city lights.

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