| Out of bounds
Returning to Bangalore via Hyderabad after a continuous four-month stay at Calcutta was without doubt a revelatory experience. Passage through the city of Hyderabad has been eased by innumerable flyovers, and the floors of the intercity bus station were clean enough to sleep on. The e-Seva offices were brimming with smiling assistants and grateful citizens paying bills and applying for passports. In Bangalore, which always appears cleaner, newer and far greener than most other Indian cities, I was told of the recent introduction of the “zero tolerance zone” in the central business area, around Mahatma Gandhi Road. Double-parking and crossing the yellow line were strictly disallowed. Lights had to be dimmed, and vehicles had to remain silent in this zone, with vehicular emissions reduced to a minimum. It appears as if S.M. Krishna’s 1999 promise of turning Bangalore into Singapore is being realized at last, and in equally authoritarian ways, if only, as he quickly added with blameless pragmatism, “in strips”.
The city’s bourgeoisie could now get to work or enjoy its shopping without being interrupted by any untidy signs of plebeian democracy. Over the past decade or so, the same time that Bangalore gained its national and international status as the ideal destination of the information technology industry, the city has quietly moved towards a new municipal order that will surely be the envy of those despairing over the deteriorating state of their metros, Calcutta included.
The programme of “Beauty by banning” had the Bangalore Urban Arts Commission as its strongest advocate. The cause was however widely taken up by the middle class with a number of important consequences. Rallies and demonstrations once held in and around the Cubbon Park — on the edge of which is the seat of legislative power — have been banned, and the park has been fenced to promote recreational activities. Vidhana Soudha itself is now out of bounds to all but bureaucrats, ministers and their supplicants. And the new parastatal agency, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, headed by the Infosys leader, Nandan Nilekani, oversees the new face of the city. All this without too much fuss or struggle from denizens or even the politicians of Bangalore itself.
Bangalore’s pet peeve continues to be the scandalous state of its roads, with the city’s entrepreneurs continuously having to hear complaints about the difference between Oxford Street and MG Road. Yet the English press in Calcutta has been recently overwhelmed by the controversy over whether Amitava Lala’s was an appropriate response to the innumerable rallies and processions which place intolerable strain on the city’s everyday life. Between the stubbornness of anti-rallyists and the steadfast determination of politicians to prevent any infringement of their democratic freedom, there appears no room for discussing why some cities like Bangalore may well be on their way to a successful Singaporization, while Calcutta appears doomed. There is even less room for a discussion on whether Singapore is a desirable ideal, even “in strips”, and what the costs of its achievement may be.
For one, the demographic profile of Bangalore, which is overwhelmingly middle class, has amply enabled this singular passage. More important, the absence of the smoke-stack stage of industrialization has meant that neither the city skyline nor the sidewalks are littered with marks of an old industrial order — no dark satanic mills, no underemployed masses.
Most important, the new municipal policy has revealed exactly whose illegalities are tolerated and whose are not in this city of nearly 6 million. Areas in the central zone of the city have been cleared of slums and the inhabitants moved to the peripheries of the city. The familiar Bangalore transport service buses, formerly red and silver, were painted blue in an effort to erase any unfortunate associations with an angry leftist red. Neither the number nor frequency of the buses has been increased in a city which is more dependent on automobiles. Sidewalks have been torn up and converted into parking lots for millions of two and four wheelers, while the illegal use of basements for shops and restaurants, rather than for parking, is being tolerated. Meanwhile, many middle-class homes have, with impunity, occupied and even fenced in stretches in front of their home to enhance the image of the “garden city.” Robust middle-class residents’ associations ensure standards of hygiene and cleanliness, and have even privatized public parks for their exclusive use.
The programme of beauty by banning has won its battles, but the slow, steady “enclosure of the commons” and intensified privatization of public space have gone uncontested. With its new ring road, moreover, Bangalore has been successfully transformed into a place to move through with an unhindered pace. The complete self-absorption of the motorist was revealed when a young girl was run over at an intersection, and a few cars passed over her before it was realized that she was not another stray dog.
The slow, grinding pace of life in an unreconstructed Calcutta would not tolerate such brutal inhumanities. It is the only city I know where bus drivers roundly curse cars that block their passage with the epithet,“Private!” It is the only city where bus conductors are scrupulous about returning the smallest change, and are polite even in the most trying heat, crowd and noise. The political culture of disruption and chaos, over which there is so much fretting, is the same one that has allowed its residents to enjoy the perquisites of cheap living. Free water supply is an unheard-of luxury in any metro of comparable size.
These cultures have also kept wages, bus fares, and sundry other everyday costs absurdly low. While in Bangalore (and Hyderabad), the hegemony of the middle classes has been consolidated around the promise of greater social mobility, such a class in Calcutta, though ascendant, vocal and bitter, is far outnumbered by the sheer numbers of the urban and rural poor to whom the political parties owe their career. Their opposition to the ban on rallies and processions is not because they think it will promote the wellbeing of the poor. It is rather a recognition that in a deeply segmented social order such as ours, the singular will of the middle class cannot be allowed to easily triumph over plebeian democracy. The sufferings of the Indian middle class, even in a city like Calcutta, will never match the sufferings of the urban dispossessed. And we might well ask of these two very different cities, Bangalore and Calcutta: in which does the “rule of law” prevail and in which the “reign of terror”'