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Pensioners' Paradise to IT: The Fallacy That Is Bangalore

The standard discourse about Bangalore is that the IT industry has destroyed what was a pensioners' paradise. Such popular constructions of who constituted the city earlier and who constitute it today betray their exclusivism.

COMMENTARY

pollution, skyrocketing real estate prices, a

Pensioners’ Paradise to IT:
high cost of living, large volumes of garbage,

and even high suicide rates. It is also blamed

The Fallacy That Is Bangalore

now for destroying the city’s cherished cultural values, whatever they may be, and thereby taking the soul out of Bangalore.

Suchitra J Y, C K Nandakumar In our overeagerness to participate in

The standard discourse about Bangalore is that the IT industry has destroyed what was a pensioners’ paradise. Such popular constructions of who constituted the city earlier and who constitute it today betray their exclusivism.

Suchitra J Y (suchitrajy@gmail.com) and C K Nandakumar are at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

T
hat Bangalore has turned from a “pensioners’ paradise” to India’s “IT capital” is not a new observation. Talk of Bangalore of the mid-20th century always ends up in talk of a salubrious environment, sprawling residential localities with palatial bungalows, tree-lined avenues, the odd car on the squeaking-clean roads, and so on. All of which supposedly made the city ideal for pensioners to settle down. Talk of Bangalore today and it is all about high rise apartment complexes, technology parks, roads choking with traffic and suffocating pollution.

Clichéd Dichotomy

This clichéd dichotomy is presented to us so often in so many different ways by selfappointed Bangalore-observers that it has almost become a truism. We are unable to look at Bangalore through any other lens.

Further, in a city where everything seems to be going haywire, there has to be someone who is responsible for the downslide. And the IT industry, of course, is always the culprit. The IT industry is the villain responsible for every ill facing the city: decreasing lung spaces, increasing traffic and this blame-game and present the city in black and white, we find that what has actually been rendered soulless is not the city itself, but our ways of looking at the city. The cover page article of a recent issue of Outlook, ‘Why Bangalore Hates the IT Culture’, in this sense tells us nothing new. What is surprising, however, is that while among the responses to this article in the subsequent issues of the magazine there have been reasonable comments such as “Even if we were to agree that IT has taken over the city in certain irreversible ways, it would be virtually impossible to prove that IT is in fact the cause for all our woes”, a crucial issue nobody seems to have taken note of is that to present Bangalore solely as a city undergoing a tug of war between the pensioners and the IT brat pack is not only narrow but also highly exclusionist.

The obvious interpretation of the name “pensioners’ paradise” is that Bangalore had all the features that made it conducive to the lifestyles of the elderly. Skim beneath the surface, and we find that in such a usage we are not talking about the elderly among all sections of the society. Pensions are a form of social security for the old, and they are typically associated with jobs in

january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

the public sector, more commonly called “government jobs”. If you work for the private sector, your employer does make some provision for your social security in the form of provident funds, which though not the same as pensions ensures that you are secure in your old age. If you are selfemployed, save from your surplus today for tomorrow, otherwise you suffer. And let us draw the distinction, here, between a retail cloth store owner and your neighbourhood vegetable vendor, who are both self-employed. If you are a daily wage labourer, old age security is as much your own responsibility (or burden) as finding work every day is.

The term “pensioner” thus indicates someone who is literate, educated (exceptions may be in the case of Grade 4 workers in the public sector), has a steady job, enjoys a reasonable, if not high, standard of living and is assured of economic security in her old age as well. When one is so comfortably off, the features of a city like Bangalore of the yesteryears quite naturally make it a paradise.

Limited Security

We do not have precise data on the extent and growth of public and private sector employment specifically in Bangalore, but if we take formal sector employees as a proxy to indicate the “secure” among the elderly, it is currently not more than 8 per cent across the country. In the mid-20th century, it could not have been very much more. Bangalore, thus, got the tag of “pensioners’ paradise” as it was a paradise for such a small section of the population.

Move to the 1990s and the early 21st century, and Bangalore is now labelled the IT capital of the country. There are, today, 3,75,000 people, constituting 5.35 per cent of the 70 lakh population of the city, employed in the IT and IT enabled services sectors. A large majority of them belong to the middle and upper middle classes of the society. And it is made out as if Bangalore today belongs to and is ruled by these IT workers.

Elitist Images

One cannot miss the similarity in such labelling of Bangalore across the generations. It has all the marks of the construction of elitist images. The city has always been seen as belonging to a certain group of

Economic & Political Weekly january 19, 2008

people; it makes hardly any difference whether this group comprises the elite pensioners or the IT elite.

Take for instance, the pictures of the city that Outlook chose to present in its article. There is constant juxtaposition of the “old” and the “new” – the former being the idli-dosa eating so-called traditional middle class and the latter being the beerguzzling, pizza-eating IT crowd – just to make the point that IT is taking over the city. The problems that the city is facing are also largely those that concern only these groups of people – poor urban planning, unmotorable roads, traffic jams, land-grabbing, zooming property and rental rates and so on.

This is all Bangalore is about then: the fight for space and attention between the old and the new elite. The old elite has merely acquired the tag of the “traditional middle class” now and accuses the new elite of having much more money, bigger houses, fancier cars and in general, a largerthan-life presence.

Invisible Others

There is no consideration even of the possibility that Bangalore may belong to people other than these two groups. Say, for instance, the construction industry. Among all the metros in India, Bangalore has been seeing the fastest growth of this industry. While it is the IT industry and its capital that make the news, labour is typically invisible. In 1991, there were 2.02 lakh labourers employed in the construction industry, and today there are over 3 lakh construction workers in Bangalore. Take the agarbathi industry. How many of us know that of the 5 lakh agarbathi rollers in the country, around 50 per cent are concentrated in Bangalore and Mysore? Look at ready-made garments manufacturing, a sector that has seen unprecedented growth in the post-reforms period: there are 858 units in Bangalore today which employ

1.96 lakh workers.

Even if our obsession with IT blinds us to the presence of wage labourers of so many different kinds around us, it would take nothing short of a miracle to miss the presence of slums and their dwellers. In a city where the elite complain incessantly about the tiniest obstacle to their commute to work in air-conditioned cars, it is shameful that around 30 per cent of the population lives in slums. And goes unnoticed. The issues that are a nuisance to the elite are real enough, but simply fade out when one looks at the near-inhuman life and livelihood conditions that those at the other end of the spectrum face day in and day out.

Is Bangalore for and of all these people as well? The standard discourse and debate about Bangalore do not suggest so. Popular images of Bangalore have always been constructed carefully so as to distance the city from the subaltern; such images, as we have pointed out earlier, render these images soulless and their interpretation, meaningless. It is time we undertook a more inclusive and constructive analysis of the changing character of the city.

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