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BOOK REVIEW
The rise of India's 'IT paradise'
Network City. Planning the Information Society in Bangalore
by James Heitzman

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

Information society emerged as an El Dorado in economics around the middle of the twentieth century, with historical progression showing that workers drifted from extractive agriculture to manufacturing and then services, followed by a further shift to knowledge-based activities. The Japanese government of the 1960s pioneered plans for powering into a post-industrial, "post-Fordist" stage of production by investing in processors and telecommunications. Singapore followed suit by envisaging the city as a vast information gateway, or switching hub, laden with broadband Internet and multimedia. The United States and Western Europe took the cue and developed an elaborate "infostructure" for keeping their dates with the digital age.

Lately, models of telematics-spurred information societies have been forwarded as a global phenomena that could spread to the entire world and usher in sustainable development. In this techno-social history, titled Network City. Planning the Information Society in Bangalore, James Heitzman takes up the southern Indian city of Bangalore, located in the state of Karnataka, as a case study of an information society in developing countries. The author reconstructs the complex interactions among labor, management, transnational corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the state that made Bangalore a network city. As a "node within the space of production" (p 16), Bangalore felt that human impact - like other urban sites - transformed into "technopoles" in the era of globalization. Heitzman's interest is not merely in the planning of Bangalore as a knowledge-centric core, but in the impact technical change has had on the city's residents.

Historically, Bangalore lacked major rivers running around it or in the nearby environs. Artificial lakes or tanks were dug by the city's kings to provide a water supply and support businesses, orchards, military and administrative personnel. The defeat of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565 swung trade routes and commercial activity in Bangalore's direction and converted it into the leading economic locale in the Deccan plateau. Under Tipu Sultan in the eighteenth century, the city experienced spurts in textiles, metallurgy, ordnance and postal communications. British advent caused industrial decline but made Bangalore a node within the colonial information network, installing the first telegraph line in 1854.

The city achieved a reputation as a model princely state in the late colonial period. In 1898-9, it had the first telephone lines in the country to coordinate anti-plague measures. In 1900, it became India's first electrified city supplying power to run the Kolar gold fields and steam textiles. M Visvesvarayya, the dynamic Diwan (chief minister) of the Mysore kingdom from 1912 to 1918, flagged off major strides for Bangalore in iron and steel, irrigation, education and engineering. He imagined Bangalore as a "science city" with "contributory facilities based on information systems" as aids to trade (p 37).

At the time of India's independence, the city had an emerging entrepreneurial and technological base. Being host to public sector giants like Hindustan Aeronautics, Bharat Electronics and Hindustan Machine Tools, Bangalore enjoyed a mushrooming of a range of technical and service ancillaries in its conurbation. City planners aped British city models and relocated factories from residential areas to distant outskirts. Private businesses also expanded steadily, thanks to the availability of power, transportation and water.

Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a personal interest in Bangalore's profile as a scientific-industrial temple. He saw it as the "city of the future" and the "template of a modern India". (p 61) By 1971, the Bangalore metropolitan region supported a buoyant regional economy attracting medium and small-scale industries. Corporate head offices fled the left-wing militancy of Calcutta (now referred to as Kolkata) and settled in Bangalore, rewarding its liberal industrial policy.

As of 1991, the Bangalore region stood out vis-a-vis other Indian cities for being an innovative haven, but "from a global perspective, it was not an especially wealthy or healthy place". (p 69) Dramatic unregulated growth of the urban sprawl exceeded civic managerial capacity. All the major lakes disappeared. Demand outstripped supply in housing and other major utilities. Eighty percent of newly built flats were being gobbled by land speculators for luxury apartments, pushing up real estate prices and slum populations. Environmentalists jabbed at Bangalore as a "formerly model city".

The cash-strapped state government responded to this urban infrastructure stasis with the solution of partial privatization. Geographic information systems were increasingly used to superimpose spatial adjustments over existing maps in planning documents. Computerized mapping and specialized consulting firms were hired by the authorities to solve congestion and construction overkill. Equipped with evolving technologies, planners drew new towns that could draw away population from Bangalore as "counter magnets". Benchmarking programs against the standards of Singapore, technocratic authorities pledged to deploy the appropriate technology to enhance efficiency. Heitzman notes a major change in planning methodology wherein "centralized modes of organization evolved into multi-entity networks constructed around electronic information systems". (p 104) The nature of the state was less "developmental" and more in line with "coordinating" conditions for economic growth led by the private sector.

NGOs and citizen-based organizations were the other non-state actors that played instrumental roles in the inter-organizational networks that signified change in Bangalore. These "third force" groups strove for decentralizing urban self-governance and involving the end-users of service delivery in decision making about city amenities. Banking on the hypothesis that information flows advance efficiency, they galvanized denizens for participatory planning.

Bangalore acquired an international reputation as India's "Silicon Valley/Plateau" suddenly in the 1990s. But it was the denouement of "the gradual accumulation of skills and capital since the beginning of the twentieth century". (p 286) The division of labor statistics in 1991 hardly fit the image of a city with a milieu of innovation, with barely any Silicon Valley characteristics. However, a series of state-engineered developments did engender a niche within Bangalore's industrial economy that pushed technology frontiers. Private enterprises like Wipro Infotech responded to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's electronics sector liberalization in 1984 and became one of the city's first global successes. Infosys Consultants (later Technologies) bagged software outsourcing and body-shopping agreements after Rajiv Gandhi's aides facilitated a contract with General Electric in 1988.

The success of these flag bearers and USAID publications increased the interest of US technology companies in Bangalore. Motorola, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard established subsidiaries in the city, benefiting from its economic liberalization policies. American companies were the largest group of foreign investors fascinated by electronics and telematics in Bangalore. Software dove-tailed with India's new export-oriented growth strategy and made up the most positive contribution by Bangalore to the country's trade balance.

The Karnataka state government's interventions were also crucial in Bangalore's leapfrogging technology curve. Besides launching the "Electronics City" complex and building Software Technology Parks, it engaged in importuning propaganda promoting Bangalore as a "Silicon Plateau" with themes like "the future is here". Such marketing techniques intersected with a time of hyperbole and great expectations for Indians trail blazing the fields of computers and telecommunications. US commentators added fuel to fire by claiming that "Bangalore has put together all the ingredients of a broad frontal attack on American hegemony of the information revolution". (p 197)

But Heitzman cautions against the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding Bangalore as an IT paradise. Rising production costs and infrastructure shortages emerged in the late 1990s and so did domestic competitor cities like Pune and Hyderabad. Bangalore's economy as a whole showed no overpowering evidence of post-Fordism at the turn of the millennium. The Silicon Plateau mantra was "a pious chant…a statement of what could be, rather than what already was" (p 210), an illustration of the power of language amidst the global communications revolution.

Besides information technology, several other ingredients determine Bangalore as an information society. Bangalore urban district has an overall literacy rate of 86%. Bangalore University boasts of 375 colleges that include 21 reputed engineering schools. The city is home to 25,000 software and computer science engineers within an all-India total of 220,000. In response to market demands for business-savvy techies, the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IIIT-B) is churning out batches of engineers who have undergone two terms of classes in industry and corporate management. Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science (IISc) ranks among the top 20 universities of the world. Its faculty members consult about 100 projects for industry every year. The availability of expert research consultants and digitized databases (as the ones offered by Informatics India Limited) are major causes for the clustering of New Economy firms in the city.

Bangalore also has a massive and pervasive print culture, with 67 book publishers, 110 newspapers and countless specialized magazines disseminating information to numerous social groups. A dense array of film theaters makes the city an important source of visual information. More than 80% of Bangaloreans own transistor radio sets, components of an impressive electronic information system. Television broadcasting in India is intertwined with the country's space program headquartered in Bangalore. Cable and satellite penetration in the city is 59%. It has 1.6 million telephone lines, one for every nine persons. Many cellular companies maintain headquarters or technical offices in Bangalore. The Internet user population in the city in 2001 stood at 80,000, emanating from 750 educational institutions. Multinationals are benefiting from a vast increase in bandwidth for business ends.

Heitzman concludes that Bangalore "went online during a twenty-year period" (p 259) and "informatized" as a city. It can today be considered a regional cluster within a global neo-liberal paradigm. This is both strength and weakness, for worldwide booms and busts in IT and bio-informatics would synchronize crests and troughs in Bangalore's economy. On the social front, the application of hi-tech solutions has abetted transparency and popular participation but also concentrated wealth and power in the hands of elites. Digital democracy is a far cry in the network city.

Network City. Planning the Information Society in Bangalore by James Heitzman, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004. ISBN: 0-19-566606-2. Price US$18.50, 356 pages.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Jul 31, 2004



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