Bangalore cityscape

Most Indian bureaucrats are shirkers, willing to act only when it suits them. But, as former Chief Justice of India, M N Venkatachaliah, says in his foreword to this book, its brilliant and enlightened author, A Ravindra, is certainly not one of them.

Ravindra is a familiar figure to Bangaloreans. A former Chief Secretary, he has also been Chairman of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), and Commissioner as well as Administrator at the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike. He has a doctorate in Urban Studies, is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Public Policy in IIM-Bangalore, and is also the Advisor on Urban Affairs to the Chief Minister of Karnataka.

Who better to write a book on Bangalore than an administrator par excellence, who is also an expert on urban affairs? Naturally, we look forward to a great read about the dizzying heights that Bangalore has scaled — transforming from the capital of a provincial overlord to Pensioner’s Paradise to buzzing metropolis — but also a trenchant analysis of the problems that still plague the city. But therein lies the problem, for, instead of a book that distills the author’s experience and knowledge, we have a pleasant and competent, but not outstanding, cross between a government report and a guide book.

Ravindra begins by stating that there are several dimensions to Bangalore. Unlike many other world cities, Bangalore lacks a distinctive river, landmark or building. Rather, the defining features of the city are its climate, cosmopolitanism and technology, he says. Equally, there are multiple factors that have shaped the city’s identity, hence the title’s clever pun, Multiplicity.

After a succinct introduction to the history of Bangalore, the book’s meatiest sections follow, dealing with urban planning and governance. Beginning with Kempegowda’s organisation of petes based on economic function and passing lightly over the colonial period, Ravindra then delves into town planning since independence.

This is clearly his forte and we are treated to a fairly comprehensive history of town planning in Bangalore, starting with the City Improvement Trust Board of the 1940s; the BDA; the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (which “had the futuristic vision of creating a Singapore in Bangalore”); the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority; and the many Development Plans that the city has had.

A later chapter gives a detailed account of the functioning of the multiple institutions that govern the city, sorting out the various duties allocated to the Commissioner, Standing Committees, Ward Committees and the Corporation. Following this is a brief section outlining the roles of the parastatal agencies, like BESCOM. But with lines like, “Each committee consists of seven councillors who are elected once a year according to the principle of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote,” this chapter might remind you of your civics textbook.

The historical background is appropriate, relevant and even interesting. But it is curious and a little disappointing that Ravindra chooses not to follow up the whats with the whys and the hows.

Why, despite Karnataka having one of the best Town and Country Planning Act in the country, does Bangalore still have inadequate water supply, notorious transportation issues and a severe housing shortage, especially for lower income groups? Why does the ground situation today suggest that any attempts at urban planning were abandoned a long time ago? Is political interference the only culprit? And how can future administrators change this scenario? Beyond mentioning that the constitutionally mandated Metropolitan Planning Committee has not yet been set up in Bangalore, Ravindra provides no pointers.

The closest he comes to stepping out of status-report mode is in a two-page chapter devoted to the future, where he recognises the need for effective governance. One suggestion he has is for a directly elected mayor with a five-year term, assisted by ‘professional city managers’. He also calls for a clean environment, better water and power supply, and for our natural and built heritage to be preserved.

The rest of the book is essentially devoted to lists: of some of the institutions that gave Bangalore the epithet ‘Knowledge Capital’, its many parks and gardens, some of its more spectacular flowering trees and birds, and the festivals celebrated here. There is also a section on ‘Getaways from Bangalore’. There is also a page recommending apps for directions within the city and listing autorickshaw complaint numbers.

Justice Venkatachaliah, in his foreword, says that Ravindra’s ‘ecstatic love’ for Bangalore comes through in this book. That is certainly true. Many of the pages dwell quite lovingly on some unquestionably great things about Bangalore and the many signs of its exciting progress. One only wishes Ravindra had stepped beyond the obvious to also look at the problems that still remain to be overcome before the city can realise its full potential.

Comments (+)