A Backlash Grows in Bangalore Over Tech Revolution

Old-timers and anti-poverty groups are fighting a culture war over the cultural and economic costs of the high-tech boom
Bar owner Menon (center) and friends: These days the party ends at 11:30 p.m. Namas Bhojani

BANGALORE, INDIAThe Hard Rock Café in downtown Bangalore used to be a swinging place, with free-flowing booze, loud music, and dancing into the wee hours. But on a recent Thursday night, George Phillip and his friends watched woefully as a waiter made off with unfinished drinks a half hour before midnight. "I just got off a call with an overseas client and rushed over here," says Phillip, a 32-year-old software engineer. "I might as well have gone home."

Since July, Bangalore has strictly enforced a 1967 law requiring bars to close by 11:30 p.m. And no matter how catchy the tune on the jukebox, unless the bar has a discotheque license--something rarely granted--nobody is allowed to dance. That's a dramatic shift for Bangalore, where watering holes have sprouted faster than info tech companies in recent years. For Phillip, who works evening and night shifts, making it to a bar on time these days is nearly impossible. "What options do I have after work?" he says, scribbling his signature on the credit-card receipt presented by the waiter. "Do I just go home and drink, without socializing at all?"

The ban is emblematic of the strains the tech boom is creating in Bangalore. Older residents, especially, say the newly arrived technology workers are ruining the once-tranquil city with their bars and nightclubs, fast cars, and easy money. "A lot of this new wealth is conspicuously displayed," says Madhu Menon, a former high-tech worker who now runs his own restaurant. "The old-timers look at that and they say, 'Hey, these guys don't deserve this.'"


Even though software made Bangalore India's best-known brand name, many longtime residents aren't exactly grateful. Instead, the people of Bangalore seem locked in a cultural struggle with Infosys Technologies (INFY), Wipro Technologies (WIT), and other titans of the software industry. In the early 1990s, before the world had heard of Bangalore, it was one of India's most pleasant cities, with great weather, cheap housing, and cultural and educational institutions that offered a vibrant mix of theater, film, literature, and music. Now, with 500,000 IT workers living alongside nearly 7 million other residents, the metropolis is choking on its own success. The roads have become parking lots for much of the day, rents are soaring, and small-scale theaters and bookstores are being shouldered aside by American-style malls.

Native Bangaloreans ask a simple question: Does the city belong to the IT industry, with all its riches? Or does it belong to those who arrived first, whose children must now work for outsiders who don't speak the local language, Kannada? "It's a more fundamental debate than whether or not IT is making Bangalore less affordable," says U.R. Ananthamurthy, a noted Kannada writer. "It's a question of identity--what is Bangalore? Who is a Bangalorean?"

The rigid rules on nightlife strike at the heart of this debate. Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari started enforcing the forgotten law on closing times shortly after he took over as the city's top cop in July. He says he simply didn't want to deploy his limited forces to cruise nightclubs and watch for drunks and fights. "This is not 'Talibanization,' this is the price of development," Bidari says, looking out over the tree-lined compound that serves as police headquarters, where birds compete with the sounds of Bangalore's downtown streets just beyond the gates. Despite the furor his decision has caused, he notes that he's simply enforcing a law that was already on the books. "It's not as if I changed the rules," Bidari says. "I am not a puritan. Up to 11:30, the whole world is yours. But after that, even [young people] have to rest."


Old-timers contend that Bangalore spends far too much money and time on services for its newly arrived software writers and call-center workers.

In a city where most people can't afford cars, they fret that the government is building wider roads to speed tech workers around. When Bangalore's old airport struggled to handle growing passenger traffic, the state government ordered up a new $500 million facility--which opened in June--even though fewer than 5% of Bangaloreans have ever been inside an airplane. And while a shortage of affordable housing squeezes non-IT workers out of the city or into slums, both private and government construction is focused on high-rise apartments for the wealthy. The software industry "commands a disproportionate amount of influence," says Lalitha Kamath, an urban researcher and former lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

One vocal camp even maintains that the repetitive nature of writing software code has corrupted Bangalore's intellectual spirit. "These 20-year-olds are like coolies, doing the same job over and over," says CNR Rao, a Bangalorean scientist who has been an adviser to the Indian government for decades. The software industry, he says, has turned the city into a glorified sweatshop. "Where is the innovation?" he asks. "How does this contribute to anything but greed and commerce?"

The bar regulations aren't the only way native Bangaloreans are beginning to make outsiders feel unwelcome. The Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, a local group whose name means the Forum for the Protection of Karnataka (the state Bangalore is in), has had a resurgence in popularity as it has pushed IT companies to hire more Kannada-speakers. It has also convinced the government that road signs should be only in Kannada and English, not the Hindi of many of the city's newer residents. "We expect outsiders who come to Karnataka to speak Kannada," says Ganesh Chetan, a member of the group. "When you go to France, you learn French, don't you?"

The software industry counters that its influence has made the city a more livable place, for newcomers and longtime residents alike. Although the global credit crunch has slowed its growth, over the past decade the tech sector has created tens of thousands of jobs--for coders, call center employees, and office managers, of course, but also for security guards, construction workers, and domestic help. And with growing tax revenues, the city has been able to add bus lines and is building a subway system. "This is a city in transition, a city which reflects that while India can handle scarcity, it doesn't know how to handle prosperity," says Mohandas Pai, a board member at Infosys and a resident of Bangalore since the 1950s.

Some longtime residents say globalization's effect on Bangalore isn't entirely bad. Sitting in the cafeteria of a crowded theater where the box office displays a sold-out sign for a stage production, playwright and filmmaker Girish Karnad points out that young blood and money have sustained the bohemian spirit that many older residents yearn for. "You shut down the bars that play live music, and suddenly musicians have no income," he says. "How does that help Bangalore remain culturally relevant? This old Bangalore that people are nostalgic for, I don't remember it as being especially vibrant--just more comfortable and cheap."

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