Our recent visit to Bangalore had its usual share of groans: the twice-a-day power cuts, water in the taps only every other day, the urban sprawl, the unbridled materialism, the dirt, the crowds, the never-on-time trains and on and on. I don’t want to dwell on those. Instead, let me tell you about pleasant surprises that I encountered on the streets of Bangalore and its environs.
An outsider visiting any Indian city is sure to be aghast at the garish movie posters plastered on every available public wall and billboard. The posters either celebrate violence – heroes engaged in various acts of violence against demonic looking villains while the heroine, in one corner, looks admiringly at the hero – or they celebrate romantic love – the heroine and hero entangled in each others arms, the heroine often scantily clad (Image from flickr, courtesy of Paul Keller).
Walls that have not suffered poster abuse are stained red with tobacco spits or brown with dust or stained with urine tracks, sometimes covered with poor, unwittingly funny English warnings such as “Do not stick posters. Stickers will be strictly prosecuted” or “Persons committing nuisance will be prosecuted” (image also courtesy of Paul Keller).
What a surprise then to be greeted with walls that looked like these.
A beautification project, called Vaibhava, is underway in Bangalore. Local artists are hired to clean the public walls, remove the eyesore posters and slogans and paint murals. The murals depict the local flora and fauna, people engaged in ancient rhythms such as agriculture and fishing, scenes from popular Indian mythologies, and the famous monuments and temples of Karnataka such as Gol Gumbaz, the temples of Belur and Halebidu, PattadaKallu and Chamundi Hills. Over 700,000 feet of walls have already been painted.
According to this report in The Hindu: ‘Mr. Kumar [one of the painters] said that they used a special weather-proof paint. The painters were all from an agency that employed them to paint banners and film posters. “We are 10 members in all and we get paid Rs. 300 every day. We should ensure that the paintings measure 10 ft x 12 ft,” he said. The initiative began on August 15, and more than 40 roads have been completed.‘
The effort is not without its share of controversy. According to this report and this report, the project was dreamed by the BBMP Commissioner and executed without consulting the citizens. There is also some hue and cry over how the painters were selected. Some people complain that murals are wrong because their existence on busy streets prevents reflective viewing. Some others complain that expert artists should’ve been hired instead of amateur local artisans. One even complained that the paintings were a distraction to drivers!
Driving around the congested streets of Bangalore is never a pleasure, but at least there is something to rest the tired eyes on.
Driving around town has been somewhat faster compared to the last time. Going to a friend’s house took over an hour last year, but only 40-45 minutes this time. Going to my favorite bookstores in Bangalore’s main thoroughfare, M.G. Road, took over an hour the last time, but only 30 minutes this time. All those flyovers, constructed over the past few years to ease congestion, appear to be doing their job. In the middle of January, an almost 10 km long flyover opened, running along the road that forms one of the main IT corridors, from Central Silk Board junction to Attibele. It is a toll road, but that should hardly pose a problem to the main occupants of the road, employees of the IT industries such as Infosys and Wipro. A newspaper report that I read quoted many commuters singing paens to this opening as it cut their commute times by as much as half.
One reason for the faster commutes may also be that the public transportation in Bangalore has gotten a lot better. Buses have been the only public transport in Bangalore. Most were overcrowded, run down and rickety, remnants of a poorer time than one reflecting its current status as the Silicon Valley of India. Middle class and higher rarely used them.
This time around, a few of my friends and colleagues at my company’s Indian office say that they prefer commuting in the buses. And they’re not the only ones. A new addition to the bus fleet, popularly called Volvo buses – air conditioned and well cushioned buses made by Volvo – protect the commuters from the dust, pollution and heat, offering a smooth, quiet ride. These buses were first introduced as transportation to the new international airport, but have since spread substantially because of their popularity. I traveled twice in these buses and was impressed by the quality of the
ride. Many buses are equipped with power outlets for laptops or cellphone chargers. To top that, they’re not too expensive, about Rs.10 or Rs. 20 a ride, making it affordable even for many non-IT professionals (they’re of course, way too expensive for a significant majority of the people).
In keeping up with the times, the buses are starting to be equipped with GPS and can be tracked from a website. The same website also offers traffic updates and live camera feeds from various busy city junctions.
Some interesting tidbits about the public transportation in Bangalore, culled from Wikipedia (can you even compare, Britannica, for providing such information ?):
- Bangalore Metropolitan Transportation Corporation is one of the few consistently profitable public sector undertakings in Asia.
- The longest city bus route in India is in Bangalore, traversing 117 kms from end to end.
Construction doesn’t seem to ever stop in Bangalore. Buildings, roads, flyovers. Some prominent thing or the other, is always coming up. A few years back, the roads were partly choked by the construction of flyovers. While the construction of flyovers seems to have reduced significantly, the construction of the new metro public transit, Namma Metro, has taken over from the flyovers, and in places, with even greater vengeance. The roads around my parents house are choked because a significant middle section of the road has been taken over by the metro construction.
The metro is scheduled to open for service towards the end of 2011. It runs on an elevated track in most of the places, instead of the usual underground system popular with most metros. When I drove to M.G. Road, I took some pictures of the metro as a significant portion has been completed there and will be the first section to open.
When the metro launches, the expected daily ridership is estimated to be 1 million a day! The metro track runs a total of 42.3 kms, with 18.1 kms for the East-West track and 24.2 for the North-South track. Majestic continues to be the transportation hub of Bangalore: it is where the North-South and East-West tracks meet.
The sad consequence of all this improvement, especially the flyovers and the metro, is the large scale felling of trees. Old city squares such as Minsk square, which looked like they belonged to a medium sized, sleepy town in India, now resemble modern urban landscapes of Asia, their lush, verdant cover gone. Bangalore, called the Garden City, was covered with trees, making the streets look like cosy boulevards. The trees protected the city from the heat and kept its temperatures mild and very alluring, a big reason why the city became the IT mecca of the country. With the trees gone, the summers have started to become oppressive. Though promises have been made that the city squares will be restored to their original glory once the work has been completed, I wonder how can such old growth large trees will be replaced any time soon ?
Reading a poem called “The Resignation” by J.D.McClatchy, I remembered the trees that are with us no more:
They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone’s sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.
Bangalore is a city on the move. From its origins as a remote outpost of a South Indian kingdom to its current status as India’s third largest city, the city has been radically altered by each successive ruler. Kempegowda was the first to alter the landscape, building a fort and a temple around 1537. He also built a number of water resorvoirs, called tanks. Hyder Ali and his son Tippu Sultan, renowned kings of Mysore, set about the next major alteration, building the largest garden in Bangalore, Lalbagh. Over the course of the 19th century, the British made the next set of major alterations, adding a separate, British-only section to the city, the Cantonment, and the other popular landmark of the city, Cubbon Park. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bangalore became the first city in India to be electrified and staked its claim as the Garden City of India with a series of beautification projects. And now at the beginning of the 21st, the flyovers and upcoming metro have altered the landscape again.