Modernity on the rampage
Pune and Bangalore offer depressing evidence of the costs of unchecked modernisation. Billboards flashing big brands invoke a desire for the good life, whatever that might be, while rivers, trees and lakes in the two cities are ravaged.
Some years ago in the “Garden State” of New Jersey, US, it was not uncommon to find on posters pinned to tree trunks the rhetorical question: “Are you Bangalored?”
It was a question borne out of panic at the outsourcing drain of backend jobs to the “Garden city”, a reverse drain that gave a sleepy town with its numerous lakes and its cantonment and English-type weather a forceful push into the global stream.
That rhetoric apotheosised the city's burgeoning status as the destination for the New Economy's star movers and shakers. In the process the garden city began its own journey into a relentless modernity whose consequences are painfully evident in the deteriorating quality of the weather, the air and its geography.
Bengaluru in the world
Walking through the arrival lounge of Bengaluru airport for the 40-km drive into town, one gets the most obvious evidence of the city's global ambition: a large arrival lounge with plexi-glassed cantilevered roof, studded with designer shops and brand outlets (the fragrance of south Indian coffee comes as an oddly refreshing reminder of the city's roots).
Pune airport on the other hand, smaller and as clean, has a facelessness that almost erases its history and peculiarities without quite replacing them with the imprimatur of globalism as most airports in India are increasingly doing.
To that extent the canned air, welcoming after the scorching heat outside, the uniformed ground staff and the announcements in English tinged with American twang are the most palpable signs of Pune's globalising efforts.
Driving out of Bangalore international airport the impression of coasting along a highway somewhere in Europe lingers: the manicured greens on either side, the scanty billboards, ground sprinklers, refreshing vegetation increasingly parched by a relentless sun do not prepare one for the city itself. The first evidence is visceral as the silky smooth highway gives way to locally administered roads.
Potholes began to remind the traveller of how fleeting the illusion of modernity can be, but then the gigantic billboards with their brand names urging the viewer to spend on the consumable because it spells modernity scramble the imagination, flooding it with inchoate ambitions for the equally nebulous good life.
The similarity with Pune begins here in the ubiquitious presence of billboards and hoardings hiding decrepit buildings, dreary apartment and office blocks.
For the most part, in Pune, a city attempting a catch-up with Bengaluru as a destination for the outsourcing business and backend “research” hub, hoardings advertise lifestyle housing.
For a city experiencing a late post-millenium migration of the IT professional from virtually every part of India, not to mention America, its hoardings sell not branded products but housing with names meant to evoke bucolic and western lifestyles sanitised against the anxieties of the external environment.
Pune beats Bengaluru with its quaint and often unintended ironies. Builders in Pune play fast and loose with the English language in their christening of dream homes: “Invicta”, “Euthania” “Capriccio” and, with a bow to royalty, “Balmoral”, reflecting the city's growing self-image of manicured modernity.
Between two stools
Yet the urge to become one with the advanced world hides unease with modernity's mode of articulation, the English language.
In Pune, the ambivalence with which intellectuals, politicians and even academics hover between their mother tongue Marathi and the preferred language of global admission leaves no room for an enriching discourse in either. Bengaluru is more comfortable (as is Chennai) with its legacy of colonial names — Coxtown, Richmond Street.
Perhaps because of the absence of undue strain, both Kannada and English theatre flourish in equal measure.
But the wilting garden city's geography helps a greater creative cosmopolitanism, with Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu cultures equally at home despite the tensions caused by expedient and opportunistic politics.
The differences end here. Bengaluru's modernity is as mindless as Pune's. The main shopping location in both cantonments share not just the name, M G Road, but a depressingly similar transformation to a hand-me-down modernity served up by commercial greed, unblessed by aesthetic urban planning.
Turning left from Cauvery's department store on to MG Road or veering right at Aurora Towers upwards on Pune's equivalent offer evidence of how homogenising globalisation can be.
Single brand retail outlets advertising designer “wear”, mobiles and footwear flank a street expanded to serve the manic rush of modernisation's most iconic and desecrating symbols.
Similarities abound. The cities' modernising sprawl ravishes nature's bounties: rivers and waterways that drain off excess rainwater, water bodies that feed a growing population and tree cover.
Bengaluru has been systematically felling trees and filling the city's famed man-made lakes and wetlands, both of which fed the Garden city with the lush cover that earned it that sobriquet.
A report by the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (Ecological Assessment of Lentic Water Bodies of Bangalore by T.V. Ramachandra and Maalvika Solanki) cites studies suggesting 35 per cent of the city's tanks were lost over a decade to 2007 due to “anthropogenic (read that as modernisation) pressures. Furthermore, the number of wetlands fell from 379 in 1973 to 246 in 1996, then plummeted to 81 by 2007.
In Pune, rain-fed rivers with their own hoary histories of devotional and livelihood sustaining nourishment have been assigned to oblivion by builders eager to build life-style homes with “natural” amenities, turning swanky areas into flood-prone districts even as they run short of drinking water.
If rivers are not already dead they are dying. The Mula and Mutha rain-fed rivers that literally divide the city into the cantonment and what was known as the “native” town are due for a belated restoration by the civic authorities but their plans have been criticised, among other things, for changing the natural flow of the rivers through the construction of bunds.
In the meantime the city chokes on particulate matter (PM10) pollutants at levels higher than Bengaluru's or Mumbai's.
Modernisation's calamities in both cities have drawn citizen's groups into attempts to save the environment.
Clearly the march of progress has no place for the doctrine of public trust. So much the pity; unlike the promontory of Mumbai, both Pune and Bengaluru, endowed with favourable geography, could have planned a better life for future generations.