Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Backlash Grows in Bangalore Over Tech Revolution

A Backlash Grows in Bangalore Over Tech Revolution

The Hard Rock Caf 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.

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