Politics of infrastructure

Print edition : November 18, 2005

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh and Infosys Technologies chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy at a meeting on infrastructure needs in Bangalore on October 15. - K. MURALI KUAMR

Even as rain wreaks havoc with Bangalore's infrastructure, the tensions between Karnataka's IT industry and ruling coalition come out into the open with all their political connotations.

THE heavy rain that lashed Bangalore (and other parts of southern Karnataka) last month exposed the cracks not only in the city's shaky infrastructure but also in the coalition that rules in the State. A number of people were killed in rain-related accidents, entire housing layouts went under water, major roads were inundated, and traffic was thrown out of gear for several hours in the city.

The deluge and its impact have only sharpened an ongoing dispute between the government and its detractors over its priorities and performance in urban governance. The president of the Janata Dal (Secular), H.D. Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister, has stepped forward to defend the coalition government and its Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh against a slew of criticisms made by S.M. Krishna, former Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka and at present the Governor of Maharashtra. A new voice heard in the dispute is that of N.R. Narayana Murthy, the chief mentor of Infosys Technologies. The exchange has been bitter (resulting in Narayana Murthy's resignation as Chairman of the Bangalore International Airport Limited), and it has brought to the fore several important issues relating to priorities in urban governance and infrastructure planning for the fast-growing metropolis of Bangalore.

Political sparring between Deve Gowda and Krishna, traditional rivals from opposing parties, is nothing new. It is the entry of Narayana Murthy, a hitherto influential but behind-the-scenes presence, into the row that is significant as it affirms the growing political clout of the Information Technology sector in the State. Infosys Technologies, the home-grown, Bangalore-based IT giant, has an expected turnover this year of Rs.9,000 crores and a 15,000-strong workforce in the city alone.In the past few years it has made its presence felt in the city's political environment, not through the conventional route but through what might be called the `governance' route. It has been the driving force behind several civic governance initiatives, like the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) for example, which have pressed for the implementation of a `Public-Private Partnership' model in areas of governance that were earlier under exclusive government control.

The corporate-driven programme of governance and infrastructure development, endorsed and implemented by the regime of S.M. Krishna, experienced setbacks recently. The excessive attention the Krishna government paid to the urban sector, particularly to the demands and requirements of the growing IT industry, at a time when agriculture was going through a serious crisis, cost the Congress dearly in the 2004 elections. The present political leadership does not intend to make the same mistake. Leaders such as Dharam Singh, Deve Gowda and Deputy Chief Minister M.P. Prakash perhaps realise that at a time when State governments are stretched for finances to underwrite major infrastructural projects, it will not do for this government to surrender policy-making to the corporate sector or its front organisations. Nor can resources that should service the civic needs and requirements of the urban poor be diverted to build infrastructure for the IT sector. M.P. Prakash told Frontline recently: "We cannot have islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty."

The IT industry, Infosys in particular, has been on a collision course with the government for some months now. Several developments precipitated the political wrangle that has spilled into the public domain. Deve Gowda told Frontline that a sustained media campaign was built "by those who wanted to create the opinion that this government is not keen on creating infrastructure to further promote IT, and that I, specifically, am the hurdle". It was when he was Chief Minister, Deve Gowda said, that the Singapore International Technology Park in Bangalore was cleared. "I gave IT a 10-year tax holiday; it was during my tenure as Prime Minister that the memorandum of understanding for the Delhi Metro Rail was signed; and I gave all possible help to expedite the construction of the Bangalore international airport. How can I be accused of being against infrastructure development?" he asked.

Narayana Murthy is believed to have resigned from the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) on October 19 because Deve Gowda questioned the slow progress of the airport project under his chairmanship in a letter to Dharam Singh. According to media reports, Narayana Murthy and a team from Infosys made a presentation on the international airport plans for Dharam Singh and Deve Gowda. After the meeting Deve Gowda reportedly expressed his reservations about the plan. "Actually the presentation was about urban-rural linkages," Deve Gowda told Frontline, "but by the end of the meeting all we heard about was urban linkages. I have nothing against Mr. Narayana Murthy and in fact told him that we wanted his advice on many matters. There are other reputed IT companies here who don't keep accusing this government of being anti-infrastructure. Mr. Narayana Murthy has reportedly said that the Bangalore Metropolitan City should come directly under the Centre. God save democracy."

At the venue of the eighth Bangalore IT.in event, which was organised from October 26 to 29 and attended by 150 Indian and 120 foreign companies. Bangalore's future as the IT capital of India seems threatened by the controversy about the city's troubled infrastructure.-G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

Infosys responded with facts to Deve Gowda's allegation that it had been allotted 311 acres (124.4 hectares) in Mangalore and that it had applied to the State government for an additional 845 acres of land. It said that the land in Mangalore had been acquired at market rates. It had applied to a high-level committee in 2000 for additional land, which was not granted to it. At present the company owned 79.76 acres in Bangalore, 315.60 acres in Mysore, and 96 acres in Mangalore. It had created nearly 19,000 jobs in the three cities with an investment of Rs.1,700 crores.

"Let us go back to the basics in this controversy," T.V. Mohandas Pai, chief financial officer of Infosys told Frontline. "The most important issue in India is the creation of jobs and IT is a major job creator. There are already one million jobs in IT and in four years another one million will be added to that. These jobs, for a variety of reasons, can only be created in cities. Do we need this or not?" Pai argued that of the 28 lakh persons in the job market in IT in Bangalore, five lakhs are directly or indirectly employed in the IT sector. He said that 20 years ago, when Bangalore was known as a "pensioner's paradise" and a "garden city", there were no prospects for youngsters. It was the IT industry that created these jobs for young people and made it a city of the future. "What are we asking for that will not benefit everyone? We are asking for better quality and more roads and better traffic management. The three major IT belts, namely the Hosur Road corridor, the Whitefield Road corridor and the Peenya corridor, support 2.5 out of the seven million residents of Bangalore. Sixty per cent of the State's revenues come from Bangalore. Shouldn't it get a part of that for its own improvement? That is all we are asking for," he said.

The deterioration of the city's infrastructure did not happen overnight. It is the result of long years of faulty planning, which has assumed crisis proportions in the past year, coinciding exactly with the tenure of the coalition government. Therefore, this government has had to bear the brunt of the criticism for the breakdown of civic services and amenities. The damage wrought by the unseasonal rains has only compounded the problem. For certain individuals and political factions within the Congress and the JD(S), particularly those left out of the coalition ministry, the issue of city infrastructure breakdown has become a handy stick with which to beat the government.

One of the most trenchant critics of the coalition government is Krishna. He used the occasion of his first press conference in Bangalore after becoming the Governor of Maharashtra to defend his tenure as Chief Minister and criticise the "denigration" of the IT sector by the present political leadership in the state.

Asked for his reaction to the result of a recent World Bank-Confederation of Indian Industry survey which said that private industry in Karnataka was constrained by corruption, regulation and limited infrastructure in the period 2002-2003, Krishna said that if an inquiry had to be made it should start from the Public Works Department which came under Dharam Singh in the previous government and which had been funded by the World Bank to the tune of Rs. 2,000 crores. In retaliation, Dharam Singh ordered a probe into the cost escalation in the construction of the Vikasa Soudha, an architectural replica of the present Vidhana Soudha (legislature building) in Bangalore and a pet project of the former Chief Minister. He also constituted a Cabinet sub-committee to be headed by M.P. Prakash to scrutinise the details of land bought by and given to IT companies, including Infosys.

With the differences between Infosys and the government out in the open, there are reports that the Andhra Pradesh government has offered the company land and other amenities. The most-favoured-sector status that the IT industry, and Infosys in particular, once enjoyed appears to have changed, if the official rhetoric is any indication. As if to underline the point, the State government invited Deve Gowda to be the chief guest at the Bangalore IT.in, the city's prestigious annual technology event.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor