Urban issues and the role of SE in Bangalore

By Dylan Pederson

The urban space that defines the rapidly growing city of Bangalore is like no other. Strewn with the stalls of hawkers, shops of every kind, and cars and motorcycles, the streets of Bangalore exhibit hopeful potential for an inclusive and green city. However, the city has experienced head-spinning growth in the past 30 years, and with that growth comes a slew of multi-dimensional urban problems, many of which are directly related to class and caste.

Graphic courtesy of CitizenMatters

Graphic courtesy of CitizenMatters

The positives
One of the first impressions one gets when strolling through the streets of Bangalore for the first time is the degree of walkability. Within a 10 minute walk from our hostel, there are countless hawkers, restaurants, shops, cell phone recharge stations, convenient stores, and public transportation nodes. My daily commute involves walking for about 7 minutes to reach the Corporation bus stop, then about 12 minutes to reach the Sattva office from the Domlur bus stop. Walkability encourages, and in some ways necessitates, active lifestyles while discouraging sedentary lifestyles. This is vitally important when fighting the obesity epidemic; and as foreign markets for processed food have become more accessible for middle and upper class Indians, obesity is becoming a nationwide concern.

Moreover, walkability and the proper functionality of sidewalks are key in regulating public life. As Jane Jacobs so eloquently describes in The Death and Life of American Cities, the sidewalks of cities are the place where public life takes place, providing “a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city,” so long as it functions properly. The more eyes that are on the street, Jacobs posits, the safer the street becomes, as any potential criminal is unable to commit a crime without being spotted by passers-by or people hanging out on the street. The streets of Bangalore are consistently packed with people purchasing goods, eating food, or just hanging out, thus creating vibrant public spaces.

The negatives
Bangalore has immense urban problems. Based only on visual observations from walking around various parts of the city, it is apparent that infrastructure is in great disrepair. Many sidewalks are completely torn up, with upturned bricks and chunks of rock sticking out of the ground for walkers to trip over. Power lines and wires lie dangling over the sidewalks, many of which have open ends, some even lying in puddles! Piles of rubble and garbage, while less frequent in some parts of the city, are ubiquitous in others. And open defecation remains a problem in some areas of the city.

Beyond visual observations, urban development in Bangalore tends to be vertical in nature, wherein the government prioritizes improving upon the infrastructure of middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods, while neglecting poorer ones. This has resulted in large swathes of the Greater Bangalore conurbation without adequate water and electricity provision. And because the vast majority of residents living in these neglected neighborhoods tend to be of lower class and SC/ST social groups, the urban problems of Bangalore are directly linked to inequality among classes and castes. Thus, urban issues are inextricably linked to social justice issues.

Percentage of Scheduled Caste (SC) Living in Slums. Source: Indian Census.

Percentage of Scheduled Caste (SC) Living in Slums. Source: Indian Census.

In large Indian cities such as Bangalore, there is a large population of the urban poor; this has resulted in expansive economically depressed neighborhoods on the periphery of urban development decision making. The Bangalore Development Authority is responsible for Bangalore’s urban development projects, laying out infrastructure, approving construction plans, and implementing schemes for various types of sites. There are significant deficiencies in the infrastructure: water infrastructure serves less than half the population, and the population that is served tends to be of the upper classes. And while the urban poor languish in inadequate housing without a secure supply of clean water, the BDA continues to embark on ambitious development projects, like large shopping malls and new layouts, while neglecting to provide a basic service such as water.

Role of SE
Social Entrepreneurship, as articulated by the Ashoka Foundation, is the process of creating innovative solutions to society’s most pressing problems. SE can take on many different forms: at Sattva, where I work, SE is manifested through collaboration with corporates, non-profits, and investors on utilizing market mechanisms and creative entrepreneurship in order to improve social conditions and empower marginalized communities to sustain a livelihood. At Ashoka, SE is a more general concept that encourages entrepreneurs to use creativity to improve social conditions, and can take a variety of forms depending on the social entrepreneur. Throughout all these different forms, there is a constant theme: empowerment of marginalized social groups.

While corruption plays a large role in the inefficacy of the BDA in providing basic infrastructure to the whole city, another major factor is the lack of power held by marginalized communities. Since the lower classes and castes hold little sway in the decision making process of Bangalore’s urban development, the BDA faces few real consequences for neglecting poor areas. Without economic or political leverage to pressure the BDA into enacting more inclusive and equitable urban development policies, Bangalore’s marginalized populations will continue to be ignored by the higher-level decision makers.

The role of SE in urban development is crucial from the perspective of equity. SE works to empower marginalized social groups by building upon their capacity to thrive economically, thus increasing their collective strength. This collective strength can be leveraged to influence the decision making of top-level urban planners. If the large segments of the urban poor have greater economic resources, they can afford to organize politically and use their economic clout to bring about real change for their communities and for the Bangalore urban area as a whole.

There are efforts being made by socially conscious organizations to empower citizens to have a voice in the governance of Bangalore. The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy is a non-profit that aims to both improve the quality of infrastructure of the city and to boost civic participation through education of community issues and engagement of neighborhoods. Janaagraha provides an outlet for citizens who desire change to voice their concerns and bring about reform through peaceful and democratic avenues. Janaagraha is using SE techniques to make citizen voices heard and force the BDA to be more accountable for equity.

As the Indian economy continues to grow at the fastest pace of any large nation on Earth, equitable distribution of this newly generated wealth remains a major issue. At this pivotal moment in Indian history, organizations that practice SE have the opportunity to empower the truly oppressed segments of Indian society, not only through building their capacity to sustain a livelihood but also by giving them a voice in the governance of urban planning.

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