Academic journal article Geography

Wake Up and Smell the Masala: Contested Realities in Urban India

Academic journal article Geography

Wake Up and Smell the Masala: Contested Realities in Urban India

Article excerpt

Challenging Assumptions

When, in January 2011, Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, exhorted geography to return to 'the facts' (BBC News, 2011) I was still trying to make sense of the challenge to certain assumptions that a recent visit to Bangalore, India, had thrown up. First the city, the state capital of Karnataka, had changed its name from Bangalore to Bengaluru in 2006. More importantly the 'facts' about modern urban India are becoming increasingly contested. Should the narrative be one of an technologically-advanced country led by the towering wealth of its billionaires whose wealth was brought about by the mighty transformative power of neo-liberal globalisation? Perhaps the story should be about the poverty, environmental degradation and slums as suggested by India being Britain's largest recipient of overseas development aid (ODA). It appeared that now may be the time to re-examine our assumptions about urban India whatever narrative we are drawn towards.

In 2005 Thomas Friedman flew to Bangalore to talk to the high rollers of what had become known as the silicon plateau. He travelled Lufthansa business class (Friedman, 2005) and returned home with his 'flat world' thesis based upon his analysis of intellectual and technological global convergence, and a worldwide best seller. In late 2010 I followed, on Lufthansa economy class, to Bengaluru. I returned home with thoughts not about how flat this new global world was, but how increasingly bumpy and unequal it was becoming.

As the New Year fireworks above Brigade Road, Bengaluru, illuminated the 100,000 revellers hemmed into this brash strip of neon, restaurants, bars and night clubs of global consumerism, India clearly had something to celebrate. With its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate edging back towards the 10% it experienced in 2006 (Figure 1) India was 'buzzing'. Its youthful urban population senses the city is at the dawn of a new consumer age, breaking through into the global élite, a player, a deal maker, confidently embracing globalisation. I had first visited India a quarter of a century earlier. It was a 'third world' country then. You felt it as soon as you hit the scrum at Delhi Airport's arrival terminal. By 2010 the lexicon has changed and the airport has as well. Bengaluru's shiny new, and calm, international airport sits 35km north of the city at the end of an equally new motorway.

At the end of the 1990s I returned to India and Bangalore to research chapters for an ?-level text book (Drake and Lee, 2000). In this work we were concerned with trying to convey to students that urban life in India's growing cities was complex and could not be left to a few case studies of slums (a one-dimensional approach that was often the diet of school geography at that time).

I travelled the city so extensively I could have got a job as a taxi driver. I saw all life: the unrecognised slums, the recognised slums, the old housing areas, the middle-class colonial cantonment suburbs and high-end lndiranagar. Bangalore was a complex city where describing one area as indicative was as helpful as writing about the Manor Estate in Sheffield and thinking that would provide students with an overview of the city. Not that I was blind to the glaring inequalities of the Indian city, far from it. It was this reality that I found most striking on my recent return. Bengaluru was, like my home town Sheffield (Lee, 2009), a 'tale of two cities' (Thomas ei al., 2009). A story about the haves and the have nots.

One of the key narratives of globalising India is of expanding inequality as part of the price for its stellar economic growth. That India is an unequal society is self evident. The country is littered with forts and palaces which are testament not to some great egalitarian history but one riven by class and caste, history and hierarchy. Yet what India appears to be doing today is developing a new type of inequality; a type that is more familiar to anyone living in those countries in the world blown about by neo-liberal globalisation. …

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