You can hardly miss a Harley Davidson on the road. It is hardly ever driven alone, but in packs. And if you are driving the highway to Bengaluru during a weekend, you are likely to meet such a pack on the road.
Harley Davidson is not just a bike. It’s a statement – of affluence, power, adventure and leisure. It heralds that its owner has arrived. Not only does the owner have enough money to buy two wheels at the cost of four, but can also afford the leisure time to ride it.
I am a regular visitor to Bengaluru. Last week, in addition to Harley Davidson bikes, I saw citizens’ action to clean up the many lakes in the city. I met Annapurna Kamath of Jala Poshan, a citizens’ group that has taken over the management of the Jakkur Lake from the city administration.
Water birds roost on an island inside Jakkur Lake
But what is it that links Bengaluru city, lake restoration and Harley Davidson bikes? Let us start with Bengaluru. It was the first Indian city that nurtured the growth of the information technology and related industries. It was so successful that Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Gurgaon tried to follow in its footsteps. Bengaluru was the first city where the service sector boosted the economy rather than the manufacturing sector, as with the cities of the earlier generation, such as Mumbai and Chennai.
Bengaluru triggered the new kind of socio-economic mobility of the past two decades. This was more broad-based and less discriminating mobility, where young men and women from any background, or any college could aspire to compete and enter into an IT-sector job and then grow on ability and street smartness. If the city lights of Mumbai attracted the young aspirants from the 1960s to the end of the century, it is Bengaluru that attracted the youth in this century.
The city celebrated its young immigrants from other parts of the country in its numerous eating drinking and entertainment spots. In return, the young immigrants celebrated the city. Anjali Menon’s Bangalore days, which was the most successful Malayalam movie of 2014, talks about such dreams of young people from Kerala.
If Bengaluru was the first city to grow in the new economy, it also seems to be the first one growing beyond it. There is a certain restless energy in the urban middle class in the city. It is the ‘now what?’ question that comes after you have made your money, found ‘success’, eaten in the best restaurants and drank in the best pubs. Life, after all, has to have a meaning beyond this. Veena Srinivasan of the research organisation ATREE calls this a post-materialism phenomenon.
It is not as if Bengaluru is the only city where there is this restless energy. It is there in many other parts of the country. However, Bengaluru seems to be a pioneer in trying to put this energy to some use.
This urban middle class energy finds its source from an economic, social and political space that has been growing in the country since the economic liberalisation of 1991, which was re-strengthened with the IT-sector led growth in the economy. The economic restructuring that was initiated 24 years ago to escape a debt trap, created a new class of Indian citizens – the urban middle class.
Increased domestic consumption was one of the premise on which the economic liberalisation was structured. To consume there was need for a middle class. There were limitations to the consumption either by the rich or the poor. The rich were limited in number and the poor were limited in the capacity to spend.
It is in the early years of the 1990s that the great Indian middle class was discovered, or created. Commentators writing in business newspapers – pink and white – estimated this middle class to be between 250 million to 300 million strong. “The Indian middle class is as large as the population of the USA,” they commented.
The consumer became king, for he was giving force to the economy. Corner stores evolved into supermarkets, and then into malls. There were a surfeit of goods and services chasing his money. He participated with greater involvement in industry, through his retail equity participation. Or so he felt. Cheap airlines made air travel possible. The middle class could dream. Through his economic freedom he was also trying to carve out a social and political space.
In the late 1990s there was another effort at quickening the pace of economic growth by giving a policy thrust for the development of the information, communication and entertainment sector. The aim was to leapfrog the economy by moving focus from the manufacturing (or the secondary) sector to the services (or the tertiary) sector.
Bengaluru was the first city to take benefit of this second push in the economic growth story since economic liberalisation. The city became India’s Silicon Valley. And this strengthened its urban middle class.
However, for an individual, the momentum to economic growth can also take one beyond growth. Both stages come with their own side effects. While the economic growth gives social and political space, going beyond growth can come with a side effect of listlessness. It is a sense of helplessness at not being able to do anything impactful with an individual’s time and energy, but being a small, unknown cog in the large wheels of the economy.
Ennui and space can be a heady combination. It is powerful. It can lead to boredom, frustration and violence; or it can lead to a desire and energy to make positive change happen.
It is this energy that Bengaluru uses – to restore its lakes or to buy and ride Harley Davidson bikes across the country. According to Kamath, on every Sunday a group of citizens living around the Jakkur Lake assemble, discuss, carry out bird and reptile censuses, clean, and design and implement ways to manage the lake.
The five-day working week of the service sector helps. In addition to the money, there is also an extra day for doing something more than the routine. Cleaning a lake or riding a bike with a group provides for social groupings, something that has otherwise disappeared in the days of instant messaging, social media and status updates.
So while the city searches for its soul, some wear plastic gloves and clean a lake, and others don leather jackets and ride noisily on motorcycles.