Bangalore woke up on Tuesday, 30 August, to front-page photographs of floods in its backyard that were reminiscent of scenes from Mumbai a month earlier. “Bommanahalli under water” announced The Times of India (TOI), “Adrift on Bannerghatta Road” said Deccan Herald (DH), both in headlines for lead stories on page one.

The Hindu had a roundup of the “trail of destruction in Bangalore” on account of heavy rains the previous night at the bottom of the front page. Vijay Times(VT) placed its substantial coverage of the deluge on the front page of its city supplement, while the City Express supplement of The New Indian Express (NIE) had a brief story on the front page and a photograph with a short report on page three. Although The Asian Age (AA) did carry a small report on one of the day’s rain-related stories (four women washed away in a flash flood in the Arkavathy river in Bangalore rural district), it ignored the havoc caused by flooding on the outskirts of the city, which brought hundreds of residents out on the streets in protest.

The TOI also carried prompt reports on page two the same day on the drainage-related problems of areas around Bangalore under the jurisdiction of seven separate “city municipal councils” (CMCs, distinct from the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike/Bangalore City Corporation or BMP/BCC). In addition to photographs, it had a rudimentary map of the city’s drainage system as well as two boxes detailing problems, proposed solutions and obstacles. The next day the TOI was the only paper with a follow-up story -- on the front page -- quoting politicians and bureaucrats while criticising them for their lack of action and accountability.

By the following day, the local floods had all but receded from much of the press: the exceptions were the TOI and VT. The former featured a special Times Debate on page two on how to tackle the multiple civic problems that beset the outlying areas of the city, while the latter had a report in its city supplement about the continuing complaints of residents who had staged a public demonstration two days earlier.

Civic coverage

On any given day the press in Bangalore publishes at least one story – usually more -- relating to the crumbling, inadequate infrastructure and the poor, apathetic administration of the overgrown urban jungle once known as a garden city and a pensioners’ paradise. In the three days between 30 August and 1 September, for instance, there were reports about plans and developments relating to the international airport being built at some distance from the city, a proposed metro rail project, a projected inner core ring road surrounding the central business district, improving and augmenting the road network, de-silting and constructing drains, and providing unlimited and uninterrupted power.

The “swindlers’ list” drawn up by a group of citizens using the Right to Information Act to uncover corruption amounting to Rs. 27 crores in one of the CMCs also made front page news. In addition one newspaper had the latest instalment of its series on civic issues in the city’s many wards (such ward-wise coverage is a regular feature of several dailies).

There is little doubt that at least some sections of the local press have played a commendable role in highlighting the problems that have progressively come to plague Bangalore over the past decade, thanks to rapid, unplanned growth coupled with an indifferent city management system further weakened by petty politics and rampant corruption. As a result, the media – along with the judiciary -- have emerged as the sole hope and refuge for the common citizens of the city who till recently took some pride in its growing stature as the Silicon Plateau of India.

Plenty of reports are based entirely on press statements and conferences, in which plans and promises are presented with little questioning, let alone any reference to previous claims and assurances.
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However, certain characteristics of the media’s customary coverage of civic issues in Bangalore keep it from being as complete, useful and effective as it could potentially be. Several of these features probably apply to civic reporting in other cities as well, with minor variations. Superficial treatment and short attention span are the most obvious and commonly deplored of these. However, there are other aspects to the coverage that often go unnoticed.

One of these is the tendency for the city's media – along with, even more inexcusably, the government – to view the infrastructure crisis in the city predominantly through the eyes of the movers and shakers of the information technology (IT) industry, widely touted as the jewel in the now somewhat tarnished crown of the city. A disproportionate number of reports is triggered by or make reference to the periodic expressions of displeasure over inadequate infrastructure by various captains of industry – most recently the publicised boycott of the city’s annual IT exposition – now known as Bangalore IT.in – for the second year running.

Take, for example, the Press Trust of India report used by almost all the Bangalore papers which quoted the NASSCOM chief (see above): “Traffic snarls and congestion have become a perennial problem in Bangalore, where development of roads and construction of flyovers have not kept pace with multi-fold increase in the number of vehicles. Roads connecting IT companies in and around Bangalore, in particular, witness bottlenecks that is (sic) testing the patience of IT companies, an IT official said. Pointing out that the city was an important destination for IT companies, Karnik said Bangalore ‘being not in good shape creates negative publicity. We have to make the government aware that it's a serious problem.’”

Similarly, on 1 September, the top story in the Bangalore section of The Asian Age (which normally devotes little space to civic issues) was headlined “A dream drive to the airport” and quoted the minister in charge of “public works,” H.D. Revanna, on the proposal to construct a 45-kilometre, eight-lane expressway between the “IT corridor” and the international airport-to-be at a cost of Rs. 150 crores: “We have mooted this proposal to ensure that air travellers, particularly those employed in IT firms, reach the new airport quickly.”

If the preoccupation with the IT – and to a lesser extent Biotechnology (BT) and ITES -- industries obscures the fact that every resident of the city needs and is entitled to basic infrastructure and services, the tendency of the media to focus on issues affecting the vocal middle and upper classes – their primary target audience – blocks out many of the problems faced by the urban poor in terms of essential infrastructure and services such as housing, water supply, sanitation and transport. While there is much ado about the poor state of roads and the bane of traffic congestion from the perspective of those who own private vehicles, especially cars, relatively little attention is paid to the plight of pedestrians, cyclists and bus travellers. Similarly, the special needs and concerns of groups such as the elderly and the physically challenged are rarely reflected.

Myopic view

Another problem stems from a myopic view of urban development, with coverage by and large restricted to the central parts of the city – and, within that, some areas more than others – with little thought to the effects of the urban sprawl on the surrounding countryside. For example, the house-to-house collection of garbage – especially in middle and upper class neighbourhoods – is reported as a major breakthrough in solid waste management. But the fact that much of this garbage is simply dumped by contractors on the outskirts of the city – without any sorting or treatment, thus spreading urban blight into rural areas -- is barely noted.

A related trend has the media focussing narrowly on certain aspects of urban development – such as the ongoing controversy over the proposed metro rail project – rather than the larger issue of which it is a part: in this case, the paucity of public transport. Even though this is the root cause of the most visible and commonly deplored symptom of Bangalore’s current ailments – traffic jams – it does not receive the kind of systematic, holistic media attention that it deserves.

On the other hand, the metro versus mono rail joust between political leaders is covered in great detail. Given the Indian media’s obsession with party politics and, especially, its penchant for political gossip, this is not surprising. However, more independently sourced information and insight could help readers, if not the politicians concerned, to rise above the pointless power struggle in order to figure out the pros and cons of the various options in terms of the public interest, and understand – if not participate in -- the decision-making process leading to the selection of one or the other.

Lack of independent initiative is also evident in the high proportion of reports based entirely on press statements and conferences, in which plans and promises are presented with little questioning, let alone any reference to previous claims and assurances. For example, a prominent story in the City Express supplement of The New Indian Express reported the proposal for a rail link between the city and the new international airport, with check-in facilities at a city station, as if it were about to become reality even though work on the airport has just begun.

The Hindu presented Chief Minister Dharam Singh’s claim that city infrastructure was at the top of his agenda -- after reportedly laying foundation stones for an astonishing 39 development works estimated at Rs. 118 crores in one Assembly constituency -- with no reference to the top front page story in The Times of India a few days earlier highlighting the fact that the government had spent Rs. 3.1 crores on foundation stones and inaugurations over the past three years, with little to show for any of it in the form of completed projects.

Similarly, on 1 September The New Indian Express and Vijay Times carried different information on proposed road works. According to the former the state government had sought Rs. 650 crores from the central government to improve city roads and nearly 446 kms. of roads around the city would be upgraded; the latter reported a Rs. 516-crore plan to improve 38 city roads.

To make matters worse, neither paper made any reference to the various large amounts bandied about over the past year by city authorities, including the much-hyped World Bank project to “rehabilitate high/medium density corridor roads” in the city, which came to light in March 05 but of which little has been heard in the past few months. What is more, on the same day, the NIE’s city supplement reported that no new infrastructure project had been undertaken in the last one year by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA). If the media – meant to be the eyes and ears of the public -- cannot clarify the situation, citizens certainly will not be able to make sense of it.

A recent example

Perhaps the most telling recent example of the limits of civic reporting as it is currently practised in Bangalore is the scant attention paid by the local media to the new draft Comprehensive Development Plan for Bangalore 2005-2015 (CDP), unveiled by the BDA in mid-July. Despite the ready availability of information – on the BDA website (as well as through print and compact disc versions of the complete document) and in the form of a two month long exhibition of maps detailing the new “vision” for Bangalore -- very little has appeared in the press to inform the public about this important development or to encourage citizens to visit the exhibition, let alone to enlighten them about the proposals in the draft document and thereby enable them to contribute to the process of determining the future of the city they live in.

The initial flurry of reports on the exhibition immediately after it was opened to the public gave way to virtual silence on the actual contents of the CDP. Major meetings spearheaded by city-based organisations such as Janaagraha, CIVIC and the Environment Support Group (ESG), aiming to involve different sectors of civil society in discussions on the implications of the draft document and generate feedback from the public, have gone more or less unreported in the press.

This is despite the obvious fact that the CDP is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the city and could either crack or compound the range of civic problems dutifully reported by the press on a daily basis, ranging from the recurrent water-logging that is increasingly disrupting life in different parts of the city to the perpetual traffic congestion that has become the perennial talk of the town among residents and visitors alike.

The invitation to the CIVIC/ESG meeting to discuss the CDP planning and input processes and to demand ward-level consultations as a democratic imperative warned, “Should we fail to seize the opportunity of the present revision of CDP, it is unlikely that we can intervene to create a metropolis in Bangalore that reflects the concerns of all citizens. It is one thing for ‘specialist groups’ to debate and come out with some suggestions, but an altogether different matter for the common people to be involved in the planning process. Our constitution mandates this.”

Clearly the media form a critical link in the chain that is supposed to connect citizens and democratic governments. It may take more than random news reports on dramatic developments on the civic front -- welcome and well meant as they undoubtedly are -- to make that connection work for the public good.