It is a non-violent protest that could emerge as a trendsetter for civic agitations in India. In a throwback to Gandhigiri, commuters and residents of the upscale Whitefield suburb of Bangalore are wearing black on Fridays, tweeting their complaints to every public figure including the prime minister, and making themselves heard and seen to draw the spotlight to the pathetic state of infrastructure in that neighbourhood. The “black Friday” protests will stretch across all Fridays in August.
This past Friday, Akhila Deshpande, who works for a venture capital firm based in Whitefield, wore black and came out on the street with her co-workers. “My protest is a way of standing up and being counted,” she said. The road leading up to her office has been in a state of disrepair for nine months. It takes Deshpande three hours to commute from work in Whitefield to her home in the southern Banashankari area on rainy days. When she gets out of her office and into the street, the pollution and noise are unbearable. “Do professionals have to take career decisions based on the problems in Whitefield? Does it have to come to that?” she asked.
“1 hour to cover 2 kms I cant take it anymore,” tweeted distressed commuter Ashika Sripathi as part of the black Friday protest tweets in mid-August. Another affected Twitter user Manu Prasad resorted to humour. “Whitefield helps build ‘attention to detail’ as a skillset, thanks to waiting in traffic and staring at the same spot.”
Whitefield is not just another Indian city suburb. Some plain facts about Whitefield will shock Indians unfamiliar with the geography of Bangalore. These wretched conditions prevail in an area with the highest density of Indian professional elite commuting, working and living. The place is home to the who’s who of global companies, from General Electric to Tesco to SAP to Oracle. By some accounts, Whitefield generates more revenue in billions of dollars than any neighborhood in any Indian city.
What brought on the protests? “We want it to be a visual reality check to show the country — and the world — how really and truly frustrated people in Whitefield are,” said Nitya Ramakrishnan, founder of civic non-profit Whitefield Rising, a key player
in the protest. Ramakrishnan says about 8,00,000 commuters pour into Whitefield daily to work for companies based there. But the commute is a nightmare because of inadequate road network, poor quality roads, lack of traffic management and long-delayed metro rail work.
In past years, an active and high-profile group of volunteers has worked with government officials and city authorities to find solutions to Whitefield’s problems. So far, that has only brought about a few and very superficial changes in the area. “What Whitefield needs is transformational change, not incremental steps; after deep study, we have come up with a set of solutions for the government to consider,” said Ramakrishnan.
Whitefield apart, Bangalore’s traffic challenges have gained increasing notoriety over the past few years. With the metro rail project advancing at an excruciatingly slow pace, the scanty road network and poor public transport system only serve to exacerbate the situation, leading to citizens wasting hours stuck in gridlocked traffic. Some estimates put such productivity losses at thousands of crores per month. Creative local artists have taken to placing life-like anacondas and alligators around potholes to draw attention to the state of the roads.
So far, the only thing coming through is the government’s serious lack of vision in sorting Bangalore’s mounting infrastructure problems.
In Whitefield this time round, citizens say they expect authorities to wake up and ask what can be done. “Then, we can tell them with all the expertise at our command, here are ways to fix the problems,” said Ramakrishnan. Fortuitously for the agitators, the elections to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the civic authority, is merely days away. “If the government does not respond, Whitefield’s citizens will speak with our votes,” she said.