Official plans for Indian cities often reflect an unstated desire for symmetry. There is a quiet belief that a well planned city will necessarily grow in all directions. A city that grows in just one direction is seen as being unplanned and its growth uncontrolled.

Yet, as the experience of Bangalore reminds us, the search for symmetry can be expensive. And these additional costs can hurt the growth of the city itself.

The natural growth of Bangalore over the last four decades has been focused on the south of the city. The public sector townships created after Independence tended to be concentrated in the east with a just a few in the north. And with the decline of the public sector from the 1980s, the economic impetus of the city shifted to the south.

The garment export industry that played a prominent role at least from that decade was concentrated in a belt stretching from the west of the city to the south. The information technology boom that took off in the mid-1980s was similarly concentrated in a belt between the south of the city and the east.

The south focus of the information technology boom attracted real estate investment to that part of the city. The relatively better-off employees became a major source of investment in housing. And their lifestyles generated a boom in commercial space, including malls.

The cost of symmetry

Even as the city was growing to the south, though, the government decided that it must develop the north. Whether this was done entirely due to a preoccupation with symmetry or was influenced by other less elegant considerations, it is difficult to say. But the city created its new airport 35 km to the north, though the main users of this piece of world class infrastructure were in the IT industry located to the south.

The immediate consequence of this attempt to gain symmetry was a huge spurt in infrastructure costs. A larger portion of users of the new airport had to be transported from the south of Bangalore to a location beyond the north of the city. As this group was extremely articulate and media savvy, the discourse soon shifted to the quality of road infrastructure needed to meet this huge, and largely self-imposed, additional demand for luxury transportation.

These costs were not confined to roads and flyovers, though they did form a substantial part of the exercise. The shift to luxury transportation also affected those dependent on other forms of movement. High speed roads did not leave too much space for pedestrians. With pedestrians risking their lives to cross these roads it is no surprise that the number of pedestrian deaths in Bangalore’s traffic accidents has grown.

Challenging terrain

The state-forced shift to the north has not been helped by Bangalore’s terrain either. The undulating terrain was once an asset as it allowed for a large number of lakes to provide the water the city needed. But as uncontrolled growth has led to the drying up of tanks the city has become completely dependent on water drawn from the Cauvery more than a hundred kilometres away. And since Cauvery water enters the city from the south, pumping it across not-always-favourable terrain to the north of the city adds substantially to energy costs.

These costs can be hidden for a while as the state invests heavily in infrastructure that is provided at highly subsidised rates, if not free, to users. But over time the costs tend to be passed on to the users.

Bangalore’s public transport system has begun to judge its success entirely in terms of its profitability. As a result it has increased in rates to a point where the poorest are forced to walk to work. And sooner rather than later the other costs get pushed on to the users, whether it is energy costs raising water tariffs or tolls on the expensive roads built to increase connectivity to the north of the city.

The city’s hurting

These increasing costs are beginning to hurt the city. The Consumer Price Index for Industrial Workers for Bangalore has been growing at a rate higher than the national average, and well above that of competing cities in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The higher costs of the city affect its attractiveness to labour as well as capital. This may well have contributed to Karnataka’s industrial growth slipping to below the national average.

The fascination with symmetry has thus taken a toll on Bangalore’s once-admired status as one of the leading cities in the country in terms of economic growth. The costs of this symmetry are beginning to extend well beyond the government’s finances, to the cost of living, and in turn to the investments the city can attract. This is surely too high a price to pay for a neat map of Bangalore.