Why rename cities

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on May 27, 2018

Has it improved investments, living standards?

It has been 23 years since politicians changed the name of the erstwhile city of Madras to Chennai but the venerable Madras High Court has proudly held on to its old name. IIT Madras has also flourished just fine, thank you very much. And years after the Mumbai and Bengaluru name changes went into effect, IIT Bombay and IIM Bangalore retain their colonial names. Meanwhile, the world still transacts with the Bombay Stock Exchange just as it refers to Bollywood (and not Mollywood).

These esteemed institutions know a thing or two about branding. The two most obvious features of a brand — the name and logo — identify a product, company or place like no other and create a mark of distinction. IBM adopted its name in 1924 and has held on to it for 94 years, although its core business is no longer deriving as much revenue from making business machines as software and services. General Electric (GE) derives only a small part of its revenue from making electric machines. In 2016, it sold its 100-year appliance machines business unit to China’s Haier. It has taken the IBM and GE brands decades to build and nurture their identities, identities that don’t go away simply because a few product lines have changed.

Sows confusion

In a global economy, changing names after they have gained universal recognition sows confusion. Many places recognise and respect this fact and have maintained dual identities for centuries — one, in the language of their peoples and another, which is directed at a global audience. Consider a Japanese product. It proudly displays a sign which says, “Made in Japan” and not, “Made in Nihon”, although Japan is Nihon in Japanese. This is why, we visit Rome although locals call it Roma. Or we do business in Germany although Germans call it Deutschland.

The late UR Ananthamurthy may go down in history not for his various works of Kannada literature but as one who fought for successfully lobbying the Karnataka government to rename ten cities, including Bangalore. He was not alone in this quest to incite a combination of ethnic, cultural and nationalist emotions to undo names that had been well recognised around the world. Calcutta, Cochin and Baroda were all butchered out of the global lexicon simply to satisfy the whims and fancies of elitists and local politicians.

What good did these city name changes accomplish? Do residents of these regions feel any prouder of their localities now than before? Have they been able to shed their colonial past and reclaim their native glory? Have the changes resulted in better investment opportunities, infrastructure or living standards?

There have been no studies done to date to measure the impact of city name changes but that there are costs is beyond dispute. When cities re-brand, highway traffic signs out into neighbouring States have to be changed. Railway signage, systems and paperwork across the country have to be updated. Government and business stationery have to be destroyed and remade at a cost to the environment. The biggest cost may be in re-educating outsiders about the name change, an intangible line item whose true costs will never be known.

But name-change enthusiasts are not willing to lie low. They are truly pushing the envelope at such complete transformations as Pataliputra for Patna; Prayag for Allahabad and Karnavati for Ahmedabad. If they were to just check with Bank of Baroda about the wisdom of keeping old names, perhaps they would back off.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Texas.

Published on May 27, 2018

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