Climate and Social Justice: Results of the IT Revolution in Bangalore

Photo of Michael Goldman
Photo by David Ullman

Can a city bypass the normal timeline of development with the help of technology? After the IT revolution in the 2000s, many people believed that the solution to delayed development in underdeveloped countries was to implement technology already adopted in more developed countries. The idea was that the consequences of poverty could be remedied solely through the development of a high-tech business economy—in particular, that a global city could arise by planting capital investors, IT professionals, and technology companies to bring in resources and bridge the development gap.

For the past 10 years, Professor Michael Goldman of the University of Minnesota has been exploring concepts of development in Bangalore, India. He uses ethnographic research methods, revealing the inequality that comes from advancements in technology that create a skewed population of “haves” and “have-nots,” as Goldman calls them. From his research, he notes that there is “more inequality in the city now than ever before.”

A Global Metropolis

Goldman received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support his research in Bangalore, India, a city emerging as a global metropolis and the focal point of much of Goldman’s research.

Through this research, Goldman’s data revealed a trend: as the technology business and economy grow, the water, energy, and electricity brought into the city are all funneled to the IT sector and not the general population. “There is never enough for the whole city. Traffic is not managed well. Water is not managed well,” Goldman explains. The result is the “emergence of two almost separate, distinct cities” with all the privileges going to the companies producing work for American industry. Who’s left behind? The average people who make up the greater population.

Walking through the streets, Goldman notes the existence of “seven-star hotels with cooks from all over the world,” while just outside, roads are left unpaved and unattended. Goldman’s research takes a deeper look at how this disparity of resources impacts environmental sustainability within the city.

The Short End of the Stick: Environmental Impact in Bangalore

Contrary to the predicted “trickle-down” effect of resources generated from the IT sector to the common folks in these global cities, the presence of plentiful but inaccessible resources has had a negative impact on the city’s environmental health. As luxury condominiums and skyscrapers go up, trees are cut down. Goldman notes that when a city is built up without consciousness of ecology, the result is a negative effect on the environment.

Placing value on city development without taking environmental health into consideration is demonstrated by the sale of farmland in Bangalore to real estate developers for profit.

To create room for the expanding tech industry, farmers are financially compensated to give up their land and move to the city, leaving behind their way of life and occupation. As a result, they are left without jobs or ways to support their families. Economically, the country sees the momentary gratification of profit from the sale, but the lasting impact on social structure or environmental harm is often not considered.

“The government has decided,” Goldman explains, “that it is for the good of the public to turn farm and rural land into urban real estate.” This decision signifies that the lucrative idea of developing the city into a global economic hub holds priority over respect for land, the health of the environment, and long standing, successful local practices. Promoted by the World Bank and found, in addition to in Bangalore, in cities like Istanbul, Dubai, Shanghai, Berlin, and Marseilles, governmental decisions and policies that prioritize global economics have become a worldwide phenomenon.

Goldman also notices that the money resulting from the “build, build, build” mentality impedes the Indian government’s ability to make sound decisions. In reality, Goldman explains, determining whether the city is fit to handle the proposed developments is a key factor in the city developing at a healthy pace. Yet, this decision is difficult when the temptation of accepting business, or replacing lush farmland with concrete, money-making vessels, means instant monetary reward for the city.

Compared to some governments where ecological health and sustainability take the front seat in decisions, the Indian government values the environment much less—leaving it second to developing city infrastructure. Goldman poses the question, “What is a sustainable city, and how do we strive for it?”

The Voice of the People

Despite his observation and research into the pressing issues facing Bangalore, Goldman notes that it is not up to him to decide which solution is best for the city. Instead, he and his team seek to listen to the people living in the daily realities of Bangalore and to discern from their advice how to improve decision-making. “I would never want to put myself in a situation where I am telling people ‘this is what you need,’” Goldman explains. Instead, he sees himself in a sense as “the mouthpiece [to] what the people say and are trying to argue.”

“What does it look like for the average citizen to play a role in aiding climate change?” Goldman asks. Often, the ways we call for individuals to participate in environmentally friendly actions are reserved for the elite, like fuel-efficient Teslas and solar-paneled housing, and the simple solution is neglected.

For example, a solution would be to rely more on local construction materials and expertise and local production of sustainable agriculture, and to use locally sourced materials to build affordable housing. Actions like these, which encourage less reliance on global investors’ needs and global supply chains with high fossil fuel uses, reorient the economy around community practices which have had long-standing local success. Goldman emphasizes, “It’s all about democracy. It’s for communities to say what is best.”

This past spring, a group of students from UMN was supposed to accompany Goldman on a learning abroad experience to Berlin, a city with governmental and economic tensions similar to Bangalore’s, to investigate governmental city decision-making. They planned to focus on Berlin’s rationale for turning down a Google innovation lab. By meeting with a handful of organizations involved in protesting the development of the lab, students would learn how people from other countries “protest, engage, and try to bring about change” in areas where large disparities in privilege, especially in the areas that have high environmental vulnerability and the environment is more prone to respond in more extreme ways to changes in human and climatic conditions. Due to travel bans and concerns from COVID-19, the trip has been canceled, but Goldman hopes to run the course next year, once travel bans lift and enough time has passed to ensure safety.

Overall, Goldman’s research on the IT industry in Bangalore sheds light on the issue of climate justice in global metropolis cities, and Goldman points out that the most monetarily beneficial choice for a city may not be the best way to support long-term social equity and overcome the climate crisis.

Consciousness of ecological and social health in the construction of a global city marks the divide between a city built not just for the short-term good of a few, but the long-term good of many.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.

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