Cyberabad: Not quite an integrated circuit

Read Time: 6 minutes

Dotted with swanky buildings that house the who’s who of global information technology firms, the Cyberabad skyline evokes comparisons with Silicon Valley. Full of marshy bushes, hillocks and agricultural fields not that long ago, the region’s hundreds of IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) firms exported products and services worth ₹75,000 crore last financial year.

Gangaram, 65, has witnessed this transformation first-hand. A farmer with four acres in Zaheerabad (Medak district), he took up work as a farmhand at nearby Madhapur village about 25 years ago. “I worked on adlu (paddy) and makka (maize) fields. It was quite a fertile land as we had good groundwater, thanks to the sprawling Durgam Cheruvuu (‘secret lake’),” he recalls, with a glint of pride in his eyes.

Today that lake is nothing more than a tank, as encroachments have eaten into the catchment areas from all sides. And Madhapur is the centre of Cyberabad, the modern face of Hyderabad. Gangaram has migrated back to it once again, this time to help his three sons find jobs.

Accounting for nearly one-third of Hyderabad’s 75-lakh population, the Cyberabad region encompasses Madhapur, Gachibowli, Kondapur and parts of Miyapur and Kukatpally. As the region’s IT industry grew in size and influence, more villages — Gopanpally, Bandlaguda and Tellapur, among others — were swallowed up by Cyberabad. And none of this growth was planned. It just happened. From the few hundreds of jobs available back in 2000-01, when IT exports stood at ₹2,000 crore, today there are four lakh workers in Cyberabad. Land prices shot up overnight and the existing infrastructure in the villages barely met the needs of the city-in-the-making and its residents, who had descended from all over the country. The government’s response to the growth was haphazard and ad hoc.

Vasanta Sobha Turaga refuses to call Cyberabad a satellite town. “It doesn’t have the attributes… A satellite town must be self-sufficient and far away from the main city. It must have colleges, hospitals, residential areas for people working there. You must have proper land-use planning,” argues the conservation architect and urban-regional planner.

JA Chowdary, who is considered the chief architect of the Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy, or Hi-Tec City (as Cyberabad is officially called), concedes there were infrastructural bottlenecks. He also admits that no one it would grow so fast. “It was a surprise. No one really anticipated it,” says Chowdary, who is currently IT advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government. “The success of Cyberabad is that it brought global benchmarks in governance, office space, work culture and mindset,” says Chowdary, who was the first director of Hyderabad’s Software Technology Parks of India, an autonomous government body for the promotion of IT-enabled services.

Hyderabad’s tryst with IT industry began in the late 1960s as an outsourcing centre for certain projects of the Russian government. Then there was a lull for about a decade, until economic liberalisation in the 1990s opened up outsourcing opportunities for Indian IT.

The then Congress government in undivided Andhra Pradesh decided to allot land for IT industry. It remained a low-key effort until momentum picked up during the Telugu Desam’s rule and led to the creation of the Hi-Tec City project. In 1998, Larson and Toubro and Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation jointly built Cyber Towers, the first of the special economic zones, or SEZs. Soon after, Microsoft set up its India Development Centre at Gachibowli.

This sent a strong message to the IT industry in the US, which was just beginning to taste the fruits of outsourcing. The place looked promising as it was far cheaper than Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune or Chennai. A host of global and Indian MNCs made a beeline to it. The government continued to woo and allot hundreds of acres to IT companies.

“A satellite town must reduce the pressure on a city. But Cyberabad is different. It significantly increased pressure. The city, in fact, suffered heavily from the unplanned growth of the IT corridor,” says Turaga, whose Master’s programme was on ‘Framework for Hyderabad Metro Region in the era of Globalisation’.

Umeshwar Pandey, director of the Centre for Organisation Development (COD), concurs. The COD came much before Hi-Tec City was conceived. “There was not even a proper road then. This part of the city grew very fast over the last two decades. But what is missing is planned infrastructure,” he says.

In the process, several major waterbodies were encroached on. Illegal real-estate layouts mushroomed in the catchments as demand for commercial and residential spaces boomed. The now infamous Bhandari Layout is a case in point.

When heavy rains lashed the city in September, several apartment complexes were submerged up to the first floor. The gushing waters virtually converted the roads into swirling rivulets. It took nearly a week or so for the civic authorities to restore normalcy.

The layout was found to have violated several regulations. As unprecedented rains ravaged the city, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao announced there were over 10,000 illegal structures obstructing catchments and drains, including many in the Cyberabad area. Sensing the public’s anger, the civic body demolished a few structures along the nalas (drainage canals), only to stop abruptly after a week.

Cyberabad brought modernity to the ‘City of Pearls’, the name by which Hyderabad is known for its centuries-old trade in pearls. In no time, Cyber Towers became an important mascot, next only to the iconic 400-year-old Charminar. It propelled the city to become the country’s fourth top exporter of IT services. This, in turn, channelled several economic and commercial benefits to the State and the local communities.

The pre-eminence of Cyberabad, in fact, proved to be a bone of contention between the pro- and anti-Telangana movements during the decade-long struggle for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.

In recent times, the T-Hub, an incubator of incubators, has created a buzz in the country’s start-up universe. Promoted by the Telangana government, the first phase of the hub houses some 200 start-ups.

Located in Gachibowli, it is jointly run by Nalsar law university, Indian School of Business and International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-Hyderabad). Work is currently on for the second phase of T-Hub, which is expected to attract fintech and Internet of Things (or IoT) start-ups.

The highly-paid IT workforce has powered a boom in real-estate, construction, hospitality, logistics and other sectors of the economy. This, in turn, helped generate more jobs in these sectors.

The number of engineering colleges has shot up. Though the IT industry does complain that the graduates produced by these newbies are mediocre, it nevertheless served to build the industry’s strengths.

Social scientists, on the other hand, argue that the sharp contrasts in incomes and the sudden pressure on the communities in the nearly 20 surrounding villages have led to inequalities. Chigurupati Ramachandraiah, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), says he had tried to study the manifestations a decade ago.

“While some of the business entities and gated communities in the Cyberabad area got exclusive, unlimited water, the communities around these entities were left to struggle with meagre infrastructure,” he says.

The techies have their share of troubles too. Unable to find affordable accommodation close to their place of work, a majority of the IT staff commute 30-40 km daily.

The Society for Cyberabad Security Council (SCSC) has been formed to look into the challenges faced by IT workers. A joint initiative of the Cyberabad Police and IT industry, the organisation gathers real-time inputs from stakeholders and attempts to remove pain points.

“Though it is not a satellite city per se, imagine there is a virtual border. There are more areas like Adibatla that are joining the Cyberabad area. We need to focus on infrastructure to support the growth,” says Bharani Kumar Aroll, head of SCSC.

Apart from the physical bottlenecks, the SCSC is also focusing on the growing cyber threats and ways to protect the city from these, says Aroll, who recently organised a two-day conclave to build awareness on issues related to cyber security.

As villages turn into IT hubs, agricultural land is fast disappearing. A few owners sold their land at a premium and moved into new businesses; others spent the sale money in no time and are currently doing odd jobs spawned by the services economy, including chai outlets, hotels, and mobile phone shops.

“I earn about ₹200 a day,” says Gangaram, who sells cigarettes and snacks from a pushcart. He wants to be financially independent even though his sons are doing very well, he says.

He earlier worked as a security guard at building sites for a few years, until he was asked to leave due to old age. He poignantly captures the changes sweeping through his land and its people.

“We were all working on the fields together. Some sold land and made it big. Some others acted as middlemen in land transactions and made money. Those who worked on the fields are doing odd jobs. Some simply just look away,” he says.

When the image of Cyberabad took a hit after the September rains exposed the chinks in its facade, social media erupted in jokes about the blocked drains and waterlogged roads. Ministers were forced to skip public events to avoid embarrassing questions from the people.

The new dispensation in Telangana blames the rulers of the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh for the poor state of infrastructure in Cyberabad. IT and municipal administrator KT Rama Rao says the city needs to be decongested. In the works are a slew of four-lane roads and a traffic underpass to ease traffic congestion in the IT corridor. A Metro Rail connectivity is in the offing, as also a Regional Ring Road encircling the city.

“This will be beyond the Outer Ring Road. We will encourage self-containing townships with ample space for commercial, residential and recreational activities. This will significantly ease pressure on the capital,” says the minister, who routinely refers to the young Telangana as a ‘Start-up State’.

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