Since the beginning of India’s IT boom Bangalore has been the darling of globalization pundits and and development dreamers. The gist, as Thomas Friedman articulates it, is that the world is flattening so that workers and companies can compete for opportunities from anywhere on the planet. Bangalore, of course, is the shiniest example of globalization’s success. However, what has been occluded from the discussion is how the massive investments and capital flows into Bangalore have also contributed to the rise of a powerful and violent mafia. Bangalore’s economy is growing much faster than its judicial, regulatory and enforcement systems. The gap has proved to be fertile ground for an unregulated, informal and often criminal systems to fill the space.
In this month’s issue of WIRED magazine I wrote a story called “The Godfather of Bangalore” where I showed how underworld dons have taken control of many of the city’s land dealings by providing an alternate judicial system to mediate land claims. There is no easy way to solve a land dispute in India. Inherited parcels are often contested by dozens of semi-legitimate claimants and court cases routinely take 15 years to come to a judgment. But the pace of land development is relentless, and companies and wealthy individuals don’t want to wait for the wheels of justice to finish, they want immediate resolutions.
And this is where the land mafia comes in. Rather than go to courts, a land developer can approach one of the five or six major dons in the city and ask them to mediate a dispute, and seal the deal with threats of violence.
In the course of my research I met people who killed with guns, knives and swords. They fought each other and they fought local people for rights to the land. And most of them got rich along the way.
The most famous don (who says that he is now reformed) is Muthappa Rai, who has beaten the rap on several murder and extortion charges, but is commonly referred to as the most powerful underworld figure in the city.
I have been working on this story for three years, following the story of several different underworld figures through newspapers, government reports and on the ground reporting. In July and August I was able to meet the most influential people in the underworld, and the authorities charged with keeping them in check. The picture I’ve come up with is pretty grim. In effect, very few people have any faith in the law to resolve problems in Bangalore. Mafia dons act with impunity, and routinely defeat legal cases against them.
In my view, Bangalore isn’t only an example of the best that India has to offer. Instead Bangalore shows how the worst elements of Indian society can co-exist with a ultra high tech and modern image. Bangalore today isn’t much different than it was three hundred years ago when kings ruled the land. The kings of today are power brokers, IT captains of industry, underworld dons and government ministers who play by their own rules. Bangalore isn’t neo-colonialist as some people have claimed. It’s neo-feudalist.
Check out the video slideshow that I did for WIRED News for more information on the bangalore mafia that didn’t make it into the WIRED magazine story. I’ve also posted more photos that I took during my research here.