A Walk in Peenya

A few weeks ago, I paid a short visit to the Peenya Industrial Area in north-west Bengaluru. It’s surprising how, in spite of living in this city for so many years, there are parts of Bengaluru that I’ve never visited before. Nevertheless, I’ve begun trying to correct this deficit by exploring as much of this city as I can, preferably on foot or public transport. My trip to Peenya was the latest such endeavour.

For those who are unaware, Peenya is one of Bengaluru’s key industrial clusters. Discussions about the city’s economy often turn the spotlight on its south-east wedge, the IT corridor running from Whitefield to Electronics City, along the Outer Ring Road (ORR). Yet, there is another, lesser-known industrial belt that runs roughly from Peenya in the north-west, through Rajajinagar (west of Chord Road,) and south towards the intersection of Mysore Road with the ORR. This belt, loosely linked to the small-scale units of West Chikpet, the factories of the Bidadi Industrial Area, and the suburb of Nelamangala, is where many of the city’s manufacturing units are located. Peenya is the most well-known section of this belt, home to garment factories, steel-working units, and machine shops.

Map of Bengaluru with Peenya’s location marked. Source: OpenStreetMaps

I am guessing here, but I suspect the half-operational Bengaluru Metro chose to begin its second line (the Green Line) early because of these industries. The Green Line, as of October 2015, runs from Sampige Road Station (located in centre-west Bengaluru, about two kilometres from the City Railway Station) up to Nagasandra, an area on the north-west edge of the city. Peenya is located about three kilometres before Nagasandra on the same metro line.

I began my short trip from Sampige Road, very much known territory. The view of the city is a familiar sea of low-rise residential housing, about two to four storeys in height. For all its growth, much of Bengaluru is still very much a low-rise city, characterised by large swathes of residential neighbourhoods and relatively narrow streets. Much of the city’s core is locked into this kind of infrastructure, so the bulk of high-rise development is actually taking place in the city’s periphery. In an odd, abstract way, this reflects a continuation of the region’s urbanisation patterns — older, planned areas of Malleshwaram, Basavangudi, and Jayanagar were built to decongest the city’s original core area around Chikpet and Majestic and were constructed on the (then) periphery to avoid locked-in areas around Chikpet.

Much of Bengaluru’s core is still very much low-rise residential housing. New high-rise construction is taking place largely on the periphery (as illustrated by the apartments being constructed in the distance). Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

I arrived at Peenya Industry Metro Station which deposits its commuters onto the busy Tumkur Road. As with much of the city beyond the Outer Ring Road, there is little in terms of public infrastructure apart from what’s on the road itself. Metro lines and flyovers intersect at junctions above a road bereft of footpaths or proper drainage. However, unlike more recently urbanised parts of the periphery (such as Sarjapur Road or East Hebbal), the relative age of this area is quite apparent. Shops and factories on the road are located in much older buildings, most of which feel about fifteen to thirty years old. Moreover, unlike the built environment in places like Sarjapur Road (characterised by large, enclosed spaces), there are quite a few smaller, outward-facing units. The nature of the economy (as I’d expected) is also different. There are few software companies here, even small ones. Most of the shops seem to be selling products such as metal rods, plastic piping, tools, or packing foam. There are also quite a few small eateries, bakeries, and tobacco shops.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that places like Peenya find much less mention in popular narratives of the city than expected. The now-defunct textile mills of Mumbai, the leather workers of Agra, or the factories of Sriperambudur constitute key parts of city narratives, given the roles they play as spaces of employment and production. In Bengaluru, this recognition is much less. My guess as to the reason for this (and it’s only a guess) is that spaces of employment were a lot more segregated in Bengaluru compared to other places. The garment factories and machine shops were neither located in the same places as high-precision public sector units (such as HAL) nor close to the educational and residential spaces in Central Bengaluru, nor near the more recent IT clusters.

Furthermore, each of these clusters were probably large enough to form self-sustaining economic-spatial systems by themselves. This is in contrast to a city like Mumbai, where large-scale textile manufacturing formed the major base of economic activity for decades, and the growth of more recent industries (like finance or high-end retail) took place at the expense of manufacturing (this displacement was often literal, with latter industries occupying defunct mill lands). Those who framed the dominant narratives of Bengaluru (characterised by phrases such as “garden city” or “science city”), however lived and worked in economic-spatial systems that were different from those who worked in Peenya. Thus the western industrial belt, while not entirely forgotten, stayed on the periphery of dominant urban memories.

Metro Lines and Flyovers intersect at this junction on Tumkur Road. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

In spite of all this, I still found one narrative thread that connected this area to the rest of the city — lakes. I hadn’t expected to find any functioning lakes here. Given the story of vanishing lakes in other parts of the city, I had expected any water body in an industrialised area to have either vanished or rendered too polluted. However, as I walked along one of the roads in the area, I came across a kere. Its condition wasn’t too bad. There was some amount of pollution, but there was plenty of relatively clean water. Furthermore, the kere seemed to have been recently earmarked for preservation. A fence (broken or incomplete, I couldn’t tell which) ran along the periphery, marking a narrow boundary between the lake and the walls of nearby houses. A path ran along the boundary, with freshly laid concrete blocks. On the other side, there were workers constructing a bund.

New Paving Blocks and an Unfinished Fence on the Edge of the Lake. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

I started to walk around the edge of the lake (from the outside) to get a better sense of surrounding land use. I began my walk at roughly the northern point of the lake. I then turned north-west. My immediate path was blocked by a row of houses so I resumed my walk on the parallel street, running north-west. Further ahead, this street intersected with a mud path that ran along the western border of the lake, abutting the fence. On my left was the lake. On my right, was a low-lying area that fell steeply down from the path, with houses located on the opposite side. The built form consisted or three or four storied brick-and-mortar residences. Power lines ran along the mud path.

The Western Edge of the Lake (Photographed facing North). Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

The southern edge of the lake was blocked by buildings again, and this time I chose to walk inside the lake boundary. The path on this edge was still unfinished and most of it was still unpaved. The buildings on the southern side of the lake were much more mixed in terms of form. Apart from the ubiquitous low-rise residence, there were smaller, single-storied huts, made of either mud or brick, with plastic or aluminium roofing. There were also a couple of large multi-storied buildings which seemed to be either commercial or industrial. After a certain point, the path gave out and it became much more difficult to walk. I was therefore unable to walk directly to the eastern side and instead, I chose to walk back along the western boundary and circle the lake once more, but in an anti-clockwise direction.

The Unfinished Path on the Southern Edge of the Lake. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

The north-west corner of the lake, as seen from inside the lake compound was quite interesting. There was a large drain that ran out from here which was mostly dry. This was also a corner where a few men were engaging in some angling. While there are no laws against fishing in lakes, support for fishing varies from location to location. At some lakes, lake preservation groups are against the activity and consider fishermen to be poachers, believing they will overdraw on carefully conserved aqua-fauna. In other places, fishing rights are auctioned to co-operative fishing groups, though there are sometimes contestations (between the City Corporation and the state Fisheries department) over who has the authority to issue these rights. Regardless, the presence of fishermen is an indicator of the lake’s ecological health — clearly, there is at least some healthy fauna in the lake.

Angling. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

This doesn’t mean the lake isn’t polluted. A walk on the northern side shows up a fair number of effluents that give the water a distinct green tinge. However, this section of the lake seems to have been walled off and the pollution contained within the walled-off area. A lot of waste had also deposited itself on the shore.

Contamination on the Northern Side of the Lake. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

I exited the lake premises from the eastern side and proceed to walk further into Peenya. At this point, I had departed from the main roads and was walking through the smaller lanes within the area. I could not take any photographs at this point but noted that there were clear agglomeration patterns. Peenya’s Phase 1 contained a cluster of steel works, ranging from large hangar-sized outfits to small hutments. The finished products included basic steel products such as sheets and cables.

However, Phase 2 consisted of machine tools and welding outfits, once again ranging from large factories to small shops. The presence of an ISRO compound was initially surprising but a closer look at the sign on the building showed it was ISRO’s Laboratory for Electro-Optics Systems (the place where India’s first satellite, Aryabhatta, was fabricated). I suppose the location allows them quick access to inputs. Walking further, I entered a mini-cluster of auto-worker units and mechanic shops, located opposite a set of apartments which looked fairly new. A batch of auto-rickshaws, newly manufactured, had been loaded onto a truck.

Auto-rickshaws loaded onto a truck. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

As I made my way back to the metro station, one of the last things that caught my eye was an abandoned factory. The dense amount of undergrowth showed that it had been abandoned for some time. The factory was located on a main road, close to the metro station, but had not yet been taken over and rebuilt for another purpose. It’s probable that the land is under litigation or that the owners are holding on it, expecting its value to rise.

An Abandoned Factory. Photo: Amogh Arakali. All Rights Reserved.

All in all, Peenya is an interesting place to explore, particularly for people interested in urban economics. There is a stark visibility of agglomeration and activity clustering that is difficult to spot in many other parts of the city. Furthermore, it’s one of Bengaluru’s few prominent manufacturing clusters and offers a useful glimpse into the relationships which exist between manufacturing and a big city in India. The discovery of the lake was an added bonus, a form of public space heavily contested across the city, being utilised in a site of production. Everything considered, a very interesting walk.