Leapfrogging into utopia?

I am an Indian citizen who currently lives and works in The Netherlands (since 3 years) and am at India for vacation. I take the vacation yearly, and keep observing India from afar – the big news items, some macro-economic indicators.

On this trip to India, I had a chance to stay in Bangalore for three days, which holds the title of ‘Silicon Valley of India’, and if you are starting up, or want to fund startups, it is clearly the place to be.

And the startups have done well. Now, at any moment any where, any time, you can have an Ola (or Uber) available in a few minutes. Food delivery has also picked up, and you can get ‘home-level’ food delivered anywhere, fast and quick. When I left three years ago, this was rare. And if you are getting bored in Bangalore traffic, you have Ola Prime, which has an iPad with content loaded on it.

But I was most surprised by a popular startup called Dunzo, which lets you order human labor as a service. If you need the smallest chore done, you can have a ‘Dunzo Partner’.

Need something bought? Forgot to buy groceries? Have to send something across town?

Connect with a Dunzo Partner to have them delivered straight to you.

(I think TaskRabbit does it too, but I have never seen that up close.)

This sounds like Utopia – you can have the food you like, the mobility you want, and even the person you need – all at the press of a button. But why does it not feel like Utopia? Because we don’t have enough places to go – outside.

Bangalore has India’s third slowest traffic at 15.5 km/hr average speed. This is linked to the sudden increase in the population of the city – it grew by more than 50% in a decade.

And slow traffic is more than slow, it’s tiring. If you drive in Bangalore, you soon realize Uber is a better option even if you have a car. And if you still end up driving, it will take away your energy and willingness to cook food at home, and you will end up ordering it – at the push of a button.

The popularity of on-demand everything is clearly linked to the insufficiency of the city’s infrastructure. Lack of good roads or good public transport has led to a context which makes these products possible, popular and at times irresistible. But the context and the the products force people to stay indoors, while we are designed to be outdoor creatures.

These products put a soothing layer on the problems of the city, but do not solve them. I have mixed feelings about this progress. On one hand, entrepreneurs are doing well and there is an air of optimism, and at the same time, the fundamentals are not getting enough attention.

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