How do you think our cities can be planned in a post-COVID world?
The idea that Mahatma Gandhi had, of a self-sufficient village, can be reinterpreted as an organically evolved city, like a university town, supported by schools, hospitals and industries. The name of Nalanda comes to my mind as it would provide opportunities to workers in Bihar near their villages. Similar towns can be replicated in all provinces.
The design of a city, based entirely on solar energy with recyclable waste, is not a utopian idea. It is time to stop copying wasteful, energy-consuming, high-rise towers of glass from elsewhere and evolve organic solutions for work, study and life in harmony with our surroundings. Local aspirations can be well connected with the global techno-scientific world, through the internet. Traffic and pollution can thus be minimised.
In France and most of continental Europe, the planning process of cities is routed through rigorous architectural design competitions, where talented architects are involved in detailed urban design before the land is sold to private entrepreneurs for development. Unfortunately, the Indian system, which allowed public buildings and social low-cost housing to be designed by architects through competitions, has been handed over to the process of auctioning of plots to builders without any urban design criteria. This has resulted in haphazard development. Akbar and Jai Singh, for instance, responsible for Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur, had high standards of civic urban governance. In these cities, visual design with its humane concerns was honoured and implemented. Unfortunately, city planning in India has been largely handed over to international mercenary management consultancy firms, who have scant knowledge of local values. It is time to trust Indian architects, urban designers and city planners to design small towns and district centres with site-specific, local plans with detailed visual studies.
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What have been our failures in post-liberalisation city planning?
Once you accept the idea of only market forces dictating the planning process, you cannot control the consequences. I remember a meeting when then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, in the presence of the Governor of Delhi, Tejendra Khanna, said that you cannot cope with the city’s infrastructure when more than five lakh poor people are entering the city every year. At that time, I had come across two studies, one of them highlighted the horrendous, unhygienic conditions in unauthorised colonies and slums and the other mentioned that nearly 25 lakh women defecate in the open every day.
Asian cities have a grim future unless we restrict relentless movement from villages to existing cities. Istanbul, Karachi, Mumbai and Hanoi are all in the same boat. The idea of living in harmony with nature can fall apart if the numbers of persons exceed the holding capacity under these circumstances.
We have seen disturbing images of a very large number of workers trying to leave the megacities for their villages. They have pointed out in a poignant manner of the poor implementation of the policy. Several town planners including CS Gupte, Sayed Shafi and Bonny Fernandes advocated creating new smaller cities or augmenting the existing mandi towns as magnets to counter the ceaseless flow of villagers to find work in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta and Chennai.
When you were DUAC Chairman (2011-2015), there were multiple studies conducted around slums and settlement colonies like Mohammedpur. What were your learnings and take-aways from such surveys?
Mohammadpur is an urban village located in the middle of south Delhi. It is typical of an unauthorised colony which was given the status of ‘Lal Dora’. Its unchecked growth under an exploding population has resulted in ramshackle, shabby development. However, the village has a reasonable sewage system and all the houses have electricity and water. Our aim was to improve or rebuild dilapidated structures, remove overhead maze of electric wires, discipline haphazard parking and improve drainage of streets within the constraints of the existing framework of settlement and improve the open spaces. We also proposed a new urban design with detailed plans for houses which could be undertaken within a reasonable cost.
What recommendations were made then? Do you think they are still relevant?
A large part of Delhi lives in unauthorised colonies and slums. Even the Master Plan of Delhi had suggested a detailed design proposal based on ground realities. The studies involved the visual tools for ground studies combined with extra assistance of Google images. It is hoped that the proposals and their conclusions would be evolved to such an extent that a process can be worked out with the resident welfare associations to make meaningful designs for the neighbourhood upgrade for the different kinds of wards.
Our site-specific designs are the seeds which can grow. We had suggested economic principles that would ensure meaningful neighbourhood upgradation for different kinds of slums and wards. India cannot remain shabby and ramshackle forever and solutions have to be found for shanty towns.
The design proposals were based on the realistic ground situation, mixed land use and effort to follow organic morphology of the existing village in a new avatar based on the human scale, with open spaces, spread across streets and courtyards.
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Housing policy studies have often shown that it’s a small percentage of migrants or settlers who don’t have a home. Often, to get a foot into the city, they begin to live on the fringes in homes that could easily come down, with no firm foundation, light or ventilation. Was there a thought to help people retrofit their own homes and give them design guidance? Do you think such an approach is possible?
Temporary ramshackle housing is not a solution. In fact, even the barracks or dormitories provided for South Asian labour in Dubai or Singapore is a cruel joke. They should not be treated as prisoners. Prefab temporary structures with kitchen and toilets is a possible solution. Ideally, when new cities are envisaged or large industrial complexes are undertaken, low-cost housing should become an integral part of the total project. There are numerous examples in Chandigarh, Jamshedpur and Gas Authorities township in Auria that can be cited.
Let us imagine that workers involved in a township in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Odisha are given permanent housing during its construction, and that becomes part of the new city. New Delhi was built 100 years ago, and Chandigarh designed around 1950, and now both these cities’ workers are part of “aspirational society”. We have the advantage of a large number of workers, and they may be engaged to work on smaller, new organic cities where they can be integrated as new citizens. I cannot forget the bitter complaint of a Pakistani taxi driver and his worker friend in Dubai that they are not allowed to be citizens of the country or own even a small apartment there, while they have built the new city.
But is it fair to then say that a certain class of people shouldn’t crowd cities? Almost as if one were saying, ‘we came here first’.
The underclass of workers who don’t have basic facilities of living in metro cities has answered by literally walking away during the lockdown. Nearly 40 per cent of Mumbai lives in slums like Dharavi. Swachh Bharat has remained an empty slogan for them. We have to build new visionary green cities to accommodate the exploding population and rising aspirations of villagers who want to improve their living standards by moving to urban areas. Chandigarh was a good precedent. Urban design is a civic responsibility.
In India, we see circular migration, where migrants come to work in cities during the non-harvest seasons and go back to work in the fields. How can planning equip such people to have a better quality of life in the city?
Navi Mumbai was designed to mitigate the problems of migrants and I was nudged by architect and urban designer Charles Correa to design a low-cost housing of about 700 dwelling units comprising two or three rooms, varying from 18 sqm to 30 sqm and above. During this period, I had visited the tenement quarters (chawls) and Dharavi slums to understand the ground realities. I felt it was important to provide private courtyards or roof terraces for all the units. Instead of building large monolithic high-rise blocks, the design was fragmented into smaller aggregations enclosing a variety of spaces. I was hoping that this project could be replicated in Dharavi in an incremental manner. It can still be carried out after the Covid-19 is over, at a fraction of the cost for Central Vista in New Delhi.
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