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A city for the people

Planning for India’s urban areas needs to change drastically

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
August 13, 2012 3:09:08 am

Planning for India’s urban areas needs to change drastically

What has been said about India,that it is a functioning anarchy,is most readily applicable to its cities. Questions continue to be raised about the difficulties of governing a perennially changing urban population — as mixed in ethnicity and religion as it is diverse in social status and economic class.

The heart of the problem lies in the city’s burgeoning population. By 2025,the world expects 300 megacities,each with a population of 10 million or more. Using barely 2-3 per cent of the earth’s surface,they will be responsible for more the 80 per cent of all carbon emissions. Of the five billion-strong urban population,a fifth is expected to be in Indian cities. While Tokyo,at 20 million,remains the largest city today,Mumbai is expected to climb from its present sixth to second place. Such desperate figures require both a realistic assessment of the city’s natural capacity to accommodate,and a quantum leap in planning. Conventional relationships with the land and the concept of a house as an independent entity on a plot are archaic and wasteful. There has to be a serious rethink of what constitutes a home in the 21st century.

Continual migrations to cities like Delhi and Mumbai have effectively quashed any minor gains in infrastructure and housing. And yet almost 80 per cent of the population increase in both cities has been in slums and among low-income groups. As the Eleventh Five Year Plan staggers under the crushing weight of new statistics,the government pulls out old slogans — housing for all,slum-free city — with the hope that the rapid expansion of tenements will be replaced by a moderately aesthetic skyline of repetitive housing blocks.

But when the average value of a square foot of apartment space in Mumbai is tens of thousands of rupees,and the cost of the same square foot of land in South Delhi is Rs 1 lakh,how do such figures apply to migrant construction labourers,now permanent residents of each of these places? That over 70 per cent of buildings there are in slums is hardly a surprise. If the trend continues,then the informal component — read slums — of Delhi and Mumbai is expected to be 90 per cent by 2020. And with growing scarcity of water,electricity,living space and land,the urban divide will make people more miserly,more protective and hostile.

The Indian city remains mired in a permanent scent of drudgery and neglect. Every day you encounter people in a daily war with the city,dealing with shrinking water supply,broken roads,scarce electricity supply,inadequate school placements,corrupt government departments,incompetent banks,parking problems,tenant and landlord battles. Is the primary focus of Indian urban life its infrastructure — something most cities around the world take for granted? Is daily survival the only basis of Indian urbanity? The cultural life of music,sport,art and recreation,of solitude and social engagements,that gives vibrancy to Berlin and Tokyo has largely escaped the Indian city. The need of its citizens for dire and daily sustenance keeps it throbbing,commuting and eternally jostling,thereby perpetuating the mistaken belief among its residents that sheer movement and urban agitation bestow their city with a cosmopolitan purpose.

The urbanity of the Indian city has always been more myth than reality. Superficial comparisons are made to known centres of cosmopolitan culture,like London and New York. However,Indian city life arises oddly from parochial concerns,the need to belong to nothing more than the immediate neighbourhood. To survive,the city is to stick together. Journalists acquire land and live together in Delhi’s Press Enclave and lawyers in Niti Bagh. Jews in Cochin,dwindling to a few hundred,live in Jew Town. After the 2002 riots,the polarised Ahmedabad creates defensible positions,using religious ghettos to form some semblance of community life. The old city where Muharram processions were followed by Diwali celebrations is divided by desperate walls and barbed wires. Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism too arises as much from self-doubt as from self-interest. The elite occupy the commercial centre around Colaba,and live on the high ground on Malabar Hill. Forming barely 7 per cent of the city’s population,they live with the mistaken belief that they influence the cultural and social life of the place. Even the city’s name change was the work of small minds intent on local cultural affiliations,rather than setting the tone of a world city.

To find a way that disrupts the existing perceptions of the present city is both an economic necessity and an architectural imperative. Where would the Indian city be were it to resort to an imaginative resolution of its many problems? Would urban transport find a solution in more buses or in designing communities where work and home are in the same place? Could Mumbai and Delhi sustain hundred-storey-high sky-communities and redefine the concept and the carbon footprint of the city apartment? Would smaller cities like Bhopal and Nagpur with relatively lower electricity consumption patterns benefit from solar farms? And port cities like Kochi from wind farms? Could building bylaws in Rajasthan be changed to allow houses to be built 10-storeys underground to take advantage of the desert’s ambient temperatures? A mere accommodation of trends without the inspirational big leap will leave the future Indian city a feckless nightmare.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect

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