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The city’s bleak futur (thehindu.)

Unless citizens are motivated to live in ways not imagined before, the death of Indian cities will be rapid

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new metro system in Pune. He also gave financial approval for a Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai. Earlier, he sought Cabinet approval for highway projects in Odisha and Punjab; in June, his Smart Cities Mission launched 83 projects throughout India, including several for new city roads, sports infrastructure, Bus Rapid Transit systems and waste management.

The city is never a function of concrete objects assembled in space, but rather, how people live together, prosper and create better lives for themselves. Though Mr. Modi's intentions cannot be questioned, there is little evidence to suggest that he will meet these objectives. The history of urban renewal does not speak well of a city’s expansionist ideas.

Uncontrolled growth

Over the past decade, despite flow of funds for infrastructure, most Indian cities have been unable to expand road networks and metro lines in keeping with the growing demand. Uncontrolled populations have made plans for public facilities ineffective. In the case of Delhi Metro, for instance, since it opened in 2002, it has had to increase the number of coaches, the frequency of trains, the size of stations and the length of platforms. Yet, it struggles to accommodate the mounting numbers. In big towns, 3,000-4,000 cars are registered each week, so more roads are constructed, lengthening already clogged networks. Yet, distances between home and work are rising, commutes increasing 3-7 km on an average. Migrant flow into cities has exceeded all expectations, with a weekly influx of 4,000 families in Mumbai alone. In housing, while builders have promoted high-end luxury homes, public projects in most cities remain woefully inadequate.

When over 60 per cent of the city is unrecognised in the planning process, it has already gone beyond bureaucratic control and design. When the capital’s Chief Minister gives direct amnesty and legitimacy to unlawful occupants of urban land, the game is lost. In the seasonal voter counts in slums that alter civic capacities and neighbourhoods, or those that allow population and vehicular trends to be readily accommodated, the failure of the big city is most apparent.

This is truly unfortunate, for the struggle between India as competitive economy and India as equitable society is most visibly felt in the development of its towns. The reduction of economic ideals to stock market highs and the city to commercial symbols is a convenient method to bypass the more pressing demands of real economics and humane expectations of the city. Throughout the world, the culture of cities has always emerged out of local desires. Los Angeles as film city, Copenhagen as fishing village, Boston as trading post — commercial, cultural and professional attributes have invariably defined the nature of citizenship. But nowhere has the city been treated with such contempt as in India.

The municipal and civic mayhem of the country’s big cities on which Mr. Modi seems to be unjustifiably directing his efforts are the obvious and noticeable lifeblood of Indian urbanity. Sadly, conventional approaches to their mega size which may work in Rome and Shanghai are doomed to fail in Indian conditions. Indian cities are vastly varied. They range in three types: metropolitan accretions such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with the cumbersome statistical dimensions of small States, spreading by usurping surrounding towns. Or Tier-2 cities such as Pune, Jaipur, Bhopal and Lucknow, merely smaller replicas of the metros, but similarly unable to control the suburban sprawl and increasing numbers. Finally, there are small towns such as Meerut and Hubli — part rural, part cantonment — mandi townships, essential to maintaining commercial links to surrounding villages. Restricted in growth and size, it is there that the Prime Minister needs to lavish his efforts.

Unless the government becomes serious in intent and chooses a rigorous twofold path, the demise of the Indian city will be rapid. It must devise a development strategy for small Tier-3 towns that is itself a departure from conventional practices. It must take into account new forms of public housing, regulate bye-laws that restrict commuting and delineate public space over private commerce. If even 70 years after Independence, the Indian city has been unable to define the kind of life urban Indians should live, then Tier-3 towns are a clear opportunity for that experiment.

Second, the process must simultaneously relieve larger towns of the burden of new citizens. The government's unrealistic plans need to reverse the processes of long-range connectivity, in favour of local outlooks that include pedestrianisation, conversion to mixed-use streets, reduction of commercial activity and an eradication of gated neighbourhoods. Any new expansion of ideas on the ground needs to motivate all participants to live together in ways not imagined before, and encourage a sense of community and inclusion that erodes differences of ethnicity, profession, caste, social and economic position. Within the current insulated demographics of Indian urban life, this may be an impossible task. But given that the city of the future will most likely be an unstable configuration, its survival rests on having a mix of race and class, rural and urban, rich and the future rich.

Fluid migration

The new city’s values will be grounded in a shifting set of people no longer bound to place. For millions of new migrants, the future citizens, home will be a job, a quenching of thirst, a place to lie down. Consequently, the public fields of bureaucratic intervention will only be enablers to migratory tasks, accommodating potential and making physical possibilities happen on the ground when possible. Rather than defining walls and boundaries, the architectural brief too will be informed by these fluid transformations.

In the new city the traditional structures of justice and legislature will be forgotten, replaced quickly by people with private needs. The potential for an urban life without buildings will only be generated by a resolution of migratory forces operating in the city, and encoding something of their own culture, on their own terms. In a culture of expediency and spectacle, the idea of architecture as a theatre for settlement will have none of the responsibilities of its glory days. In fact, the architect and planner will be just like another citizen on the run.

Before that happens, attitudes will require serious realignments. The Indian city’s undisguised fawning and mimicry of Western models bodes ill for an urban culture steeped in an altogether different life and pattern. Stockholm and Berlin may present a cohesive picture for initiating a computerised smartness into Indian urbanism, but they can hardly be imitated wholesale. When 60 per cent of the citizens are without local housing or access to municipal utilities, 40 per cent move about as pedestrians, with a third of those without conventional livelihood, the needs of urbanity are closer to those of Lagos or Cairo than of European or Chinese cities. A more generous and open-minded comprehension of traditional town structure by the government can provide a constructive direction to the country’s urban future.


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