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How Indian cities can be successful

January 02, 2014 13:09 IST

How Indian cities can be successful

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Indian cities need a new intellectual underpinning, says Sanjeev Sanyal.

It is not often recognised that all cities are ultimately a reflection of some underlying ideology that not only is a theoretical influence but, as we shall see, has a very real impact on the way a city functions and evolves.

A dysfunctional or outdated urban philosophy will lead to a dysfunctional or stagnant city. Successful cities around the world consciously think about their intellectual framework. Unfortunately, this is not even an issue of debate in India. 

The history of Delhi illustrates the impact of prevailing ideologies. What is now called Old Delhi was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century.

It was a city with grand palaces for the nobility interspersed with the desperate hovels where the common people lived — reflecting the feudal hierarchy of that time. The hierarchy culminated in the Red Fort, where the emperor’s family lived. 

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Image: India Gate in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters

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When the British built New Delhi, they placed an imposing Viceroy’s Palace (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) at it centre to reflect imperial power.

It was a city of broad avenues for grand parades and large bungalows for the chosen few. When the city expanded under socialist rule, it added large areas to house the rapidly expanding bureaucracy required in a state-run system.

This led to “planned” additions like Ram Krishna Puram — homes for civil servants with little space for commerce. Finally, when the economy was liberalised in the nineties, we witnessed the explosive, if unregulated, growth of Gurgaon.

It is a good reflection of today’s India — a booming private sector, a government struggling to keep up and the whiff of the robber-baron. 

As one can see, the intellectual underpinnings of each period are clearly reflected in how the city developed. Those who manage the world’s great cities are aware of this. New York’s buzz, London’s cool quirkiness, and Singapore’s smooth efficiency are the result of deliberate thought that gives the cities their personality. 

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Image: Guards stand in Mughal gardens surrounding Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters

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The problem with Indian urban thinking is that it was captured in the 20th century by Le Corbusier’s idea that a building or a city is a “machine for living”.

The idea was that cities were mechanical systems with neat silos that could be managed by a central authority. This fitted both Corbusier’s fascist leanings as well as Nehru’s socialism. It is no coincidence that it contains the same mechanistic world view reflected in economic plans of Mahalanobis.  

Many cities were built in the fifties and sixties with this ideology, but not one has been a success.

India’s more successful cities are still of colonial origin. Even Chandigarh, the expensive poster child of Corbusier, has produced little of commercial or cultural value after half a century of existence. It remains a city of tax-consuming bureaucrats.

What little vibrancy it has shown in recent years comes from the suburb of Mohali, which is outside Corbusier’s plan. 

So how should we think of our cities? 

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Photographs: Courtesy, Chandigarh Tourism

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One of the common themes across all successful international cities is that they think of themselves as evolving ecosystems.

In other words, the city is seen as a bubbling mix of people, ideas, public amenities, buildings, institutions and so on.

Success is driven by the constant – and often unpredictable – interactions between these ingredients. The city is, therefore, more than the sum of its parts. Note the contrast with the mechanical world view of static “master plans” and neatly zoned silos that still dominate Indian urban thinking. 

Let me illustrate how these different views lead to radically different outcomes. In the last few months, both Singapore and Delhi hosted Formula One races.

Delhi created a custom-built race tract at the edge of the city at considerable expense, while Singapore held the event in the middle of its city.

By using existing roads, Singapore avoided acquiring new land or building new infrastructure. Of course, special arrangements had to be made, but the price tag was small. 

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Photographs: Reuters

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Yet, it was Singapore that gained more from the event.

The spectacle of fast cars whizzing around its downtown created a big buzz - hotels, bars and restaurants were packed and its skyline was constantly beamed around the world for two days.

Delhi’s custom-built race track is arguably better for racing, but the city hardly benefitted from the event. Instead, it created expensive infrastructure that is used for two days a year.

Even worse, it is Singapore that will continue to host Formula One, while Delhi seems to have lost its slot. 

The difference between the two cities is that Singapore saw Formula One as part of an overall effort to bring buzz to the city’s ecosystem, while Delhi thought of it as an engineering problem for fast automobiles.

Delhi’s race track is better, but it missed the point. Imagine, instead, the visual impact on world television of fluorescent Formula One cars screaming down Raj Path at night. Not only would this require little investment, but we would not need to spend money on “Incredible India” advertisements. 

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Image: Cars are lined at the Buddh International Circuit, the venue for the first ever Indian Formula One race at Greater Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi.
Photographs: Vijay Mathur/Reuters

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The same compartmentalised, mechanical world view shows up in many other places.

Take, for instance, the building of new universities. Almost invariably it involves the acquisition of large tracts of land – often hundreds of acres – that are then walled off from the rest of the city.

Thus, Kanpur and Kharagpur benefit little from the existence of large Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses in their midst.

If our urban planners thought of cities as organic ecosystems, they would see that universities are important ways for a city to engage with young people and encourage the exchange of ideas. That is why all great cities have universities as an integral part of their landscape.

The obvious failure of Corbusier’s machines has left a void that is yet to be filled by new thinking. At the very least, we need to begin thinking of our cities as “complex, adaptive ecosystems”. As illustrated above, it will allow us to rethink our urban issues in fresh ways.

Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist, writer and urban theorist.


Image: Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Photographs: Courtesy, IITKGP

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