Chronicles Golden Ghettos, Sundered Cities

In almost every one of India’s ‘boom cities’, and, indeed, in many of the relatively smaller but burgeoning towns as well, newspapers dedicate large sections, and often weekly special supplements on ‘property’, which are replete with advertisements and write-ups on new ‘developer colonies’ promising, and often named, ‘greens’, ‘woods’, ‘parks’, ‘gardens’, ‘orchards’ or some other variant of an imagined sylvan or pastoral paradise.

An examination of some of the ‘paradise cities’ already developed, however, reveals that most of them are erecting hi-rise complexes with, at best, little patches of lawn which are eventually consumed by parking lots; that the promised parks, woods and greens have been transformed into commercial complexes and supermalls; that basic infrastructure lags far behind commercial development and sale of residential properties; and that the promised sub-urban paradise is not very different from the urban ghetto many of its residents have fled in their dream of a better quality of life. Of course, small enclaves of the very rich manage to cling on to their bungalows and ‘farmhouses’, or to ‘retreats’ that bring together an aggregation of several bungalows and farmhouses. But these are, again, enveloped by the rising chaos of peri-urban development in India.

A quick drive around many of these developers’ colonies would, moreover, demonstrate the very low rates of occupancy, for extended periods of time, of the tens of thousands of dwelling units that have mushroomed. A few further inquiries reveal a very high ‘turnover’ of ownership, and the fact that much of the property transactions are, in fact, part of a speculative investment explosion, and do not, in the near term, involve any actual end-users. Nevertheless, given the current and accelerating rate of growth of urban populations in the country – apart from cyclical peaks and troughs – none of these investments constitute much long-term risk, and property prices continue to balloon in the most unlikely places, fed by the developers’ hardsell.

In the meanwhile, the supply of housing for actual users, particularly in the middle and low income groups, remains negligible – even as they constitute the largest proportion of city residents and new migrants, both in long-settled urban areas and in the sub-urban sprawl.

The consequences are not difficult to predict. ‘Informal housing’ – illegal and unauthorised colonies, slums, illicit extensions to existing housing and encircled villages – supply an overwhelming proportion of real housing needs, with the trickle of supply from public sector housing schemes drying up as the state abdicates increasing areas of responsibility to slogans of ‘privatisation’ and ‘liberalisation’.

Combined with the managerial incompetence of urban authorities, these trends have yielded urban and suburban chaos and an increasing fragmentation of the city, as the privileged seek out their golden ghettos, where they can live among ‘our kind of people’, and the poor have no choice but to live among their own kind in gutter settlements. The lack – and in the case of newly developed areas, often even the absence – of municipal services and basic infrastructure creates a pervasive atmosphere of unbearable strain, frustration and insecurity in the privileged and under-privileged alike, as we witness the consolidation of “inhuman city cores surrounded by a suburban cancer eating into the countryside.”

Nothing can, of course, stop the flow of migrants to urban areas, and current projections of national urban populations may, in fact, prove to be under-estimates. Given contemporary technologies, the dependence of large proportions of the population on agricultural and agriculture-based cottage industry represents pure inefficiency, and is unsustainable. The overwhelming proportion of augmenting employment will necessarily come from urban areas in the foreseeable future, and considerations of economy, scale and linkages necessitate that most of these will be concentrated in relatively small number of very large cities – though smaller cities and towns on their periphery will also grow at a fast pace.

Consequently, though city managers may continue to talk about ‘diverting’ or ‘controlling’ migrant flows by creating satellite townships, by imposing legislative restrictions, or by building fiscal and financial disincentives to in-migration, these populations will continue to grow.

Nevertheless, much of the deterioration of the urban environment is not the consequence of sheer growth – which has long been predicted and is clearly inevitable – but is located in the failure of managerial practices and planning to evolve beyond the utterly inadequate structures of urban governance that were established in the relatively tiny cities of the colonial era, and in the incapacity of Independent India’s urban leaders and managers to develop structures – over the past 58 years – that are appropriate to the administration of a modern urban complex. The degree of incompetence that afflicts urban management can be illustrated with just a single glaring examples from the booming ‘New Gurgaon’ area, comprising hundreds of private developer colonies as well as a large number of sectors set up by public authorities. This vast urban concentration lacks even a basic sewage system, and virtually its entire sewage load flows through open channels into fields or wasteland – a situation that would be incomprehensible in any modern city administered with a modicum of competence.

There is an organic impetus to emerging patterns of urban development, and it is unwise and counter-productive to seek to impose policies and strategies that would conflict against the direction of the natural imperatives dictated by economics, technology and, in some measure, politics. But these are not iron-tight parameters, and the conscious choices we – and particularly governments, urban managers and to some extent citizens – make, substantially define actual outcomes. Technology, economics and politics do create problems – but they also offer powerful solutions. To the extent our plans and actions are based on a clear understanding of existing trends, they can help channel energies and resources into configurations that yield, not only less stressful solutions than is presently the case, but, in fact, entirely desirable outcomes that would benefit both cities and citizens.

Unfortunately, urban management in India has been based on entirely irrational practices, arbitrary space allocation that violates even existing and inadequate norms of utilization, stagnation in the development of infrastructure, failure to evolve sustainable structures and sources of revenue for urban extension and management, and a progressive exclusion of social considerations from a model driven purely by profit, on the one hand, and by corruption and political opportunism, on the other.

These proclivities have been compounded further by recent and megalomaniacal efforts to imitate the ‘urbanicidal’ models of development witnessed in some of the ‘mushroom cities’ of South East Asia. Ignorant and inexperienced city leaders and managers have simply been dazzled by brief exposures to the most superficial aspects of these glittering but fragile cities, or to the complex and gradually established urban systems of Western countries, and have sought to replicate some of their more visible symbols – such as the hi-rise building, the flyover and the supermall – without developing even a basic understanding of the intricate support structures that underpin these. If the current urban chaos and crisis are not to culminate in a situation of collapse, and if our fragmented cities are to be transformed into integrated, productive and socially wholesome conglomerations, urban management will have to extricate itself from present and injurious practices, and to evolve systems of rational and sustainable administration, located squarely in the demands and dynamic of a modern city structure. Regrettably, though we talk and write increasingly about ‘modernizing’ the Indian city, there is little evidence of an inclusive and nuanced understanding of the imperatives of contemporary urban management.

Ajai Sahni

Associate Director, Urban Futures Initiative; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management

Published in The Pioneer, September 8, 2005


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