Chronicles A City Betrayed

Cities are indicators of how well governance is functioning; going by their current state in India, the answer is, not too well. The completely cynical manner in which urban planning evolves and is implemented is well demonstrated in the case of Gurgaon – where developers promised a ‘garden city’, a ‘global city’ a ‘city of dreams’, the ‘Millennium city’. New Gurgaon could have been developed as a model city of the future. The timing was so appropriate, all the advantages were there: this was the first post-liberalization development with multinationals and large corporates queuing up to buy in; developers cornered hundreds of acres of unencumbered land to realize a coherent vision; financial backing was amply available and there was a boom in property values; the examples of and lessons from Delhi and other failing metropolii of what to do and what not to do were at hand. This could have been India’s first truly modern planned city, reflecting its best minds, its best talent.

But where is the modern vision? The idea of a modern city lies, not in the creation of ugly tall buildings or ‘mall crawling’; it is reflected in the quality of life, the lifestyles it makes available, and in the heightened awareness of its citizens, planners and administrators. Gurgaon’s creation occurred in an age where, the world over, awareness of lifestyles and their relation to the environment had long percolated the sensibilities of even the most ill-informed. Yet, what we have is a vast complex of structures that are nothing but energy guzzlers, using materials – gigantic quantities of steel and glass – that consume enormous energy throughout processes of manufacture and construction, and also after they have been transformed into buildings – for lighting, cooling and maintenance – contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate change. Most such buildings – not just commercial, but also large residential complexes – operate with oil-guzzling 100 per cent captive power plants, and have added enormously to the air-pollution load.

And if more evidence of the failure of the modern vision was needed, it is provided by the collapse of planning that has created enormous demands for public goods and services, with no attention to fulfilling these. There are already acute shortages of electricity, and a widening gap between demand and supply, as annual consumption increases at 17 per cent, while supply crawls up at just only 5 to 7 per cent. The insidious corruption of the planning process has resulted in the rampant commercialization of residential colonies, overrunning some of the most prestigious housing clusters in the new city. Among the very many serious problems they create, these illegal commercial establishments place additional pressures on power reserves. The result is that many areas end up suffering power cuts that sometimes stretch up to 15 hours.

Then there is the acute water crisis. Reports indicate that the water table is going down at the rate of one metre each year, and has already dropped to 160 metres or even lower in some areas. If the situation is not remedied, the fast-developing city will lose all ground-water reserves in the next ten years. But New Gurgaon remains dependent on ground-water, because piped water supply is inadequate.

And public transport is almost non-existent. The residents of New Gurgaon were grateful when the District Adminstraton started plying just two Haryana Roadways buses on ‘intra-city routes’ sometime early this June!

Private hospitals in New Gurgaon have to depend mostly on blood banks in Delhi. Ferrying blood from Delhi takes nearly two hours.

With a majority of residential buildings still unoccupied and vast areas of planned development still unbuilt, the narrow and grossly inadequate road infrastructure is already choked with vehicles, and traffic jams are endemic.

With hundreds of high-rise buildings, New Gurgaon still lacks basic fire-fighting equipment to tackle a blaze above four stories (it depends, for this, on a single 30-foot manual extension ladder).

And finally, spiraling crime and the collapse of the security infrastructure: in 2004 the police registered 1,481 cases of crime; in 2005, by April 16, they had already recorded 1,704 cases. The ‘ideal city’ is now increasingly paralyzed with fear, and Resident Welfare Associations are laying down regulations for locking up colonies and restricting access. Thefts in posh apartments and plush housing colonies have become routine and distressed residents are left with little recourse but to point an accusing finger at those euphemistically known as ‘migrants’ (everyone in New Gurgaon, outside the original population of surviving urban villages is, in fact, a ‘migrant’) – the poor migrant labour. There is an increasing clamour to ‘cleanse’ the city of these workers, and a strong belief that all crime will come to a halt with their eviction. But these migrants have been brought here to turn the construction boom into a reality, and to provide the myriad commercial and domestic services that the people in their up-market apartments and homes need and take for granted. Once again, the politics of planning and the greed of the builder lobby made no provisions for these people and the essential services they provide, and they have no option but to cluster in the congested urban villages in the area.

We are nowhere close to creating, or becoming citizens of, a modern city, nowhere near creating a new urban culture. The most distressing signs of the narrow cliques, the myopic self-interests of the rich, and the sheer cultural backwardness of the perspectives on which the city was planned, were visible in the aftermath of a fire in one urban village – a slum cluster in the Sikanderpur village – in April this year. The fire totally lay to waste the entire slum colony and five people died. Yet most media reports only reflected the ire of residents of the neighbouring DLF colony, with one report declaring that the blaze “not only shook the confidence of Millennium city residents but also left them wondering how secure their lives were. After a spate of robberies, this was another blow for the residents.”

And so, the structures of the city are polarized into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ghettos of the rich and the ghettos of the poor. Today the residents of these affluent colonies are urgently demanding that the police deport all ‘migrants’ and ‘Bangladeshi nationals’, and clean out all the urban villages of the city.

New Gurgaon was the selling of a lifestyle which fed into the lowest; it lacked the courage and the vision not to pander to the vulgar, and was unable to create a new ‘culture of the city’. Instead, what was given to the people was a mindless imitation of the urban culture of the West, but, again, not the best the West had to offer, but the tackiest worst, selling to the so-called ‘elite’ a lifestyle that only those who had no choice in the West adopted. Suddenly, the ‘apartment culture’ was the only way to live, as the rich bought into the romanticized lifestyles of the developers’ advertising brochures.

As it stands today, the new city is plagued by all the ills that visit any other city of India. The ‘green city’ is a concrete jungle, its essential character manifest in garish, unsightly buildings, mere blots on the landscape. Malls, multistoreyed corporate office and residential structures, all appear to reflect the vision of a troglodyte gone mad. Within little over a decade, the dream of the ‘Millennium city’ seems to have disintegrated.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, June 30, 2005


The Urban Imagination
The City In:
Myths And Legends