Monday, November 24, 2008

The Philosophy of Gated Community


The ultimate middle class urban Indian dream is to be able to live in a Gated Community. Yes, like the one above - which has nice playgrounds and swimming pools and 24x7 security and all modern luxuries of life. One can not avoid the city, its potholes, its terrible people, its hustle and bustle, the traffic, the pollution and the noise. And, hence, the ultimate dream is to be able to live completely oblivious of this, inside a community of like-minded high-earners, who are educated and suave, who send their children to expensive schools and attend the right parties, and share a similar mindset.

Gated communities, hence, have sprang up all over India and found eager buyers. Sumit, a friend and one who bought a two bed flat in a Calcutta property, explained:

More than one reason, really. First, there is no law and order outside - the first thing you will have to pay is a tola to local musclemen if you want to live anywhere else. You are at least immune from that here. Besides, the facilities are very good inside - one can literally live a life without ever setting foot outside - and I shall also feel safe if my children stays in and plays in the local park, with these kids here. Since we have moved in, we have made friends too - people with similar background - mostly from IT Companies here, who share similar mindset and lifestyle. So, we feel very comfortable here.

However, Leena, a sociologist friend, who does not live in one of those communities, but have chosen to live in her parent's home in downtown Mumbai, sees this as a symbol of seize mentality of the urban Middle class. She passionately argues:

Urban middle class fails to identify with their city, completely. They feel they have been upended by the immense migration that has taken place from the poorer states and the villages, and resulted in chaos and dirt and poverty in the Indian cities. With rising income, they have started expecting a certain lifestyle, and they have come to realize they can't get this in their city. Nowhere to run away, they are turning themselves into these gated communities; somewhat in denial, they live in constant fears of being robbed, murdered or kidnapped in the big bad city outside, and try to live as much of their life as possible, inside.

I somewhat agree - the gated communities are more defined by the gate itself than the community. And, I am sure this will become more and more common - as the income inequality increases, the urban well-to-do will withdraw more and more inside the gate. It definitely makes good business sense for Realtors to build these communities. However, the question is - whether this is sustainable.

Apparently not. First, because one can not live life completely inside. Schools, Work, relatives, family all lie outside the gated community; so does the cheap domestic labour, the key luxury of rich lifestyle in India. Living inside the gated community invariably expands the class thinking, and disconnects the person concerned from the realities of life even more. And, imagine the children - when they grow up inside gated communities and elite schools - they will not be ready for what they see outside at all.

Second, because most of the gated communities, because of the high land prices in the cities and complex building permission process, are built on land acquired - purchased or otherwise - from the less privileged. So, all these communities not only came up to provide a heavenly abode for the middle and upper classes; they often signify the dispossession of the others. Hence, they are often connected to resentment and located as a disconnected island in a sea of crime. Recently, a senior bureaucrat told me the story of Gurgaon, a new city which came up displacing a few villages near New Delhi. The locals sold their land and saw their land prices go up by infinite proportions, and then new factories and offices and gated communities going up at an astonishing pace. They did not complain - they possibly had nothing to complain - but when a city is built on so many people's woes, it forever lives with the resentment. Gurgaon became one of the most crime-infested cities in India, and possibly, in the world.

But gated communities tell another story about India's 'upper' middle class. This is the class of bureaucrats, senior executives, well-to-do professionals, who have chosen to live outside their cities of origin, mostly. This is the class of empowered people, who are the most articulate section of our society, who reads and writes English and gives interviews in TVs and Newspapers and write books and articles about modern India. However, increasingly, they have gotten into this seize - trying to run away from the cities overwhelmed by poverty and sheer populace. They are dreaming up a New India inside these gated communities, and hailing the building of more such gated communities as progress.

Indian independence was all about turning over the British cities, their bastions of order, to the unruly, uneducated villagers from India, who won us freedom. The new Indian middle class, which models itself after the British, or as a royalty somewhere in between, wants to create their own bastions of order - a community unconnected from India, as foreign, as subjugated, as unsustainable.

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