Monday, October 12, 2009

India's Urban Renewal

Every bit of statistic indicate India is making great economic progress, except in the look and feel of its cities. It is rather obvious in what one sees while the plane approaches to land in Shanghai, the glittering towers, or Dubai, the Desert trail melting into an always busy metropolis of tall buildings and shiny cars, and in Mumbai: Endless slums with blue tarpaulin. Then, once outside the airport, the hustle of bazzar; on the streets, the feel of swelling population and poverty, and chaos everywhere. Looking at this, every commentator wonders how India actually works. One marvels at the achievements of the Indian Industry and asks around how businesses could still function with the crumbling infrastructure. Non-resident Indians endlessly complain how nothing actually works as it should, and residents display a studied indifference or immense ingenuity to find ways around when they don't.

India was in the public imagination through two award winning attempts last year. Two stories of urban resilience - the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, where the hero comes from the same slums of Mumbai that we just referred to; and the other, Arvind Adiga's Booker winning White Tiger, a very different protagonist works in class- and caste-conscious Delhi, thriving in the world of power, influence and corruption. Two very different paths, one of succumbing to crime and getting on with the ways of life in urban India, the other of overcoming the easy options and finding a strange way to reach out to someone one has loved and lost, end poignantly. Love, life and enterprise win over the urban India, its squalor, corruption, injustice and prejudices. It is indeed a strange picture of India, not the one which surrenders passively to fate but wishes to carve its own path, not the one which seeks spiritual redemption amid misery, but one which is ready to slit someones throat [literally] and change the scripts of destiny.

This is indeed a different script from the great works about India of the past: the movies of Satyajit Ray and others, where the protagonists usually discovered beauty and faith within the endless frustrations of Indian life. But what has not changed is the urban landscape - one can find continuity in the slums, poverty, middlemen, policemen that take bribes and roads that are endlessly log-jammed, and the like. One finds the same answer that various commentators are trying to give to the question 'how does India at all work': It is the people. The same thing that business commentators say - Tarun Khanna recently commented that Chinese businesses are successful because of its government, and Indian businesses are successful in spite of the government. Nandan Nilkeni writes about how there is a vast difference between public and private efficiencies in India, and how that is apparent to any foreign visitor driving through the impossible chaos of the Hosur Road and then getting into the serene Infosys campus. One would also remember the scene from the recent movie about India's outsourcing industry, Outsourced, where the call centre gets flooded but still operates from the terrace. Everywhere, the story is of a country whose urban infrastructure is failing to keep pace with its aspirations and in desperate need of fixing.

To be fair, there is a lot of focus on urban infrastructure these days. It is the Government's top priority. There are significant investment outlays for each of the major cities. Almost all of India's airports are going through major expansion [which adds to the sense of chaos at this time] and going by the ones which have been completed, in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Cochin, the improvements are going to be significant. Each Indian city is planning to get some kind of Rapid Transit System - in fact, Mumbai is designed to get two rapid transit systems - years late, but most projects will be completed in the next couple of years. There are significant new ideas to improve sanitation, new plans to build low cost houses and new initiatives to push through political obstacles and get moving on the environment.

But, despite all this, meet anyone on the streets and ask about how things are going, and one notices a sign of pessimism about if things can ever change. Many people blame India's population and the fact that thousands of new people are coming into India's cities every day, looking for jobs, social mobility and a new way of life. The public infrastructure, the schools, hospitals and public parks in the cities have become dysfunctional under the pressure of population. Also, Indian cities keep expanding geographically under the weight of this population, they are forcing people out of their lands, creating a new army of the dispossessed and new pockets of crime and corruption. Gurgaon, a glittering city in the outskirts of Delhi, already tops the world in the rate of crime. Even the backward provincial Calcutta, which is moving slower than most other Indian cities, have recently witnessed unrest provoked by the clashes between the dispossessed farmers and land mafia, the strongmen whose sole business is to acquire land for urbanization.

Looking at this, one can wonder whether any urban renewal initiative is ever going to work. Isn't that climbing precisely the wrong tree, more out of hangover from our colonial past than current realities? The fact that development has to be connected with urbanization is as dated a concept as the efficacy of central planning. That's the prime time approach to development, in an age where development necessarily meant setting up factories which needed a huge number of people to live in close proximity and build a social eco-system in a small geographic area. That is surely past, now that one can build enterprises out of one's home, as long as connectivity and education are available.

So, one would ask - what do we really need as a nation? Is the solution to Mumbai slums lie in building low cost houses around the area, which will get rid of the squalor temporarily but will invite a million other homeless people into Mumbai, or is it to disperse the population by providing economic incentives to live in smaller clusters around the area? No doubt, at the current state of affairs, the money must go into policing, more hospitals, schools and rapid transit systems; but we must look into long term and build more smart villages, broadband backbone, road, sanitation and electricity access for all villages.

The problem with all our development attempts so far was that it was inevitably elitist and benefited only a small section of the population. This could be for a complex set of reasons, but not least because we were so fixated with our cities. We are only beginning to realize that Gandhi's vision of building an Independent India which is based on independent, prosperous villages was a brilliant idea, one ahead of its time but one firmly rooted in reality which escaped the social engineering trap of the soviet model, which so many developing countries walked into during that period. We are facing the reality now as we see that cities can not solve our problems: It can only compound them by leaving the villages disenfranchised and giving up vast lands to leftist extremism, and also, at the same time, burdening themselves with an endless pressure of mass migration. Yet, we are firmly stuck in our industrial mindset and the only solution we can think of is the urban renewal. It is indeed time that we bring a fresh perspective in the discussion and revisit some of the old ideas that we discarded without consideration.
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I am deeply indebted to Sudhakar Ram, Chairman and MD of Mastek, because he stimulated the idea about the pointlessness of urban renewal while we discussed how various Industrial Age constructs continue to stifle our thinking.

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