Current practicality, future idealism

Look outside your window in any direction and you will immediately be aware of the degraded life and ramshackle condition of the Indian city: buildings encroach on public land, telephone lines are dug, rubble is piled in the fast lane, cars are parked on sidewalks while people walk on roads, broken unfinished housing appears on the sightline, tenements lean against boundary walls … you will sense the unbridgeable gap between people’s needs and civic reality. In numbers, transport, housing, commerce, aesthetics, what people want and what the city offers are opposing, often unmanageable compromises.

The >modern Indian city is a wasted place; it has in fact never endorsed any particular urban values, nor had the will to govern. There are daily wars on water supply, roads, electricity, school admissions and government dealings. With no restrictions on cars, no congestion tax, lax pollution norms, uncertainty about zoning and mixed use living, malleable building regulations, thoughtless codes on heritage, unregulated commerce and growing slums, the city is merely a modern day trading post. Rather than a civic society, it functions as a marketplace for individuals to extract favours, exchange goods and livelihoods. Nothing else.

On showcasing infrastructure

With urban space such a messy despairing background to civic life, it is hardly surprising that Narendra Modi’s budget states some rather high-flying ambitions for its improvement, through housing, infrastructure, highways and >new cities. Though calculated to create both a mix of current practicality and future idealism, the proposals draw upon a range of physical ideas: Rs.7,060 crore set aside for the Prime Minister’s pet project of “one hundred Smart Cities,” Rs.200 crore to initiate the construction of the Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat, sanitation to all houses before the next election, a new government scheme for low cost housing and slum upgrading, plans for metro rail in smaller cities, setting up AIIMS, IITs and IIMs, and the development of several new domestic airports. Doubtless, the list of essential services in India is growing, and the budget makes due references to the expansion of such infrastructure into smaller towns, where it is required most. But the larger aims of the budget seem merely to be directed at showcasing infrastructure. Proposals to establish rural habitation along border areas, upgrading sports facilities in Kashmir and the North East, and providing rail links to remote areas is part of Mr. Modi’s strategic exercise to create stability through economic development. Whether he succeeds in buying people’s loyalty will not just depend on the success of his programme, but on people’s own perception of his grand intentions.

Issue of applicability

For all the talk on “something for the common man,” the budget looks instead — in infrastructure at least — to international ideals, cities that compare with Singapore and Shanghai, computerised banking in homes, solar power, high speed rail, air travel — all the tools that will undoubtedly improve life for the rising middle class. Singapore and France have both offered help on the smart city idea — a hundred towns spread throughout India that share electricity through a common grid, reduce carbon emissions and generate energy savings. At its core such smart cities aim to use a technology master plan to monitor and optimise services like traffic, utilities, health care, etc. While making distribution efficient, they would create an equitable network of sharing, where excess energy, water and electricity is ploughed back into a common grid. Obviously there are other significant elements to the smart city model, such as clean water, efficient public transport, security, education and health care — all much needed in Indian towns.

Commendable though the scope and breadth of this new technology — besides the obvious advantage of preventing theft and graft —its applicability in Indian urban conditions is suspect. In a place where user conditions are markedly diverse, where supply is inadequate, where amenities of drainage, sanitation, walkways are missing, an altogether localised approach needs to be adopted, an approach that includes as its clients, everyone, from road sweepers to business executives.

Sadly, the current thinking on the >smart city remains mired in western technologies and a severe bias towards the well-to-do. Before the government embarks on its reckless real estate pro-middle-class ventures, some serious questions need to be asked. Who are the real beneficiaries of housing in this budget? Can a smart city in the West, also be a smart city India, where urban conditions are still unquantified, and often unformed? In fact, can a hundred new cities be produced on an assembly line like cars and Pepsi bottles, when not a single new idea on urban living has yet been implemented in the country? No one today has ever defined in simple common terms a house for an Indian urban lifestyle. No builder has ever attempted — despite massive profits — to create self-sustaining neighbourhoods, or a form of housing that takes on fresh ideas. No State or national housing programme has ventured outside the safety of merely fulfilling statistical requirements. After Gandhi, who said that the ideal Indian home would be made of materials gathered from a five mile radius of the building site, the country has produced no models of its own.

Affordable housing

The budget takes a brief and half-hearted stab at reviving the housing market by offering incentives and higher loan subsidies. Yet, it taps only the middle-class market, already glutted with unoccupied apartments in most cities. With cities desperate for low-cost housing solutions for the urban poor, it proposes no answers to the increasing slums or the potential for the dispossessed to own their own homes. Where serious inputs are required is in the design and efficiency of a real low-cost urban home for the poor, one that not just takes into account ideas of lifestyle, cooking and energy needs, sanitation and urban land costs, but also integrates them into the social and cultural life of the neighbourhood. >Affordable housing, as presently outlined, will clearly remain out of reach of those who need it most.

At the heart of the problem however lies the country’s burgeoning urban population. In another decade the world expects 300 mega cities each with a population in excess of 10 million; 60 of those cities are expected to be in India. The county’s urban population — expected to be 600 million by 2025, one billion by 2035 — will require both a realistic assessment of a city’s capacity to accommodate and a quantum leap in thinking, planning and design. The unorganised poor make up a staggering 60-80 per cent of the urban population, and unless the cities come up with smart ideas for their use, mere middle-class improvements will become an unfortunate parody of lifestyle. Moreover, conventional relationships with the land, and the house as an independent entity on a plot, require a serious rethink of what constitutes a home in the 21st century.

So far — unlike traditional towns — modern India has not learnt how to operate its cities. The city is mere space for personnel use – a large, unmanageable fairground. It is neither an efficient business model like Singapore, nor a social and historic agglomeration like Rome, nor indeed a professional urban network like New York. Given the continually degraded life of Indian towns, the importance of inventive solutions by the new government can hardly be underscored. Choking cities, grey skies, brown murky rivers, depleting energy, erratic services, the thirst for new ideas in such a setting is bound to assume hyperbolic dimensions. Computer managed smart cities comparable to anything in the West, solar farms, housing with its own utility grid, all sound too good to be true. However, if the new package fails to carry with it the larger cast of the urban dispossessed, and the millions of rural poor who continue to become the urban dispossessed, the future will see more daily battles over resources — water, electricity, land and air rights.

For the time being, the focus of the budget needs to shift away from the already mollycoddled middle class, to bring the benefits of these new ideas to those outside it. A smart house for the poor which collects rainwater, harnesses electricity, cooks with solar energy, would reap great benefits and goodwill in the long run, as would a smart slum, sustained by an active social and commercial life. But, if the impetus to change, and the idea of multiple Indian Singapores, has merely been prompted by the urge for the country to be counted as a world power, the new government’s infrastructure proposals will degenerate quickly into expensive publicity stunts.

(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.)

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2020 9:30:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Current-practicality-future-idealism/article11269159.ece

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