Insecure and insular in urban India

In the design of a recent house in Delhi, I was intrigued by how the owner’s interest in the building was sustained merely by the gadgets that were part of the home. All rooms had air conditioners and humidifiers, each fitted with its own fridge, television and home entertainment, Internet, security and alarm system. A private lap pool and barbecue extended along the side of the house; four cars were parked in the driveway. Gadgetry proclaimed independence for all the residents of the house, while old ideas of comfort, familiarity, family togetherness were all but forgotten.

It is easy to see how in the past 20 years the idea of private ownership has had a huge debilitating impact on urban life. The city has changed from being a congenial space of shared amenities and relationships to a fearful nightmare of private strongholds and walled compounds — insecure, insular and isolated. As the boundaries of the city have expanded to take in more people, the real boundaries around residents have closed in. In Gurgaon outside Delhi, Vastrapur in Ahmedabad, or Whitefield in Bengaluru, the gated community coaxes the home owner into believing in the security of living among people like each other. The house comes now with greater realms of private facilities: private parking, private entertainment, private office, private pool, private barbecue … when the home acts as a virtual city, there is no need to go out.

Concept of sharing

Has the privatisation of what were once public assets and opportunities endorsed a better quality of civic life? How has the continual expense on private goods and services produced anything but a lazy and bland convenience? If anything, isn’t its larger impact, a more pervasive isolation and despair? What indeed is the effect of the bloated house on the consumption patterns of the neighbourhood, and life in the city?

The city has changed from being a congenial space of shared amenities and relationships to a fearful nightmare of private strongholds and walled compounds

In the 1970s, with little use for a car, my parents opted to share the expense of a car and driver with four other homes in the neighbourhood. Such efficient allocation ensured that the shared car was fully employed during the day within selected time slots. Five houses came together to share one car; today, each of those houses has four to five cars, mostly clogging the driveway. At the time, the local market had several lending libraries with the latest books. The system of short-term borrowing ensured that every book was happily thumbed by many interested readers, as were magazines and later, videos. The larger thrust of the shared life also extended to living spaces within and outside the home. The absence of multiple TVs and fridges allowed the family to share time together; as did the community park, where people met in the evening.

Global trends

Throughout the world, cities are attempting to create optimal conditions for shared interactive lifestyles. Suburbs in Washington and Boston encourage carpooling by creating special fast lanes into the city. In a new scheme in Orlando, tight-knit town houses open out into a common garden, allowing an easy mingling of all residents. Offices in Bogotá hire shared taxis to ferry their staff into the city. Other initiatives such as co-housing in Denmark support communities planned and managed by the residents who share responsibilities of child care, recreation and security along with social activities. Some new Chinese cities discourage any form of private ownership — whether house or car — so people live close to places of work in rental housing. Stockholm’s suburban ordinance even allows private gardens to be used publicly. Families without their own lawns are encouraged to use someone else’s as their own. The world’s most liveable cities are without doubt those that encourage such shared patterns in civic regulations.

Does the idea that every successful Indian must isolate himself behind encircling shields of privacy seem an absurd, lopsided form of civic entitlement? What is the real purpose of living among others if every action states you really don’t want to live among them? Wouldn’t it make more sense to evolve a more deliberate pattern of shared routines and consumption based on a common lifestyle?

Obviously, when domestic life is measured as an outcome of scarce resources put to efficient use, the new urban affluence begins to appear a terrible waste. The undying urge to excessive material possessiveness produces a selfishness that has a contemptible and miserly social dimension. With only one time or one person use, the possession itself loses its utility and usefulness, and becomes redundant. The multiple uses of cars, homes, gardens, city space, offices, books, films, etc. in the long run will reduce private possessions, increasing public dependence and interaction and result in a more hospitable city.

Governments abroad have also made conscious and consistent efforts to eradicate the visible hierarchy of their cities, ensuring that everyone lives together, works and shares a common pool of services and facilities. Senators in Washington live in standard suburban homes and commute every morning like ordinary citizens. In the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix could be seen choosing vegetables in the local market. Warren Buffett, one of America’s richest men, still maintains his old family home in Omaha, and is often seen playing with his grandkids on the sidewalk.

What would it take to get President Pranab Mukherjee to walk across to Connaught Place to pick up a pair of wool socks for his winter wardrobe, or Prime Minister Narendra Modi to select his vegetables at Subzi Mandi? How would it look if Mukesh Ambani lived in a two bedroom flat in Lower Parel and commuted by hanging on to the suburban train, instead of residing in ‘Antilia’, his 27-storied home on Altamount Road? When every politician, industrialist, tyre manufacturer and bureaucrat resides in palatial isolation on select real estate and is followed by a posse of machine- gun toting guards, the message of civic insecurity and isolation comes out loud and clear. The city is a dreadful place, so protect yourself. Divided by caste, class, rank, economics, social order and professional position, the shared life becomes a distant and impossible dream.

Evaluating the civic model

Naturally, a government that still follows antiquated regulations and by-laws is hardly capable of offering thoughtful solutions in this direction. Equally, it is a shameful sign of our times that builders profiting from construction, continue to lavish all their efforts where none is needed. As money and good times roll in, developers begin a steady and relentless marketing of luxury villas and townships, privatising the city further with high electrified boundaries and yet more isolation.

Why is it then that these fortress walls in suburban Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune foster such seclusion and despair, but the narrow lanes of Mehrauli and Dharavi — despite the stigma of slum living — are welcoming and unrestrained? In a society that has traditionally lived on the ideal of dependence, a return to a more egalitarian shared existence is a certain possibility. Now, more than ever, with the threat of smart cities looming large, the creation of a civic model needs careful stating, design and evaluation. Beginning with the redesign of the middle-class home, its relation to its neighbours, the value of community over privacy, shared transport over the private car, the compaction of distance between home, workplace and recreation, the abolishing of gated complexes, the inclusion of common greens, the reduction of private commerce, the conversion of roads to parks and walking tracks, can all be directed in the thrust for a different type of city. If private builders wish to apply any such ideas in their projects, the government should allow them a slate clean of all local restrictions to make it possible.

There are of course colossal economic and environmental benefits of a shared life — fewer cars on the street, more people accommodated more comfortably in less space, larger common open areas, consequently increased personal security, healthier cities and a happier more connected citizenry. If such an ideal is to be tested in India’s new towns, planners would have to create conditions where people don’t need to buy cars or houses. Obviously the present structure of city living is unlikely to accommodate such concerns. But given that cities are expanding and new ones being proposed, it may be useful to explore and state a new set of regulations before any construction begins, so that the larger benefits of sharing could be enjoyed by all sections of society. Without these, we may only end up creating yet more Gurgaons and Whitefields.

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

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 5:34:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/insecure-and-insular-in-urban-india/article10927329.ece

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