A new sense of urbanisation that is dominating

The old understanding that cities are considered to be centres of enlightenment, workplace, and habitat is being challenged, also bringing into focus the role of the state

Updated - March 13, 2024 02:19 am IST

Published - March 13, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘Metros are colonial cities according to the current discourse and new cities such as Ayodhya, Kashi and Pushkar must be built’

‘Metros are colonial cities according to the current discourse and new cities such as Ayodhya, Kashi and Pushkar must be built’ | Photo Credit: PTI

There have been two events in the media glare in the last nine months in India, namely, the inauguration of two very important institutions, i.e., the new Parliament building, which is a political institution, and the Ram temple, a religious institution, which raise pertinent issues. Both of these were inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India. Does this mean that the elected representative of the people can comfortably take over both the roles of democracy and worship? Will our future cities be driven by religion as the core, and not work, industry, and modernism, which have been an essential feature of the last seven decades of urbanisation?

It is estimated that around ₹85,000 crore will be spent in infrastructure building in Ayodhya. Will religious cities be the new paradigm of urban development in India?

Colonial versus new cities

The cities and urban development in the last two centuries draw a rural to urban migration premise for sustaining industrialisation. Metros are colonial cities according to the current discourse and new cities such as Ayodhya, Kashi and Pushkar must be built. The colonial cities were meant for the transport of goods, taxation and then sending them by ship.

Cities also bring in elements of modernism, not just in architecture but also in the entire gamut of culture, literature, human behaviours and the like. There are anecdotes of how this modernist feature was embedded in the development model of the Indian city. Innovative design and modernist features brought in by Le Corbusier, and the influence of Habib Rahman, who was brought in by Jawaharlal Nehru to design some of the important buildings in the national capital, laid an emphasis on modern technology and mass production techniques and material to design and manufacture high quality and cheap goods that are accessible to many. Likewise, almost all modern towns were developed with spaces for theatre, culture, art, and recreation. This was primarily the driving feature in modern cities.

The building of new towns met several needs — from providing jobs and homes for refugees and absorbing excess population from the older urban areas, to generating economic development in the local region and serving as symbols of the new modern India that was emerging, though not completely ideal and commensurate to the needs, but quite inclusive in design and what was built.

In the current phase, a new sense of urbanisation is dominating. And the old understanding that cities are considered to be centres of enlightenment, workplace, and habitat is being challenged. Cities should not just be centres of workplaces but also centres of yatras, pilgrimage and so on. Thus, we find big corporates also landing in a small town such as Ayodhya and investing heavily in its infrastructure.

Thus, the new conundrum in India is for a new form of urbanisation; a new revivalism of the faith where the cities and towns and where the system should be aligned to the religion of the majority, and not separate from it.

Investments and random modules

The post-colonial period saw the emergence of new towns, and some of them were industrial as well such as Bhilai, Rourkela, and Chandigarh to name a few. Still, the metros attracted the largest numbers of people and investments.

We know from the ranking of urban centres that if one goes by metro classification of the highest in population and wealth generation, colonial cities emerge in the list. After that the other urban centres are regional in character. There is an effort to try and elevate a regional pilgrimage city to that of a colonial city — the heavy investment in the urban infrastructure of Ayodhya is a pointer. It is good to spend resources in any regional city be it for production or tourism or otherwise. However, since there is no apparent plan to direct such expenditure according to a justifiable plan of investment in regional cities across India, one wonders what the justification of spending on random modules in a haphazard way is. The new Central Vista. The Sardar Patel statue. The high-speed bullet train project between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The temple in Ayodhya. What do we understand from this enormous expenditure?

It seems to indicate that the goal of the Indian government is to be a modern nation sitting on an ancient seat and to try to reverse the separation of religion from politics — to signal religion to be a social phenomenon rather than a private one.

The role of the state and social good

This draws one’s attention to one of the moot points. And that is to understand what the role of the state is in building cities and creating investments. We know that the accumulation of capital and the generation of surplus in a democratic society should be directed towards social good, and not for religious good, as we have experienced in the early centuries of Hindu revivalism. What does social good mean? In simple terms it means that the surplus generated must be distributed to build modern institutions, education, health, social infrastructure, particularly in a society that screams for social sector investments (the World Bank estimates that India will need to invest $840 billion over the next 15 years for urban infrastructure), and not for religious good, which is exactly what we are doing now.

Editorial | Urban visions: On need for policy reform

This revivalism is based on an acute form of centralisation of finances and a ghettoisation of urban spaces on a religious basis. An answer to this is decentralisation, democratisation and a more dynamic coexistence of citizens, with access to equal rights and obligation.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, and Member, Kerala Urban Commission

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