In the build-up to the travel to Quito, I wasn’t really focused on the actual day of travel. But as the 14th of October approached, I found myself wondering what it would be like to travel so far away, literally to the other end of the planet, in a single day! “Exhausting!” was the response I got from anyone I spoke to who had done it before. The word that resonated in my head was exciting. Call it a first timer’s enthusiasm!
Catching a flight out of Delhi at 3:30am means you don’t sleep that night. As it was, we got to the airport early and spent a few hours in the lounge, working! So many things were still pending as we tried to answer emails and take those last minute calls. After an 8 hour 20 minute flight, we reached Schipol (Amsterdam), where we had a little over an hour of time before we caught another 10 hour flight to Atlanta (after nearly missing it because they made a lat minute gate change!). After a stoppage of three and a half hours, we got on our final leg to get to Quito, a flight time of a little over five hours. That’s about 24 hours of time inside an aircraft and another 5 hours at airports. All of this within the same day! As we traveled westward, we kept gaining time and so, over 30 hours of transit only meant we had started traveling early in the day and landed close to midnight of the same day. In reality, it was much much more! Yes, the 14th of October 2016 was certainly the longest day of my life!
Landing in Quito on a cool, misty night felt ethereal; much of that dreaminess I’d attribute to the extreme exhaustion which we sensed but did not feel at the time. We were up the next morning, bright and chirpy and ready to hit the streets. Only halfway through the day did the exhaustion hit us. The legs felt heavy and weary, the head light. Sitting there in the office of one of the Ecuadorian vendors we are dealing with in connection to the event we are organizing here at Habitat3, it hit home to me when she described how high Quito is and how it isn’t easy to breathe here for first timers! Yes, Quito is in a valley at a height of over 2800 metres; it is the highest capital city in the world and also the one closest to the Equator giving it a unique set of weather conditions! In that moment, when the mind realized that the body needed rest, I thought about what it meant to be so far away from home, to experience a new culture, a new place and gain a fresh set of perspectives!
At the end of the first day here in Quito, I’m feeling very lucky and looking forward to a wonderful Habitat III conference where people from across the world have gathered to think about solutions to urban problems.
Nupur writes for a living, but doesn’t call herself a writer yet. She has written short stories and poems, and is convinced there is a novel inside her somewhere. But for now, she is focused on her content marketing job at a communications firm. Nupur is based in Gurgaon and blogs at http://nupurchaturvedi.wordpress.com/
Comment: Gurgaon has been praised and maligned in equal measure over the last decade or so. Contradiction is essential to its character and Nupur got it just right in this poem. The “gilt and guilt” especially, swung it for her!
The wind brings in sand to scrape my eyes
When I open them again, the dust has settled
Powdered surfaces hiding the beauty that could have been
And then comes the rain
You would think it would wash everything clear
And the greens and oranges and reds would shine through.
But all the rain did was to drown everything in muck
And so, this is my city
Of expectations and disappointments
Gilt and guilt
Colours and desolation
Crowded roads and empty promises.
And yet, this is my city
My identity, my space, my future
So I must nurture this deep-set rot
In the hope that one day there will bloom
Hope, courage, beauty and love
In this, my city.
With the Indian government easing FDI norms in real estate and construction, the country’s large and ambitious real estate sector is hoping that an influx of global capital will up business. For a country that is looking to urbanize rapidly and is opting for a ‘smart cities’ route to do so, global capital is particularly vital at this time.
In the imagination of real estate developers (private and public), capital inflow translates into greenfield developments, sprawling out of existing urban centers as well as in the form of utopian visions like smart cities proposed by PM Modi and propagated by the likes of Amitabh Kant. The 100 smart cities mission of the government, being taken up by the Ministry of Urban Development, proposes the retrofitting of existing cities (satellite towns and mid-sized cities). Clearly, developers and politicians have their sights not just on bringing rural land into the fold of urban, but also are looking at redevelopment of inner city land to fit the new idea of the ‘world-class’, networked, efficient and competitive city. In other words, a smart city, that will be attract global capital and be built by it as well.
This same ideal of the smart city also hopes to achieve better standards of living for its citizens. Better informed and networked citizens are envisaged to be more skilled and productive, more robust infrastructure is expected to deliver services and amenities “comparable with any developed European city” (as quoted in the concept note on smart cities on the MoUD’s website).
This is the vision. In reality and on the ground, how will global capital transform our cities? As an urban planner with a specific interest in housing issues, I think this is a critical question.
The experience of cities like London, which faces a debilitating housing crisis, is telling. Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece in the Guardian eloquently describes the bizarreness of the London situation: Here is a city where global investments in real estate have meant that poor and even middle class Londoners cannot buy a home in the city, end up paying substantial rental payouts to absentee landlords who live in Singapore and St. Petersburgh!
In India, both Delhi and Mumbai have historically used slum clearances as a tool for freeing land in the inner city; land that is often used to attract capital, some of it global. With the influx of global capital, one can argue, evictions and mismanaged resettlement schemes will become more common, unless a real effort is made to find a socially sustainable way to accommodate the urban poor in the city. The discussion on ‘right to the city’, while trendy among academicians and rights-based activists, has unfortunately found little resonance with private developers nor a buy-in from the State.
Gentrification, that is the ousting of older (and usually poorer) residents of a neighbourhood with newer (and better off) ones, is likely to be the norm in the era of urbanization driven by global capital. As late Scottish geographer Neil Smith, who taught at the University of New York wrote in the Antipode, “the impulse behind gentrification is now generalized; its incidence is global, and it is densely connected into the circuits of global capital and cultural circulation” (Article titled ‘Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy’ Volume 34, Issue 3, July 2002)
The rapid conversion of inner city areas in Indian cities to posher, more expensive real estate is happening right before our eyes. What’s more, relatively new cities like Gurgaon have been planned and built entirely for the educated elite, leaving no planned spaces for the urban poor and indeed, with the rise of global capital, for the middle class. So, similar to London, many of Gurgaon’s middle income families rent from NRIs who live abroad and will continue to do so for a long time. This is because the houses they want to live in that are in the city centre is unaffordable and the housing they can invest in will be inhabitable (in the sense of being linked to functional needs like services, roads, schools, offices and shops) for a long time to come!
As for the poor, housing is only available in the form of rentals in under-serviced areas of the city like urban villages, illegal colonies and slums. The link between poverty and housing is water tight; secure housing is a necessary ingredient in addressing poverty. And if cities (which are oft-quoted as the engines of economic growth) no longer have addressing poverty as one of their prime objectives, what exactly is the purpose of urban development? Making the rich richer, an end in itself….?
It takes no rocket science to figure out that the Indian smart cities in the offing will need to do some smart thinking on the issue of creating housing (and infrastructure) for a wider variety of its inhabitants. The pursuit of global capital would need to be tempered with some even-headed thinking on utilizing this capital for long-term benefits, chief among which must be reducing poverty and improving living conditions for all. There are lessons on land markets, spatial integration and participative planning out there that must be taken into account while planning these smart cities.
I was researching an article about the governance of privately built cities recently and one of the experts I spoke to commented on the obsession of the Indian State with being answerable to the urban middle class, to the exclusion of other categories of citizens like the rural folk, the urban poor etc who have traditionally been the ‘vote bank’ in India. After Ayona seeded that thought in my head, I began to notice that it was indeed being pointed out by several journalists and experts in mainstream media. For instance, this piece talks about Modi’s obsession with the urban. It’s not just Modi, our nation is seeing a disturbing shift in which the youth aspire to everything that is urban. Symbolism is important and cars, mobile phones, branded clothes and a ‘liberal’ lifestyle have become outward signs of a change in outlook (not mindsets though, as we are reminded time and again!).
Sanjoy Narayan’s editorial in Hindustan Times this weekend describes how painfully aware young people are of the stark inequalities. I imagined, as I read, this sea of young people gravitating towards a lifestyle they couldn’t sustain, leaving behind a familiar life that they look down on.
At the India Art Fair, a panel of photographs from the South Indian countryside of homes that mimic urban architecture paints a clear picture of how the city is a major part of the dreams of people across the country.
As an architect and urbanist, I clearly see how people with “one foot in the city and one foot in the village” (am borrowing these words from Rahul Srivastava of URBZ), carry back home the symbols of their city life, recreating in villages and small towns across the country the palatial urban-style homes of their dreams that the city doesn’t give them space for! Often times, no one lives in these countryside palaces!
Mohan, a passionate and inspiring young man I know quite well, built such a home back in Odisha while he made money running a grocery store in Gurgaon. His aging parents lived in this large home by themselves for many years. Mohan’s frustration with the anomaly of the situation has been growing for a year or so and he recently made the brave decision of moving back to start a business in a small town near his home. I sincerely wish him well. His brothers refuse to move away and they are absolutely certain Mohan will fail and the relatively big bucks in the big city will bring him right back (his tail between his legs!).
Everyone, politicians and bureaucrats as well as educated people regardless of caste and class, have fallen for the urban dream hook, line and sinker. The few who, like Mohan, dare to dream different are laughed at. We’ve bought our own bullshit, literally. We believe that an industrialized future is the way forward. We prefer not to think about how the food will get to our table, where wild animals will live, where we will go when we want to escape the city, where our water tables will get recharged….. it’s too painful to think about, we hope that there are rules to sort that stuff out!
The truth is that most of us are entitled to live in our own imagined worlds or urban prosperity. It alarms me, however, when politicians do the same. That those in power and those in line for power propagate this imbalanced situation as a dream we must dream, it’s worrying indeed! Cashing in on the urban aspirations of rural folk, politicians are shamelessly painting a false picture. They are showing us dreams that will never be fulfilled and that will push us further into environmental disaster, food insecurity and sharpened inequalities.
Sobering thought, if you needed another one- To be able to vote in people who see the whole picture at some point in the future, we would need to see the whole picture for ourselves.
Once an architect, always….
For the first time since I have been associated with the city, I had the chance to get out and roam the streets of Kanpur and I was charmed by it. Living in the heart of the city meant that in any direction I went, I saw glimpses of its history. Monuments of Islamic, colonial and industrial architecture are strewn across this area, lending it a unique character and the crowds add to its bustling yet relaxed feel. Most of these pictures are taken from cars and cycle rikshas as we were in transit running various errands as part of the wedding mood.
The highlight of the visit was the trip to the famous Shivala that I had heard of from various family members over the years but never actually experienced. The site of an ancient Shiv temple. the area is better known for being a paradise for buying items of shringaar like bangles, costume jewelry, bindis, make up, slippers and jootis, etc. I could think of many many friends and cousins who would have lost their mind shopping here!
The trip had piqued my interest in this less known and even less appreciated city, once the Manchester of North India and major industrial hub, where some of the most prosperous families in Uttar Pradesh still reside. How little we value this sort of heritage, I kept thinking through the trip and grand visions of adaptive re-use of some of these absolutely stunning pieces of architecture kept swimming through my head!
Family weddings are to enjoy and the incredibly complex nature of Indian families makes them even more entertaining, if you are intent on taking each experience in the spirit of tolerance that is! Every wedding is remembered for various incidents, squabbles and comic antics alike and this one was no exception. But I’m not inclined to air my family’s dirty or not-so-dirty linen in public so I’ll refrain from sharing the juicy details!
As the bahu (daughter-in-law) of the family, I’ve received unconditional love from all of Rahul’s relatives and as a bit of an outsider (no longer now though!), I’ve also enjoyed exploring a new culture and context. Rahul’s maternal side are Rajputs, belonging originally to Bihar but having settled in the Lucknow-Kanpur area for a few generations now. This time, as in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the rambling ancient home in which the family lives right in the heart of Kanpur. The house, now over a century old, is located inside a sprawling complex that houses the Bishambhar Nath Sanatan Dharam (BNSD) College that was once surrounded by orchards and is now dotted with homes of the upper caste families that were originally associated with the Trust that owns the land. One enters this little development through Chunniganj, an old mohalla of the city with a dominant Muslim population. The contrast between one side of the home is fascinating. One side green, not so densely populated, occupied mostly by Brahmin families, sounds of cows, kids playing, pooja bells, family squabbles, parrots; and the other, dense, haphazard, Muslim, sounds of the azaan from two dofferent mosques punsture the air at regular intervals through the day, dawn to dusk! It is quite an experience!
Our home is an imposing structure, stately and colonial in bearing, but now a bit run over with the changes that have been made to it over time. The additions are a bit haphazard and make for an interesting study and many of the original adornment remain, looking askance but somehow hanging in there! Adding substantially to the character are the paraphernalia over generations that are lying around. A discarded table top here, old books there, an out-of-use VCR in a bag in tucked in a corner, construction debris of varying dates and so on. And of course the stories that accompany the objects, the buildings and the people around us….the stories that bring everything to life!
I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!
I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.
What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.
This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.
The big questions we constantly ask are:
- Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
- If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?
Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.
Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.
Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.
Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.
In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.
We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.
Paul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.
We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.
This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.
On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.
More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!
Is it real? This pursuit of success, this definition of the success of your day by how much you ‘achieved’?
Is it possible? This idea that a productive worker can be, well, productive for five continuous days and then collapse into rest and recuperation for two days, only to emerge doubly productive on Monday morning?
Is it twisted? When I set out to check off a long to-do list and end up working on something that just crept into my horizon mid-day?
Is it sad? When you have so many things on your mind that you no longer know who you are and how you should prioritize your life?
I have no answers and there are days that I could kill myself with my sense of inadequacy and bemoan my lack of drive till the cows come home. But then, I know we live in a world where standards are created for the ideal and humans are expected to be machines. I should be happy to be inadequate, for am I not more human that way? I should celebrate my lack of drive, for that is the day when the best ideas often take seed in my brain.
There’s so much more to life than failure and success. Let me not waste precious energy and undergo unnecessary heartache trying to define my life using the lens that was built for someone who is… not me!