Till 2006, SG Highway marked the westernmost extremity of the city. Then the Sardar Patel Ring Road came up, seven kilometers further west. A 76.3-kilometre road barreling through privately owned acreage and twenty-three villages! An idea fated, one would think, to be mired in endless litigation. If it took a mere three years to be executed it is to the indubitable credit of the man people in Ahmedabad know simply as ‘Kaka (Uncle)’. Kaka, or, more correctly, Surendra Patel, a veteran RSS man affiliated with various arms of the Sangh Parivar, is now Treasurer of the Gujarat unit of the BJP and a member of the Rajya Sabha. More importantly he is a Patel, from the fertile Charotar region south of Ahmedabad. His community, easily the most venturous of the highly nomadic Gujaratis, spread out across East Africa, Fiji, Trinidad, Surinam, England and the United States, and built the Ugandan Railway in the 1960s.

Kaka studied engineering at the Sardar Patel University, founded by Ahmedabad’s first Chief Municipal Engineer, Bhaikaka Patel, and went on to join the family’s construction business in Ahmedabad. As chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (1996–7 and 1998–2005) he initiated many of the grandiose projects, including the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, that would transform the face of the city. Till he was in his late fifties and had already been chairman of the Urban Development Authority once, Kaka had never travelled outside India. In 1997 he went to Europe and the United States.

I ask him if he was influenced by what he saw. Was it the motorways of the West that inspired him in his second term as the AUDA Chairman? He looks noncommittal. Yes, he says, London’s M25 Ring Road made him think Ahmedabad should have one and in America too he saw many ring roads. But, you see ... He shrugs to suggest a need to clarify. Seeing things for oneself is a good thing and it ‘solidified’ what he had imagined. But the fact was that he did not feel the need to travel abroad

because he had already had a vision in his mind of what the West was like. ‘Everyone in Charotar has a relative abroad, mainly in London and America,’ he reminds me, ‘including myself.’ His siblings and his wife’s family are abroad. Expatriate Gujaratis have donated lavishly to build water tanks, clinics, towers and schools in the Charotar region. And it is this vision, brought home by the diaspora, that has formed his worldview.

The shrewdness that he brought to bear on the realization of his pet project, the Sardar Patel Ring Road, was homegrown. It is widely known that he chose not to court resistance by acquiring land in the conventional manner, under the Land Acquisition Act, and opted instead to revive a form of land readjustment called the Town Planning Scheme in which the owner voluntarily surrendered up to forty per cent of his property in the expectation that improvements made by the authorities would increase the price of his truncated property. ‘It was win-win for everybody,’ says Kaka gleefully, ‘win-win!’ It is a rare flash of enthusiasm. In general, Kaka, a silver-haired, bespectacled septuagenarian with a small moustache over well-defined lips, shows little emotion. Indeed he has a way of getting things done without even looking a person in the eye. I can imagine how intimidating that can be when he proceeds to explain, in his whispery voice, how he dealt with those who did not buy his ‘win-win’ deal.

The farmer who had planted eucalyptus trees for instance, a stubborn lawyer, a host of other property owners who for one reason or another were not attracted by Kaka’s entrepreneurial offer. In such cases Kaka would try various approaches. Threat for instance. ‘I would say to the land owner: “this will be to your advantage". I would say that “I have come to request you. And my hand is like this"’, he flashes an open palm. ‘“If you give, it is good. If not then I will come after two years having prepared my legal documentation and my hand will be like this."’ He makes a grabbing gesture. ‘“The road will happen. That is certain!"’ At other times he would use charm. He would make a personal visit, share a cup of tea, apologize, cajole, and somehow diffuse opposition. ‘It is because you have come I am agreeing,’ the potential dissident was likely to say when this happened. Even for an especially tough opponent Kaka would just put his arm around him and say, ‘This is my special friend, his land is my land.’ And in that way, he says, opposition was blown away.

‘Vikase bandhyo vishwas (development generated trust),’ observes Kaka’s right-hand man, Nimish Joshi, sagely.

Nimish arrives one morning to take me for a drive on the western arc of the Sardar Patel Ring Road. The Rama preacher Morari Bapu’s heavy-lidded eyes regard me with soft piety from a wooden panel above the dashboard alongside a miniature idol in a glass case. A gold-trimmed red scarf used in religious ceremonies flutters from the window of the white Santro. Nimish has the stubby, boyish look and spiky haircut of someone in his early thirties and wears a holy red thread on his wrist. We have fixed to meet in Vastrapur, not far from the lake complex with its fountains and faux medieval walls. The Vastrapur lake complex was one of Kaka’s showpiece projects, part of his plan to revive the city’s water bodies. His proposal met the needs of the BJP’s core electoral support group, the Hindu urban middle class, both by answering a growing demand for leisure and the symbolic resonance of water, water being sacred in the Hindu mythos.

We leave the SG Highway and cut across Bopal. Bopal is a cautionary tale, a neighbourhood that attempted to develop on its own without political backing, and reached a point of stagnation clear from the sight of rocky, pitted roads and unfinished commercial complexes. ‘It is an urban slum,’ Nimish says with a contemptuous wave. We drive further west. On either side of us the bright green grass is interrupted with hoardings, fences, the flat roof of a hotel, an advertisement for a complex called ‘The Egyptian’ with the painting of a Pharaoh on it, the elegant red roofs of bungalow apartments. Where the connecting road meets the new Ring Road, hoardings for apartments and holiday homes loom up on either side: In its sleekness the Ring Road resembles the motorway of a developed country. We move soundlessly, climbing gently upwards, into a pale blue sky scattered with white fluffy clouds. A truck rumbles past. In the distance the globe of Science City appears, South America stretched over its glimmering, pearly blue rump. There is silence for miles except for the occasional outburst from Nimish’s phone which breaks into a paean to the mystical Shirdi Sai Baba every time a call comes through. A strong smell of dry grass rises at Chharodi. The ornate, palatial buildings of the Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratisthanam swim into view. The SGVP, an international school established by the Swaminarayan sect, sprawls over 52 acres and offers yoga, football and horse riding lessons to its students. We pass a sea of houses in the distance. ‘Designed but no infrastructure yet,’ Nimish informs me crisply. On a tall arch the name ‘Swagat Green Ville II 2006’ stands out in a baroque font.

Abruptly Nimish leaves the Ring Road and makes a loop back to show me the reach of ‘development’. More housing complexes appear: white, low, glass-fronted. A hospital, banks (Kalupur, HDFC, ICICI), shops, beauty parlours, commercial complexes, a café. Next to the ‘Utopia School’, which has classes in both English and Gujarati, a ten-storey building is coming up. ‘Up to the highway is all occupied,’ he points out, ‘beyond that people have probably bought holiday homes as an investment.’ A Party Plot goes by with two miniature canons on the gate post. Not far from it we come upon a sign that says ‘AUDA Lake’ next to a low wall made of fabricated boulders, much like a fortress wall identical to the mock fortress appearance of the refurbished Vastrapur lake complex. ‘Kaka’s style,’ Nimish points out proudly. Kaka’s style has permeated much of the city. For instance, in his restless desire to beautify the city, he decided to shield a crematorium on SG Road from public view with a giant statue of a seated Shiva. ‘Kaka being a dharmik (religious) type,’ Nimish explains. But then, as he goes on to narrate, breaking into a wide smile, ‘the cover provided by the statue started attracting lovers. Lovers in a crematorium!’ He laughs, evidently tickled.

Excerpted from Ahmedabad: A City In The World (201 pages, 499), with permission from Bloomsbury.

Close