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Business News/ Opinion / Liberalizing India’s urban thinking

Liberalizing India’s urban thinking

Socialist-era thinking has been discarded elsewhere in the economy, but not in how Indian cities are planned

Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
Photo: Hindustan Times

A quarter of a century ago, India threw off the shackles of Nehruvian socialism and embarked on economic liberalization. Since 1991, socialist-era thinking has been steadily discarded in a growing number of areas such as foreign policy, but it remains firmly embedded in how Indian cities are planned. This is the ultimate source of dissonance between the cities we build and the cities that 21st century India aspires to.

It may come as a surprise to many readers that ideology plays an important role in how cities develop. The fact is that every city is a living embodiment of some philosophy. What is now called Old Delhi, for instance, was a reflection of the hierarchical feudal order prevailing in the 17th century when Emperor Shah Jahan built it. It was a city of grand palaces and miserable slums. French traveller François Bernier, who visited the city just a few years after it was built, tells us, “A man must be of the highest rank or live miserably". At the top of the urban hierarchy was the Red Fort where the royal family lived.

When the British decided to build New Delhi a century ago, they conceived of it as a city of grand imperial parades and a racially coded hierarchy. The city’s early plans marked the most spacious bungalows as “fat white" and lesser dwellings as “thin white" and “thin black". As no senior Indians officials were envisaged, the plans do not mark “fat black". At the pinnacle of this city was a palace for the Viceroy, now Rashtrapati Bhavan.

After independence, Delhi became a city of civil servants brought in to run the socialist economy. Thus Delhi evolved into a bureaucratic ladder made up of housing rungs called C-I, C-II, D-I, D-II and so on. The ideal city was seen as a giant machine designed by “wise" urban planners. They imposed rigid master-plans that neatly zoned different urban activities and strictly controlled urban evolution. The similarity with P.C. Mahalanobis’s economic planning is not a coincidence. They are both outcomes of the same Nehruvian thinking.

French architect Le Corbusier was the urban planning equivalent to Mahalanobis. Just as Mahalanobis saw the economy as a mechanical input-output model, Le Corbusier saw buildings as “machines for living". The “wise" planner created a detailed master-plan and success was all about meticulously implementing it. Innovation was allowed only if planners approved it, otherwise it was looked on with suspicion. It was not about managing an evolving ecosystem.

A large number of cities and urban extensions were built using Le Corbusier’s thinking, but not one succeeded. After two generations of trying, Durgapur, Dispur and Navi Mumbai can hardly be called successes. Even Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s poster child, is really a subsidized housing colony for serving and retired civil servants. Despite the deployment of enormous resources by two state governments and the national government, Chandigarh has not produced anything of economic or cultural value. Whatever buzz it produces comes from the suburb of Mohali that is outside Corbusier’s plan. Even Nek Chand’s famous rock garden was built illegally.

Despite his obvious failures, Le Corbusier is still held in high esteem in India and his ideas are deeply embedded in urban codes. Any attempt to tamper with Chandigarh’s plan is met with howls of protest. This is ironical because, in the rest of the world, his ideas were discredited long ago by the likes of Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. With post-independence planning stuck in a quagmire, 21st century India continues to rely on colonial-era urban cores. New cities such as Gurgaon develop by ignoring official master-plans.

So what should be done? The first step is to stop thinking of the city as a machine and start thinking of it as an evolving ecosystem. Thus, success is about flexibility and managing change rather than implementing brilliant master-plans.

Indians often mistake Singapore’s success as that of outstanding planning but the reality is that the city-state is really a great example of flexibility and constant tinkering. Since it became independent in 1965, Singapore has gone from British naval base to shipping and manufacturing cluster, then to financial centre and more recently to education and entertainment hub. Each step needed radical urban surgery. During the same period, Indians have faithfully preserved Chandigarh’s original master-plan.

Every 15 years or so, Singapore completely re-evaluates its overall economic and urban strategy. The last time this happened was in 2002-03 in the aftermath of the Asian Crisis. The rethink led to new university campuses, entertainment hubs, Formula One racing and so on. The government has just initiated a new round. It’s all about new ideas, tinkering, feedback loops and managing transitions. Having personally participated in the process, it is eye-opening how fundamentally different this approach is from urban discussions in India.

A quarter century ago, India’s economic thinking broke away from socialist planning. Now India’s urban thinking needs liberalization. Even if we did our very best on Chandigarh, the best we can hope for is Canberra or Brasilia. On the other hand, if we managed Gurgaon better, we could get Singapore or Hong Kong.

Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist, urban theorist and writer. He is a member of Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy tasked with creating a new strategy for the city-state.

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Updated: 19 Jul 2016, 02:50 AM IST
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