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The smell of February in Bhopal is unchanged from 35 years ago. The wind blows the tiny, drying, yellow leaves of amaltas, to shower down as they did then, sticking in my hair. The many houses I grew up in, and those of my friends, they are still there, much the same, as I run past them. It’s a beautiful month in Bhopal, as always. But then Bhopal is beautiful always.

What privilege to spend my childhood there, and an even greater one to have it preserved, unchanged after these decades. Many go to Bhopal for the first time, expecting yet another dusty mess, like most Indian cities. The place surprises them.

The hills, the dense tree cover and the lakes soothe; the roads and the general cleanliness surprise the visitor. Unlike Chandigarh there has been no fame for Bhopal’s city planning.

In 1956 after the first major reorganization of states, Bhopal was made the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The capital was planned and built with care. Old Bhopal remained charming, steeped in its tehzeeb, it was called City, and the planned new Bhopal was built south of it. This mix of old and new, planned and unplanned, guided by the contours of the hills and lakes, developed a lovely city; sort of cathedral in the bazaar.

There was hardly any industry till the 1990s, the large Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) factory being the notable exception. Lying east of the city, the BHEL area was a town in itself, and was as well planned. It’s not that Bhopal didn’t have its slums, but they were fewer.

With a sense of contentment I was talking about this unchanging-ness of Bhopal to Anish, who sees it with the eyes of someone who has moved to the city in 2013. He can see more of Bhopal than I do; he is not fogged like me by the past. He pointed out the really new Bhopal, all around and within my Bhopal. It’s grown in the past 20 years, ungoverned and unplanned like most other cities in India. It is similarly without sewerage, little water supply and with heaps of garbage. So there is the unchanging lovely Bhopal, which now I see losing to the messy new one.

There is also the unchanging injustice of Bhopal always in the heart, if you were there on the night of 2 December 1984.

The other city that I call home has changed faster. I still love Bengaluru, and prefer to live here than anywhere else. This is despite the appalling chaos that we have created in our city in the past 20 years.

In the same week that tiny, yellow leaves showered on me gently in the city I grew up in, the city that I live in faced yet another tragedy. Two young people were mowed down by a speeding water tanker, many others were seriously injured. It was all captured on an ATM CCTV, the footage of which TV channels kept playing endlessly. The law will take its course in the case, the lorry driver will face his sentence, but the guilty will not be punished. It’s the city that killed these two young people. Anyone who has driven in to Bengaluru, passes that spot. The elevated road from the airport ends there, two other roads merge there and all join to go in to Bengaluru over the Hebbal flyover. At that high-speed six lane spot, with bus-stops on both sides, used by thousands of commuter daily, including school and college students, and a mall on the side, why would the city not build a skywalk? That the place is a death trap would be visible to anyone.

The story of that road says more. We knew the location of the new Bengaluru airport five-seven years before it became operational. We didn’t build this road till five years after the airport was operational. We built it with no regard to pedestrians, and the walls of the 200-year-old Chikkajala Fort were demolished to build a small stretch of it. Inexplicably, land from the states’ own flying club has not been acquired, resulting in the road narrowing suddenly at Jakkur. Lack of planning, poor execution and complete insensitivity—the road is emblematic of our approach to cities.

Our great urbanization doesn’t look at the future or the past, it’s not bothered about human beings or the environment; convenience, culture, aesthetics and justice be damned.

It’s because we don’t think about it, and do even less.

We certainly did a better job of developing our cities before the 80s. While too much planning hobbled the Indian economy in the past, our cities are afflicted by too little of it. We desperately need our cities to be planned and developed for the public good. Not left as victims to the vagaries of the market or the failures of governance.

Unless we think sensitively, plan carefully, execute rigorously and govern fairly, we will all lose our Bhopal and perhaps a lot more than that. And we would all be complicit.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to

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