Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Happy negligence

Gautam Bhatia in this Hindustan Times article writes of the emerging trend of gated communities and the new urban India. I found my views swinging as I read the editorial. Some of his points come across as pro-poor while he ended on what I interpreted as an anti-development note.
Of course, the umbrella term 'development' has different connotations for different people. (And has sparked many a debate on ACJ's terrace canteen - as also having induced deep slumber in the a/c lecture hall on the floor below.)
In my opinion, misguided development should have been more of the focus here.

He says:
'…the new India is an incomplete picture; its makers are on the road to trial and unabashed plagiarism. The perfect picture has already formed somewhere in the world and we are merely buyers on an expensive and indulgent shopping spree. Take an American highway and string it between Mumbai and Pune. Plant a New Jersey suburb in Bangalore, copy a California condominium in Gurgaon. Help yourself to South Korean rail technology, buy yourself German carriages. Ask a Spanish designer to build a world-class airport. Do it, because action must be seen to have been taken, and it’s just too bad if the international amalgam is a mess.'

I agree that such cut and paste techniques aren't the best solution to infrastructure development. Capital-intensive construction in a labour-surplus economy isn't the way to go. And importing the exorbitantly priced skills of foreign architects ignores the talent of our urban planners and barefoot architects who know infinitely more about appropriate technology.

'To wish a Shanghai on Delhi or Mumbai would kill the very reason cities are made: the variety of economics, cultures and sociologies that come together to share common space. For all its richness and squalor, Mumbai survives. It may not be glinting across the sea like Hong Kong, but the thick, messy geography of varied perceptions, people and places, fuelled by rural migrations and urban growth all makes into a one-of-a-kind city.'

Again, I agree for the most part. Even if this reasoning seems to somehow rationalise the squalor, making it seem palatable if only because we're Indians and we can handle poverty and filth and squatter settlements. Because it's taken for granted that those without choices are content with charity. The charity of allowing the poor to settle outside the city limits, only to push them away and allow them once more to live on the fringes. Okay, so I suppose I don't agree after all.

'A happy third world city.'

Excuse me? But who exactly is it that gets to decide who is happy? Certainly not the slum dwellers themselves? Surely not the migrant labourers who are treated even worse than Maharashtra's resident poor?
In this case apparently, it's by an architect.
It's one thing to voice concern over the misguided priorities taking over the urban elite. And it's quite something else to pass off our own government's negligence (just because we live with it) as romantic.