The cities we deserve
  sam miller

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AN event of immense significance in the history of mankind took place unnoticed in 2004. Nobody knows precisely when or where this event happened, but there’s a reasonable chance that it was in India. It may have occurred when an aspiring penniless migrant fleeing rural poverty in eastern Uttar Pradesh arrived at the Inter State Bus Terminal in Delhi, or when a young mother gave birth to an underweight baby in a Mumbai chawl. The event? Well, it was the moment at which, for the first time in history, the world’s urban population outnumbered those who live in rural areas. And, the statisticians tell us, in fifty years more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in towns or cities. The future is unmistakably, irresistibly, perhaps sadly, urban. This generation will be judged on its ability to transform its teeming cities into habitable places.

India now has more of the world’s megacities than any other country, with three metropolises – Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi – having a population larger than 10 million. Each of these cities alone has a population larger than the majority of countries around the world. There appears to be no natural limit to their growth. These cities each attract hundreds of thousands of new migrants each year. Attempts to make a significant reduction in the population inflow have all failed. And often the true scale of the urban explosion is hidden. The official population of Delhi, for instance, excludes contiguous urban areas – so Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, and Ghaziabad are not included. If they were, Delhi, so often seen as the smaller, parochial sister of Mumbai and Kolkata, would be well on its way to being the world’s largest city.

Urban decay in Mumbai and Kolkata is the stuff of legend. Every year, books are published that challenge or reinforce the image of these two cities as urban cesspits. Delhi, however, is usually treated less seriously as a city, as if it were somehow not the real thing. It has been repeatedly described as a collection of villages, as a home for corrupt or inept bureaucrats, or an open-air museum of Indian history.

Books about Delhi tend to evoke a sadness about a lost past, a dreamy admiration for previous empires. They don’t deal with it as it is now – one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world. Many of its residents tend to behave as if they are passing through, just camping in Delhi for a few years, or a few decades. Apart from the tiny percentage of the population with roots in Old Delhi, the city commands very little loyalty from its citizens.



As a migrant to Delhi, I am struck by how little the English-speaking elite knows of its own city. One city-dweller told me recently that there was very little poverty in Delhi, and hardly any slums; someone else didn’t know that the city had a Metro; one other had never, to his knowledge, crossed the Jamuna, and didn’t know where it was. Is there any explanation for this ignorance? It is of course true that the Metro does not yet service the affluent south of the city; that the slums of Delhi are better hidden than those of Mumbai and Kolkata; and that the Jamuna is a foul-smelling sewer for much of the year.

But there is something deeper at work here. Nobody really cares very much about the city. Some, of course, care intensely, even obsessively, about their own flats, their building, their street, even their colony. A few others care about Delhi’s archaeological monuments, or its trees, or its disappearing wildlife – but no one really seems to care (forgive me if you are an exception) about the huge, teeming conurbation that has increased its population more rapidly since independence than any of the other major Indian cities.

Like Los Angeles or Washington DC, Delhi is becoming a city of ghettos – for the rich and the poor alike (as well as, of course, a wide range of middle income groups and an impressive collection of linguistic, religious and caste groups). Lutyens’ bungalow zone is as much a ghetto as Seemapuri. Chittaranjan Park is famously Bengali, Punjabi Bagh is – well – Punjabi, Okhla is largely Muslim, and Delhi has no less than five predominantly Dalit Ambedkar Nagars and Colonies.

The wealthy and the impoverished rarely live close to each other. Or when they do – as I discovered in a brief sojourn in Vasant Vihar – the non-pedestrian rich don’t know about it. The shacks of the poor that ring the western side of the colony are not a visible part of the daily lives of the rich. For the rich, their sketchy knowledge of the lives of the poor usually comes from their servants. And the poor see the rich sweep by in their Qualises and Scorpios or living it up royally as two-dimensional characters in soap operas and movies.



It is now more than forty years since the publication of Jane Jacobs’ seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In a book designed to irritate traditional town planners, Ms Jacobs questioned the fashion of dividing cities into zones. Cities, she argued, that failed to encourage diversity, that failed to integrate the rich and the poor, the residential and the industrial, could not thrive. In Delhi, no one listened.

Look today at the urban wasteland that Connaught Place has become after seven at night. It was designed, intelligently, as a mixed residential and commercial area – the central park intended for family picnics and musical performances. In the nineteen fifties, there were still significant number of family homes; gradually many of these became offices. Existing residents were driven out by higher property taxes, and by businesses that would pay irresistibly high rents. Today, after dark, Connaught Place has become the haven of the call-girl and pimp. The Metro may help, as will late closing hours for shops – but until families move back the area will remain unfriendly, unnatural.

Even more desolate is that nameless area north of Deen Dayal Upadhyay Avenue (formerly Rouse Avenue) and south of GB Pant Hospital, sandwiched in what should be a prime location between New and Old Delhi. It is an urban wasteland par excellence – little cared for even by a slum population who have no title to the land they occupy, and pockmarked by small patches of undeveloped land used as dumps and latrines.



But arguably, Delhi’s most influential and most symbolically damaging bit of zoning is in the heart of the new city built by the British. It bears the unapologetic official name of the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone and, in my view, is a testament to authoritarian rule. Before I seek to justify that view, I need to make some points clear, because critics of the LBZ have been unfairly vilified in the past. I do not believe that the bungalows should all be pulled down. I do not believe that high-rise buildings should be constructed there. I do not believe that trees should be chopped down or that grass should be concreted over. However, I do believe that the way the LBZ is currently used, as a home for the most powerful politicians and bureaucrats in the land, is hard to defend in a modern democratic state.

The LBZ is one of most obvious vestiges of a dying British empire in India, a place which was deliberately designed to include the rulers and exclude the ruled. The British are long gone. However, the trappings of those last days of authoritarian rule have survived in a VVIP culture which is deeply divisive. And the LBZ is the epicentre of that culture, where democratically elected politicians can retreat into their rent-free or low-rent compounds, where they can intrigue to get an even better bungalow, where they can escape their constituents and the real world, where they are not reminded of the lives of the poor (from amongst whom many of them have risen). It encourages the powerful to somehow think they belong to a different species from their fellow Indians.



The solutions are relatively simple. The LBZ could be transformed into a mixed-use public space without destroying the architecture or landscape of the existing area. Those ugly, excluding boundary walls could be removed, and most of the LBZ transformed into a kind of bungalow-filled public park (with maybe a few private or government residences) but with an emphasis on the educational, entertainment, and nourishment needs of a diverse range of Delhiites and visitors – children and adults, rich and poor. I would not go as far as Mahatma Gandhi and suggest that Rashtrapati Bhavan be turned into a hospital – but I do think there needs to be a radical review of land use in New Delhi.

Urban planning in Delhi, as elsewhere, needs to place a premium on encouraging diversity and variety, and not uniformity. There is still a lot of utopian talk about urban planning in Delhi, as if it were still a city of a few million, and that human behaviour could be changed by more steadfastly enforcing some archaic zoning laws. Delhi is beyond that. It is now a megalopolis.

The failure, for instance, to convert more unauthorised settlements into proper colonies has been the biggest planning disaster of them all. It has bred contempt for Delhi among many of its less affluent new arrivals – who have no prospect of feeling any stake in the city. Not only must they be given the right to occupy the land on which they live, but they must be encouraged to feel the city is theirs.

Industry, vital to the life of the city, must not be driven out. Instead of relocating industries according to decades-old zoning laws, the not-in-my-backyard activists need to turn their campaigning attention to reducing industrial pollution and increasing industrial safety. The rich need to allow the construction in their areas of a share of the less salubrious essential services of a city. So sorry, South Delhiites – a new sewage treatment plant, a lunatic asylum, a slaughterhouse, a jail, a homeless persons hostel may have to be built in your neighbourhood. They need to be built somewhere. Why should they only be situated in poor areas? To do so will continue the downwards spiral of poverty and urban decay suffered by large tracts of the city.



Political scientists like Ashutosh Varshney have in recent years argued forcefully that social cohesion and tolerance are increased by greater interdependence and diversity; that communal riots are more likely to happen when communities no longer interact because of ghettoisation. Diversity of another kind, Jane Jacobs argued, is critical for the building of a thriving, improving city. If we deny diversity, we will be unable to avoid that chilling science-fiction vision of gated communities for the rich, cut off from but surrounded by the increasingly desperate and militant poor.

Remember the poor are the people whose labour ensures the functioning of your city. Delhi already has many gated communities into which its frightened inhabitants retire each evening, terrified of the hoi polloi, and even of their own servants. The pavements become empty, a public invitation to antisocial behaviour and crime. Your Arcadian colony will begin to seem like a prison, and life in your three air-conditioned boxes (home, car, office) will begin to pall.



Ask not, then, what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city. You (yes, you, the English-reading elite) need to rediscover your cities and help to make them more habitable for everyone. Look around, take a walk, go by bicycle, take a bus, a rickshaw, use the Metro (very impressive in both Delhi and Kolkata, for anyone who hasn’t been), even an air-conditioned car if you must, and explore your city. (If you are female, don’t go on your own; but we must aspire to building a city where women can walk around alone). Engage with your city’s problems; don’t cut yourself off from them. We can all agree the practical problems of urban growth are immense. The needs can seem endless, the situation, at times, hopeless. But then remember how swiftly Delhi’s air pollution problems were improved by the introduction of CNG.

India’s urban future does pose an enormous multifaceted challenge to its policy-makers and its citizens. Its great cities can’t get enough water and are in danger of drowning in their own effluence. Their new flyovers cannot keep pace with the growth of urban traffic and car ownership. The schools and hospitals cannot multiply fast enough for a population that doubles every ten to fifteen years. It’s essential then that civic authorities and citizens plan together for these challenges. In the end, we will all get the cities we deserve.