Saturday, September 10, 2022

Urbanisation and its Imperatives

Text of the talk delivered at the Architects Meet, IIA Noida Centre, 9 September 2022

Good evening.

I am going to strike what may perhaps seem a completely different chord in the panel discussion on Urbanisation and its Imperatives.— and turn the theme for today’s discussion on its head. It appears to me that we are spending excessive energy and attention on urbanisation — both literally and metaphorically. What we should instead be discussing is Ruralisation and its Imperatives.

When I say this, I am neither being irrelevant nor flippant. We only have to look at the primary evidence around us — the volume of dust and pollution; the piles of garbage and waster; the insanitary, unhealthy and degrading conditions amidst which the majority of urban dwellers live; the issue of clean and sufficient water that confronts all of us; the traffic and the distances we encounter in our daily commutes — to realise that the current model of planned urbanisation is a failure on multiple counts.

Nonetheless, ignoring this primary evidence, the solution at a policy level is to push for greater urbanisation. More funds for more cities. And more schemes for alleviating the so-called ‘inevitable’ problems of urbanisation in existing cities. What I question is the validity of these presumptions. So:

  1. Is urbanisation inevitable? Do we need so many cities?
  2. Is the inequity, waste and loss of ecology that accompanies urbanisation, inevitable? Do we need the kind of cities that are being planned?

To me, the answer to these questions is a resounding NO. When I say this, I am obviously not in line with conventional professional wisdom or government policy. According to Government of India projections, “urban areas are expected to house 40% of India’s population and contribute 75% of India’s GDP by 2030”, up from the figures in the 2011 census of “31% of India’s population housed in cities with a contribution of 63% of the GDP”.

That these projections are seen as inescapable — even desirable — is evident from the stated objective of “attracting people and investment to cities” as part of “a virtuous cycle of growth and development”, in the description of the Smart Cities Mission (SCM). The SCM, declared to be an ‘innovative and new initiative’ by the Government of India, further announces that “the focus is on sustainable and inclusive development”. This is proposed to be achieved by “enabling local development and harnessing technology”. Nowhere in the Mission Statement is the necessity or desirability of urban shifts and population concentration evaluated.

There is clearly a fundamental contradiction in the proclaimed objectives of such programmes and their methodologies. How can you provide sustainable and inclusive cities without examining and addressing the root cause that gives rise to unsustainable and inequitable conditions? It is because such analysis is missing, that there is no acknowledgement of the fact that our cities are nothing but a manifestation of the centralised large-scale industrial method of production and control, that we have adopted with such enthusiasm.

If we continue with this same old economic system and its exploitative and mechanistic ways, we cannot escape their attendant effects — including rapid, uncontrolled urban growth. What I propose may be termed an ‘out-of-the box’ approach. The imperative of urbanisation, in my opinion, therefore is to halt such growth, and both the number and the extent of cities.

Though we are architects gathered here, an analogy from medicine should help to better understand the logic of this statement. Growth in the human body is part of the natural cycle of life — but unnatural, rapid growth results in cancerous cells, that has to be stopped to prevent loss of life. Isolated, concentrated, expensive efforts such as chemo or radio-therapy are largely unsuccessful in providing a cure. Similarly, “project based approaches” and “area based strategies”, put forward in the SCM statement, will not succeed in infusing humane conditions back in our cities. We can only do so, by finding alternatives to centralised, industrial ways of production and living.

We are fortunate that we have such alternatives in the scientific, artistic and technological knowledge embodied in the resource of our crafts and craftspeople — the largest such resource anywhere in the world. The development of the crafts sector, a ‘creative and cultural industry’ as it now recognised and designated internationally, is a national imperative. It is important here, to mention Prof Ashoke Chatterjee’s observation that India’s crafts-sector, even in its denuded and neglected state, satisfies 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by all UN Member States. And this sector with its key characteristics of de-centralisation and emphasis on natural, local materials and hand-skills can be carried out not just in urban areas but equally well — if not better— in rural areas. Yet, there is practically no dependable statistical data about numbers of craftspeople or their contribution to the GDP, nor a specific Ministry for the crafts sector as a whole and sufficient budgetary allocation, reflecting the lack of seriousness with which this sector is taken in institutional and official planning policies.

Where do architects and organisations of architecture come into all this? I believe, they can actually lead the way — in convincing policy makers about the necessity of shifting to alternative ways of production and building; as well as by pioneering a shift to acquiring knowledge about alternative, natural, low-energy materials and decentralised design and planning processes. In other words, to focus on both ruralisation and what has been termed rurbanisation — within the context and practicality of our culture and society.

I would like to end by reminding ourselves about the celebrated historic city of Shahjahanabad, established in the 17th century. It encapsulated many sustainable and equitable urban features by following a philosophy of building and making the optimum rather than the maximum — while epitomising urbanity in all its meanings of courteousness, consideration, and refinement. This is clear even in accounts by observers such as the Frenchman, Francois Bernier, despite his bias in favour of his own culture and his city of Paris. Through him and other sources, we learn how the very heart of the city of Shahjahanabad makes space for the poor, even in areas immediately outside the imperial Fort. And how the main ceremonial streets and urban spaces of Shahjahanabad, house markets that do not just display expensive life-style stuff but also basic food and grain for the less affluent, and accommodate artisans of different trades and a variety of goods.

To put this in context, imagine that the vista of India Gate leading up to Rashtrapati Bhawan, is inhabited by a market — which not only sells expensive items for the rich, but also goods for the poor and lower-income groups. Imagine that bands are allowed to practise and play music in the Vijay Chowk area, and later on in the evening, that informal performances, street-plays, and itinerant markets are held here. 

Put this further in context. Recall that even designated market-areas now increasingly disallow goods and services that do not cater to the rich. Tailors with sewing machines, watch-repair wallahs, food-vendors, hawkers are regularly evicted from markets and road-sides — including the Brahmaputra Market in my neighbourhood in Noida — even when a landmark Supreme Court judgement reinforces their right to sell in public places as part of the Right to Livelihood enshrined in the Constitution of India.

I leave you with an incident from a fictional account of an event in 19th century Shahjahanabad, written by Mirza Farahatulla Baig Dehlavi, who was born and brought up in Shahjahanabad. In  his book, Dilli ki Aakhri Shama, or ‘The Last Mushaira of Delhi’, Maulvi Karimuddin, an actual personage from history, and the organiser of the mushaira, is described as ‘footing it across the lanes and streets of the city, in search of patrons and poets’ for the mushaira. He traverses practically the entire city on foot,  from Zauq’s house near Kabuli Gate to Ghalib’s in Ballimaran; from Hakim Momin Khan’s Haveli in Kooche-e-Chelan to the Lal Qila itself. 

In contrast, though our gathering of today is barely 1.5 kilometres from where I stay, it is virtually impossible for me to walk here in comfort or safety.

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