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India’s urban legends?

The story of Indian city is one in which people have attempted a break with the past in hope of a new future, writes Ravi Kalia.

india Updated: May 27, 2007 04:35 IST
Ravi Kalia

"If 2014 Asiad had come to [the capital], Delhi would’ve been a global city,” declared angry Indian Olympic president Suresh Kalmadi in mid-April. Kalmadi’s outburst was in response to Sports and Youth Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘betrayal’ of India by his intemperate comment in Kuwait. This, he alleged, had resulted in India losing the bid to host the third Asian Games in the Capital.

Such hyperbolism is particularly endemic in the Indian political establishment, as reflected in BJP’s claim of ‘India Shining’ during the 2004 elections. True, Indian economy has expanded to produce new billionaires: twenty-three of them on Forbes 2006 list worth $99 billion, surpassing Japan’s twenty-seven billionaires with their total net worth of $67 billion; but more than 75 per cent of India’s economy struggles in the unorganised (informal) sector, and only 3 per cent of the retail business operates in the organised (formal) sector. The chasm between the formal and the informal sector drags down the per capita income to Rs 12,416 or $285 (2004-05).

These facts make Indian cities, metaphorically speaking, both undercapitalised and overweight. Most small businesses are undercapitalised to modernise their operations; many large corporations still follow feudal practices, frequently falling prey to family feud that divides them. Drive around the capital and you can see multiple examples of undercapitalisation vs. overweight: an emasculated newsboy peddling rags at traffic lights vs. an overweight occupant in an air-conditioned car; a scavenger boy rummaging through a garbage bin vs. a delivery boy on a scooter carrying Domino Pizza; and so on.

Urban growth at 3.15 per cent is higher than population growth at 2.11 because of the rural-urban pull; nearly 61 percent of the labour is still employed in agriculture and related services; national literacy rate hovers around 59.5 per cent (World Bank gives a lower figure), with female literacy around 48 per cent and male literacy around 59.5 per cent. At a population of 1.028 billion, India’s birth rate remains disturbingly high at 2.2 per cent; and the urban population constitutes 27.8 per cent of the total, attesting to the fact that India remains a rural economy.

Statistics apart, Indian cities want to become global, but behave in a parochial way when it comes to values, censuring the West for its amorality: how dare Richard Gere, who has spent millions of dollars to fight HIV infection and AIDS in India, in a moment of impulsiveness, kiss Shilpa Shetty? But no eye-brows are raised at sultry advertisements or rampant paedophilia or incest or rising teenage sex or shipping young Indian dancing girls to Dubai. Economist Amartya Sen has argued in The Argumentative Indian that suspicion of foreigners has been a continuing theme in parts of Indian insular thinking, which stems from Indian self-centeredness and sense of civilisational exclusiveness.

Architecturally, India continues to struggle for its identity. The British had tried to reconcile the Hindu and the Muslim cultures in New Delhi by employing the Saracenic vocabulary for its official buildings. Post-independence India witnessed the introduction of modernist architecture, first in Chandigarh and later its applications were made throughout India with varying results. One reason modernism gained currency in India was because of its parsimonious designs and simple lines. Since economic liberalisation in the mid-1980s, the builders and developers have produced a myriad of idiosyncratic structures. Religious architecture still dominates India as reflected in the Lotus Temple and Akshardham, where religion has now borrowed a page from Disney World to provide food courts and entertainment and crèches for infants. Indians are also prepared to battle over their religious shrines as in the case of Babri Masjid/Rama Temple in Ayodhya.

Educationally, India may be the largest English speaking country, and Indian entrepreneurs may be buying foreign companies; but Indian institutions remain woefully ill-prepared to teach foreign languages. One of the unfortunate fallouts of low literacy rate and shortage of educational institutions has been that a broad-based public participation in economic expansion and globalisation has not been possible for most Indians.

This dark side, that has always existed — even now, as India gallops at 8.5 per cent GDP rate, has never discouraged Indian leaders from engaging in hyperbolism and aspiring for a global city. In Chandigarh, Chief Minister Gopichand Bhargava hoped that Chandigarh would be “the world’s most charming capital [city]”; in Bhubaneswar, Chief Minister Harekrushna Mahtab hoped that Cuttack would emerge as the New York and Bhubaneswar the Washington, DC of Orissa; and in Gandhinagar, the young visionary architect BK Doshi and his patron, Seth Kasturbhai Lalbhai tried to visualise the future of Indian cities in the “images of the new world” by the American Louis Kahn and his new interpretation of the modern skyscraper. Even the British were not quite free of hyperbolism when the British art critic Sir George Birdwood demanded that New Delhi “must like Rome be built for eternity.”

To a great extent, the importance of a particular city or building or quadrangle is not quantifiable. Pedagogy is intimately tied to the sense of place. The question is: How does architecture most effectively work the tension between traditional and modern, particular and universal, rich and poor? The story of Indian city is one in which people have attempted a break with the past in hope of a new future, accompanied by urban transformation that has been conditioned by the collective unconscious. Somewhere in the experiment, it would seem, the distant gods of consumerism and exuberance, overpowered and replaced, and certainly outranked, the local familiar gods, close to the hearth fire, of small people.

(Ravi Kalia is Professor of Urban-Architectural history at the City College of the City University of New York. His books include a triology on state capitals of India)