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Our cities are our future

india Updated: Sep 28, 2013 19:19 IST
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Life in our cities becomes more nightmarish every day. The proliferating cars, flyovers, parking lots, etc., all exist in a context of dehumanising poverty. Today in Mumbai, squatters are being re-housed in buildings up to 10 storeys high, and as little as 3 metres apart! Because the more the developer builds of this kind of inhuman construction, the higher is the Floor Space Index he is granted for the rest of the site. So what was a maximum FSI of 1.33 in the island city (and 1.0 in the suburbs) has now risen to 4, 5, and 6 - and even more. This unmitigated greed for additional FSI is the engine driving the change-over in the city.

But the limits to high density are not determined by the height to which a building can rise; they have to be established by the schools, hospitals, and recreation areas that must be provided for each family. Only by totally ignoring this prime responsibility can the authorities permit these suicidal escalations in FSI. And sadly, as we all know, these new policies are not due to any wise planning - but to widespread corruption. Today our political parties, at least some of them, seem to be presiding over the looting of our cities.

What is going on is a tragedy of the gravest dimensions, which future generations of Indians will never understand. For our cities are invaluable. Like the wheat fields of the Punjab, and the coal fields of Bihar, they are part of our national wealth. Firstly, because they generate the skills we need to develop the nation: doctors, engineers, managers, information technologists, nurses - these are all Urban Skills. Secondly, they are Engines of Economic Growth; properly managed, they could generate enough surplus for their own development as well as for the hinterland around. Thirdly, for the millions of the wretched have-nots of our society, they are Places of Hope, their only road to a better future.

In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi, one of the few leaders who was concerned about our cities, appointed India's first National Commission on Urbanisation. For the next two years we visited all the key cities in every state in our country, meeting with political leaders, bureaucrats and citizens concerned. The picture these experiences generated was surprisingly positive. For India has been blessed with a diverse system of towns and cities of varying sizes, existing in dynamic balance, so that no one centre has become a Primate City dominating the rest of the country - as is the case of Lagos and Nigeria; or London and Britain; or Paris and France.

This makes India's growth options far more flexible. For the invaluable urban skills we spoke of earlier are being developed in a very wide spectrum of vibrant cities, from Chennai to Jalandhar, from Delhi to Coimbatore - any of which can become a catalyst for a new growth pattern.

This is of crucial importance when it comes to the biggest problem that our cities face, viz., the distress migration from the rural to urban areas, with squatters living on pavements and filling up all the crevices in the city. This has invoked two diametrically opposed attitudes. There are those that say: Throw them out! And others that say: No, they have the right to stay where they are. Neither attitude helps. Letting them stay where they are, living like animals in subhuman conditions, insults our own human values.

Throwing them out misses completely the fundamental underlying problem, viz: the miserable living conditions and completely skewed land-holding patterns pertaining in our villages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe went through precisely the same process when millions of desperate Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, English, decided to leave - and for much the same reasons.

But due to the colonial system operating at that time, they could re-distribute themselves around the globe - an option not open to India today. So a migrant arriving in Kolkata or Pune is a substitute for a visa to Australia. That is the functional role that our cities are playing in the development of our nation. What we have to do is find ways to increase the holding capacity of the urban system as a whole. This was the central task of the Commission.

And its report recommended three principle lines of action. Firstly, it identified 325 small cities and towns that were growing faster than the national average - despite the lack of basic amenities, like sewerage, or water supply, transport, etc. Most of these were mundi towns - and if the right investments were made, they could form the nucleus of new economic centres that would deflect migration away from our existing towns and cities - completely changing the dimensions of the problems they face.

Secondly, we must modify the structure of the cities that the British left behind. These cities were formed by accidents of history - and in any case, dealt with populations less than one-third of what we have today. Re-structuring could increase their holding capacity.

In Mumbai, for instance, public transport should be used to open up new centres on the waterfront - so that the city's existing north-south axis is modified into a poly-centric system around the harbour, where the population of any individual centre is no more than 3 or 4 million (and several would be considerably less). This was the strategy of Navi Mumbai - a project not properly implemented (nor perhaps, even understood) by the state government.

Thirdly, the re-cycling of urban land. Cities are based on certain economic activities, and when those activities dry up, the city must either collapse - or re-invent itself on a new economic base. Mumbai was presented with such a golden opportunity in the 1990s, when the Parel mill lands came up for re-development. This was urban land on a humongous scale, several times larger than the old Fort area.

But instead of enforcing the existing government notification (wherein the land could be developed only if one-third of it was surrendered for public amenities like schools, hospitals, playing fields, etc), the authorities allowed the mill owners to develop the land as gated communities, and treat any parks or schools they contain as private possessions.

Gated communities are lethal things - they create a deadly polarisation between Them and Us. Which become self-fulfilling prophesies. First the wall is not really needed - but gradually, as its significance is comprehended by the have-nots on the outside, then of course we realise the need for an even higher wall. And this triggers off even more anger and violence. This has been the story of beautiful cities like Nairobi, São Paulo and Johannesburg, reduced now to mugging and armed camps. And this is also true of Detroit and many other US cities. Do we really need to repeat this here in India?

Providing social and educational amenities are crucial. And making sure enough land has been reserved for these purposes is the responsibility of the city authorities - and not the developer. His goal is to maximise profits - which though understandable, allows him to ignore the key issues of housing. For after all, the first step in the destruction of those great American cities was uncontrolled increase in FSI (something which the cities of Europe have never allowed - which is why they are still such wonderful places to live in). When FSI is increased without any corresponding increase in schools, hospitals, etc, then middle-income families have to move out. Only the wealthy can survive. Manhattan is today a city of very rich whites - and very poor blacks. The result: distrust, violence and crime.

To save our cities - and the future of this nation - we need pro-active governance. Governance that is not just the prisoner of other forces, but one that thinks for itself. And this, at the national level, necessitates taking an overview of the entire urban system - and conceptualising policies that can influence major growth patterns. And at the city level, governance that is accountable to its citizens. Which, in a democracy, means that the politician who makes the key decisions for the city must stand for re-election in that city. This is the crux of the accountability that democracy provides.

This does not mean that a city like Mumbai or Bangalore must become a city state, divorced from Maharashtra or Karnataka. Not at all. As we all know, New York City is an integral part of New York State - but the decisions for the city are not taken by the Governor in Albany, but by the Mayor in Manhattan. And this is true for an increasing number of cities around the world, from London to Paris to Tokyo. This is the model we must follow. For, our cities are of fundamental importance to our nation. They will determine our future.

Charles Correa, architect and planner, has done pioneering work in addressing issues of urbanisation.He was Chairman of the first National Commission on Urbanisation, Chairman of the Textile Mill Lands Committee of the Govt of Maharashtra, and Chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission.