There was a time in this country when where one chose to live didn’t really matter: it was Bombay versus the Rest of India. The rest included cities as varied as say, Delhi and Allahabad, superficially as different as chalk and cheese (Delhi, a centre of power; Allahabad, a pilgrimage town), but not very different at a deeper level. The Music Shop in Khan Market sold the same pirated tapes which I could buy in any other cassette shop in the country: Paula Abdul on Audio, Kylie Minogue on Billboard and Whitesnake on PRT. Ponytails turned heads on Delhi roads, just like they did in Allahabad. So did white skin. I was once walking with an English friend in a posh South Delhi neighbourhood. A couple of lads arrived on motorcycles and tried to run him down. It was all in good spirit of course; the boys saw a foreigner and decided to rag him a bit, make him jump around. Just like they would have in Gorakhpur.
One of the most important consequences of economic liberalisation has been the rise of the city. It’s not just Bombay anymore. Hyderabad, Pune, Calcutta and Delhi, to take four at random, have become vibrant cities in the last 15 years: there are jobs to do, cafes to hang out in, live music to listen to. These are cities brimming with economic opportunity and young Indians are migrating to them from the hinterland as never before. There is now a clear split between the big city and the small town. This dividing line was fuzzier in socialist India.
This split mirrors a larger divide between states. While certain states have forged ahead, others have remained content to be stuck in low-level politicking. Chief Minister Mayawati throwing out the Reliance Fresh stores in UP, or the new BJP government throwing a spanner in the works of an IT park initiated by the Congress in Uttarakhand, are just two examples of stunted political vision. In Dehradun, each new government announces itself by changing the design of speed-breakers. The roads get more potholed while the speed-breakers get fancier. As the policies of these states become increasingly closed, the future of the north Indian small town looks very bleak indeed.
One of the ways in which cities grow is by attracting talent and money from other parts of the country. States like Uttarakhand have worked towards raising barriers rather than lowering them. The big university to be set up in the state capital, Dehradun, is meant for those from the state: no teachers and students from outside. Industry is welcome but they can only employ locals. Indians from outside the state can’t buy land at will. Consequently, Dehradun has been unable to capitalise on its natural advantages: good English-medium schools, proximity to Delhi, excellent climate and surplus power. The clever kids go to Pune or Bombay. Delhi is close but not that easy to reach because the roads are in a bad shape; a proposed highway remains in the ‘proposed’ category. There is power, but only in theory; the supply remains erratic because of transmission and distribution problems.
With no new people coming in, the valley town is in permanent decline. Shopkeepers open shops for other shopkeepers. There is no other clientele because there are no jobs, apart from a few in banking. There are no young professionals with spare cash driving the boom as they are in other cities. During the land boom of the last ten years, the mafia shopped manically. A friend who owns a shirt showroom tells me they used to walk in with wads of black money notes and pick up clothes at random. No more. New government policies have punctured the property bubble. The shops are empty.
A Volvo service began between Delhi and Dehradun but shut down because of the state of the roads and lack of patronage. An international Chinese casual-dining chain, Crazy Noodles, opened with great fanfare only to close down in a couple of months. A new disco quickly turned into a stag nightmare. A shakeout has happened and now local business sticks to safe, traditional bets: sarees, shirts, jewellery and multi-cuisine restaurants (Chinese, Mughlai, and South Indian).
Still, looking ahead 20 or 39 years from now, I see a very glitzy Dehradun. Okay: a little glitzy, a little crummy, a bit like Ridley Scott’s vision of the future in the movie, Bladerunner.
Power cuts have increased, roads are bumpier… but what are tall buildings doing on either side of the road? They weren’t here earlier. Oh, those are jewellers’ showrooms. Seven floors of jewellery: gold, silver, diamonds all in the same tower. What about that one there? That’s the food tower: the first two floors serve butter chicken and naan; the third and the fourth do dosas, while the fifth and sixth are the Chinese floors: only Lung-Fung soup and chicken Manchurian allowed here. And have you been to Mita sarees? Ten floors of sarees. Can you imagine?
Dehradun doesn’t have any mall as of yet but the future just might be different. Developers will invest heavily in two kinds of establishments: the Lala Mall and the Service Mall. The former will combine the jewellry shop with the sari shop, the branded shirt store and the multi-cuisine restaurant. These malls will be meant exclusively for shopkeepers with undeclared assets and lockers in their bedrooms.
The other kind of mall — the Service Mall— will be a no-frills one-stop shop for the hapless, unemployed local. This, of course, will be not be air-conditioned and house an air-hostess academy, an English-speaking and personality development institute, a hotel management institute and, maybe, a motorcycle showroom.
There will be no third kind of mall, the kind meant for the middle-class professional, because that class doesn’t exist here.
Of course, till this happens, the local economy continues to be dependent on small, independent shops selling saris, shirts and butter chicken. The first signs of consolidation are already visible though. In a brave move, Gokul Jewellers has bought Kwality’s, a multi-cuisine restaurant, in the heart of town. The ruthless world of mergers and acquisitions has come to the small town’s main drag. The future, as they say, is already here.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra is working on the non-fiction book, The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolor Youth