Hard incessant rain and consequent flooding are yet to throw Mumbai’s rhythms completely out of step this monsoon. Being marooned in the Mumbai monsoon has become an unwelcome annual ritual but its lessons are hardly learned. The urban monsoon stories this year have come from Gurgaon or Gurugram in the north of India and Bengaluru in the south.
Both Gurugram and Bengaluru were submerged last week and daily lives disrupted enough for even the international media to take note. These are among the showcase cities of India; cities built with modern ideas of urbanisation and soaring ambitions. There were jokes about the futility of changing names, Gurgaon to Gurugram, but that is not the point. There are lessons to be drawn from both these cities’ experiences.
The first and most fundamental lesson is that governments cannot – and must not – get out of the urbanisation march. The de facto model has been for local or state governments to acquire land and hand it over to private developers who then create little islands of gated communities. Both Gurugram and Bannerghatta in Bengaluru show the utter futility and thoughtlessness of this approach. Private developers cannot replace the functions of a government.
The second lesson is that there mere acquisition of agricultural or village land and turning it into an endless stream of high-rises and slick malls is not urbanisation. As the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote way back in the 1960s, making robust cities involved the “complex problem of interacting factors that are interrelated into an organic whole”. She spoke of an intrinsic order of cities. This includes infrastructure such as transport and sewage system, social structure such as schools and hospitals, enabling people-to-people interactions, facilitating commerce and creativity.
The third lesson is closely tied to ecology. India’s urbanisation hardly accommodated environmental concerns. But disregarding the natural ecosystems – such as lakes and rivers which carry rain water to a river or sea, or soil and rock typology which hold certain kinds of built spaces – has led to disasters such as flooding and building crashes. Climate change is now an inescapable reality. The sooner it is accommodated into urban plans, the better.
The fourth lesson is a reminder to return to the basics. There is no alternative to holistic and inclusive urban planning. This has to go beyond mere land-use planning or zoning now prevalent in the country. In the rush to urbanise, cities are being built without comprehensive planning. Gurugram, for example, grew in four parts: one was the old village, the part built by the Haryana Urban Development Authority, another by the Haryana State Industrial Development Corporation, and the last by private real estate developers. No agency brought all plans together and integrated them into “an organic whole”. That three lakes overflowed in the south-eastern part of Bengaluru, the city’s IT hub with residential complexes and factories, showed the impact of improper planning.
The fifth lesson to draw is about the car-led growth of transport in cities. The seemingly endless traffic jams in both Gurugram and Bengaluru will be debated for years but this much is clear: private cars cannot substitute mass public transport which discharges a larger number of people along a route using less road space. The car-led model is now being junked in a number of international cities while Indian urbanisation is happily embracing it – with disastrous consequences.
The last lesson is that elected and financially empowered urban local bodies must have control over creating and managing the city. Only such a body can represent all shades of interests and opinions, and provide for the last poor person in the city. In any disruption, it is the poorest who suffer the most.
To make better cities, or smart cities, India’s urbanists and governments have to draw the right lessons.