Guest column: Urban island impeding pursuit of excellence

  • Dr Pramod Kumar, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2016 10:00 IST
French President Francois Hollande (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) at the Rock Garden in Chandigarh. (HT File Photo)

The historic visit of the President of France, Francois Hollande, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a number of avenues for Chandigarh as a city. Why is this visit being viewed as distinct from the earlier visits of foreign dignitaries? Firstly, it has brought the uniqueness of Chandigarh’s architecture into focus and also provided linkages with the new trend of building smart cities. Secondly, it has placed Chandigarh as a possible venue for holding international summits. However, both these aspects have not been adequately articulated in the public domain.

The event had every other flavour except that of the people of Chandigarh. It was choreographed in a manner that it left no window open for visiting dignitaries to peep into the vast reservoir of people’s experience of living in the city of Le Corbusier. Moreover, it was meticulously organised to keep people of Chandigarh on the margins.

Chandigarh was envisioned as a city with an enviable infrastructure comprising a good road network, international airport and fast railway network. It has the potential to emerge as a destination for global summits and conferences, film and theatre festivals, etc.

On the contrary, the French President’s visit demonstrated that the city lacks public infrastructural facilities and hosted the event in an illequipped private hotel. The event lacked imagination and engagement of citizens and knowledge centres. The city needs to nurture a culture of organising knowledge and innovation summits for its own people as well.

Why was there such a lapse? Is it because the bureaucratic setup lacks will and imagination? Perhaps not. It is more than that.

Urban planning is not simply an abstract exercise. It does impact human existence, mingles with social and cultural interactions, delves into cultural discourse and ultimately affects the thought process of a city’s inhabitants. For example, Chandigarh has a wide network of educational infrastructure, but not a single college of excellence. It has exceptionally rich health infrastructure, but not a single institution with health specialty. The city has huge shopping complexes but has failed to emerge as a centre for major commercial activity. Its large sports complexes do not offer the desired specialisation in many fields. Despite the fact that a large number of newspapers are printed in the City Beautiful (as it is known popularly), there is an obvious deficit of excellence in communication, media, education and research. Amidst such abysmal state-of-affairs, a pertinent question that comes to mind is who amongst these contestants has the capacity and vision to transform Chandigarh from an educational centre to knowledge hub to centre for international summits?

Are cities social and historical constructs or merely architectural entities? Chandigarh represents a political dilemma of urban plannersto create something that is modern but non-western. It is a post-colonial and deconstructive dilemma. How to claim Chandigarh as a mark of Indian history when all its elements reflect western aesthetic norms (number 13 was inauspicious and was given a miss in the sectoral plan). Therefore, cities without history can ensure comfort, but do not contribute to the enrichment of competitive identity to claim and achieve excellence.

Why do common citizens remain on the margins? After more than five decades of the establishment of Chandigarh, the regulated land use and maintenance of exclusive preserves of the elite in the foothills of the Shivaliks (with density of 6 persons per acre), demarcated and differentiated from the southern sectors (112 persons per acre) of the service class, with a periphery infested by margins, have become a symbol of inequality and injustice. The utopia of urban excellence has not only failed to cultivate cohesive and wellmeaning social environs but has given rise to a sharply demarcated mainstream and periphery with a wide range of variable access to urban resources and infrastructure.

Galbraith’s description of cities as places of “private affluence and public squalor”, accentuated by the automobile revolution, holds good even for Chandigarh. There is no organic stimulus to preserve and enhance the city, as highly bureaucratised and centralised state apparatus drives it. Moreover, the inhabitants and the bureaucratic setup have neither a sense of belonging to the city nor ownership of sacred planning.

There is a need to rethink on governance model and to make conscious efforts to cope with both ‘innovation and decay’. In the Capitol Complex, a People’s Knowledge Centre with a museum may be established to preserve culture and a Vigyan Bhavan (as in Delhi) may be set up for holding international and national events for encouraging dialogical tradition of lokayata.

The writer is director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh

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