Fear over the cities

As India urbanises, its metropolitan areas are ill-prepared to join a global trend of renewal.

columns Updated: May 24, 2012 19:24 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

As I run alongside the Hudson river in Jersey City, the skyscrapers of New York's Manhattan island on the other bank shimmer in the golden light. It is 7:45 pm on a crisp May evening and I cannot but notice the big picture.

One, the clean air in New York, a city of more than 8 million people (the metropolitan area holds 19 million), and more than a million automobiles allows me to witness the pyrotechnics of sunset. Two, I and hundreds of other people, rich and poor, share the experience while walking, running or just relaxing on a new seaside promenade that curves around and blends with hotels, office and residential buildings.

Stacked with grimy warehouses until as recently as the 1990s, Jersey City is a counter-magnet to congested, downtown New York (the only US city where drivers honk, accelerate madly and cut lanes in a Mumbai-like scramble for every metre of road), attracting business and immigrants, a vast number of them Indians. In the course of my 35-minute run I hear Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Marathi. I also hear Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, some African tongues I cannot identify and Portuguese. Oh, and a bit of English.

The local mall advertises Akshay Kumar's latest, Rowdy Rathore, alongside Battleship. At the foot of the mall, a light railway, sometimes running on the road, connects homes and offices and links up with larger suburban train lines than burrow under the Hudson and merge with New York's 1,428-km long subway system. You can also catch a ferry to New York from one of two terminals along the river bank.

Across the Hudson, Manhattan has become the preserve of Arab and Russian millionaires. Flats retail for $8,000 (R43,000) per sq ft, with one going this week for $90 million (R450 crore). It's clear why Jersey City - the equivalent of Navi Mumbai to Mumbai, Noida or Gurgaon to Delhi - thrives. Young professionals from India, China and elsewhere can rent two-bedroom promenade-hugging apartments (with furnished kitchen, washer-dryer, parking, swimming pool and gym) for about a quarter of their salary. Public transport is plentiful, and there's a sprawling seaside park.

Over the last 15 years, I notice in my travels how cities everywhere either recreate themselves or at least try to get the basics right. In Lima, Peru's capital city, I walked for hours on revamped footpaths (I found footpaths and drains in poor, remote villages in the high Andes, where Bajaj autorickshaws were the preferred mode of transport), town squares and colonial buildings. In Sophia, the capital of depressed Bulgaria where donkey carts still roam narrow highways, I used refurbished trams and - as always - excellent footpaths. In Soweto, South Africa's once-violent, poor shanty town and crucible of anti-apartheid resistance, I saw revitalisation in a new stadium, new footpaths, bus terminals and museums.

A common theme of urban renewal is the public space that cities carve out of urban wastelands. Cities are engines of enterprise, but they are also repositories of stress. Rich and poor must have common spaces to recharge and relax. Nowhere is this more evident that Medellin, Colombia. Until 20 years ago, the South American city was synonymous with drug cartels and its overlord, Pablo Escobar. Today, for its 3.5 million people, Medellin has a new, spotless metro, new public squares, a cable-car system that serves and soars over slums, whose inhabitants can also use new libraries, study areas and a $7-million escalator that ascends through the steep alleyways. It is a city, where, as the New York Times reported this week, "If you asked architects and urban planners for proof of the power of public architecture and public spaces to remake the fortunes of the city, they'd point here."

Further south in the Brazilian mega-city of Sao Paulo (population 20 million), I saw how the sprawling, revitalised Ibirapuera Park, its museums, trails and lake serve as the city's soul. I mulled how the great Cubbon park at the centre of my hometown, Bangalore, has gone the other way, ceding its trees to roads, parking and mindless constructions, trash strewn across its once-pristine groves and paths.

None of the cities I describe is in the First World, except Jersey City, parts of which - with trash-strewn roadsides and potholed roads - would not be out of place in Nalasopara or Najafgarh. Yet, they recreate themselves in a way the Gurgaons, Noidas, Navi Mumbais and other new cities built for emerging India do not.

India is at a cusp. More Indians now live in cities than villages. The main problem: Indian cities are nominally democratic. Power vests not with metropolitan governments but with the state or Centre. All the cities I spoke of have directly elected mayors and deeply involved local agencies. In Jersey City, the port authority runs the subway to New York. Contrast this with Mumbai where the disinterested port authority is controlled by Delhi and is the biggest block to redevelopment of the eastern seafront.

In Brazil's Rio De Janeiro (host to the 2014 football world cup and 2016 Olympics), as part of the city's renewal, a request from mayor Eduardo Paes prompted IBM to create its largest ever metropolitan command centre, which handles data from 30 agencies. The project is overseen by an IBM executive from Bangalore, Guru Banavar. "You don't have to be rich and powerful to get things done," Paes said at a recent talk in California.

Indian cities cannot change unless their power structures change. A centrally-run Delhi Metro is a model of efficiency, but it cannot be a model for a democratic, urban future. Unless the Centre and states begin the process of empowering the Indian city, you will find more Indians strolling by the Hudson than by the Yamuna.

First Published: May 23, 2012 21:55 IST