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Edicts can't fix urban chaos

Our cities have to reflect changing India?s new ambition despite a blase political class.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 18:14 IST
Vipul Mudgal
Vipul Mudgal

"Unsuitable for song as well as sense the island flowers into slums and skyscrapers, reflecting precisely the growth of my mind. I am here to find my way in it..."

Nissim Ezekiel, whose verses have inspired generations of Mumbai's young poets, often detaches the city's future from its past. He has "a host of miracles" for the individual whose despair is causing decline of the city of our imagination.

Modern "city life" is a celebration of a nation's ambition. If we value India's outstanding urban landmarks as reflections of our dreams, we must be able to identify and eliminate our collective weaknesses in the breakdown of systems. Our reaction to Delhi and Mumbai's demolition drama offers one such opportunity.

A good reason why we can't afford to hide behind desperate ordinances is that thrills and challenges of good living are linked to our ideas of community and democracy. Most great cities of the world have been able to address basic issues of employment, aesthetics and alienation in their search for modernity. Hollywood crime thrillers of the fifties show the contrast by depicting the gloom and despair of cities like Chicago. Dickens' London is arguably as much about an emerging metro's ambition as it is about decay that the writer sees in the sights, sounds and smells of a rotting city.

Seen in this backdrop, our response to India's urban chaos should profile the city- and nation- of our minds. Already, a full-blown democratic clash is unfolding. The silent minority of law-abiding citizens is looking up to an activist judiciary, and the high and mighty are using everything at their command to subvert the system. Citizens' associations, media, artists, activists and architects are all involved in the intense debate.

HT research team attempts to broaden the debate's scope by scrutinising the basic issues of urbanization in India. The write up below examines issues like property prices and inadequate land supply that make violations profitable propositions. The accompanying boxes give an idea of the recent court interventions in the major Indian cities. The next write up brings out the inadequacy of the legal and regulatory framework governing urban expansion and the last one evaluates what can be learnt from the rest of the world.

The Indian political class wants us to believe that they are victims, rather than perpetrators, of the chaos. In contrast, the ordinance that has stalled demolitions in Ulhasnagar (a similar one is being envisaged for Delhi) evokes the cynicism that nothing can be done when the majority is on the wrong side of the law.

The flip side is that the Supreme Court has cut the chutzpah of those violators who demand amnesty on the ground that illegality is widespread. The court has said in a recent verdict "…the equality clause contained in Article 14 of the constitution can not be invoked for perpetrating an illegality." Meanwhile the Delhi High Court has directed the MCD to go for the high and mighty first.

Ordinances can obstruct such interventions but they can't stifle the debate about rescuing our spaces from an anarchic reign. Ultimately, our cities have to reflect changing India's new ambition despite a blasé political class.

First Published: Jan 23, 2006 00:16 IST