Climax City

Random writing on cities

An Urbanist in India

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I have just returned from three weeks travelling in India with Hélène, visiting friends and trying to understand Indian cities. Even for a couple of cityphiles like ourselves India can be disconcerting – this is urbanism turned up to 11 and initially its more than disconcerting its overwhelming. This is a country where only a third of the population currently lives in cities. You can’t help wondering what is going to happen over the next fifty years as this is projected to rise to two thirds.

Our arrival didn’t aid the transition, landing in Delhi in the middle of the night and getting a taxi to a hotel on a seemingly deserted street lined with apparently vacant buildings, strewn with piles of rubbish, bodies sleeping on pavements and feral dogs roaming in packs. This was Saraswati Marg in the Karol Bagh neighbourhood and, those who know it by reputation, will realise the transformation that had taken place by the time we were awoken by a chanting Hare Krishna procession early the following morning.
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               The bodies had woken up and the dogs had fallen asleep, the latter snoozing in pools of sunlight oblivious to the rush of feet and wheels around them.  Shops had erupted out of the ‘vacant’ buildings and every street corner had a vendor. The piles of rubbish had been swept away at some point in the four hours we had slept, and the street was filled with noise and traffic horns as tuc tucs fought with motorbikes, cycles, pedestrians, dogs and cows for the limited space. The dusty wasteland of the night before had become a backdrop to a bustling city street (the word bustling doesn’t even come close).
               On talking to our Indian friends Shruti and Rushahb Hemani that we visited later that week, we realised that their experience of a street such as this is not the same as ours as ours, being westerners. They can walk unmolested down a street such as this despite clearly being middle class. By contrast two middle-aged westerners are like a magnet to iron filings, at least that was our experience on that first morning. In the few minutes it took to buy a “chai” tea from a vendor we were approached by tuc tuc drivers and traders touting for business, people seeking to ‘befriend’ us or to act as guides, a person wanting their photo taken with us and most disturbingly a series of women begging with babies lolling in their arms. Having given 10 rupees (12p) to the the first few of these women, more kept appearing eventually banging on the windows as we drove away in our uber taxi. Ever wanted to feel like an over-privileged westerner? Welcome to India. The few hundred pounds that we had just changed at the airport was a fortune in a country where 78% of the population live on 20 rupees a day. Part of our problem on that first morning was the sign over our head, visible to everyone but ourselves, that said ‘we are new here and we have no idea what we are doing’. After a few weeks as we became old hands, the iron filing effect lessened but it never entirely went away.
               The taxi taking us to the architecture school drove through a bewildering scene of human ingenuity and misery. The traffic is a wonder in itself and we will return to a full description in a moment. What shocked us on that first morning were the hundreds of people sleeping along the road, the shanty town’s in the central reservation and under the elevated motorway, the pavements clogged with traders of all kinds, not just on busy streets but along dual carriageways and even on slip roads. After a few weeks you become normalised to this and it is in any case much more intense in Delhi and Mumbai than some of the smaller places that we visited. One of the students at the architecture school in Jaipur asked how they could stop every new piece of infrastructure becoming clogged with these traders. In response I described how a new housing estate with thousands of homes in the UK would struggle to support a single shop, be careful what you wish for.
               India is intensely urban, huge cities that are growing rapidly and struggling to cope. Staying with Shruti and reading the books on her shelf,  it becomes clear that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Gyan Prakash in his book Mumbai Fables, talks about the death of the cosmopolitan liberal city that Bombay was before it became Mumbai in 1995. The runaway population growth combined with deindustrialisation has undermined its working class culture and politics. As he writes: ‘Armies of poor migrants, slum dwellers, hawkers and petty entrepreneurs occupied the city’s streets, pavements and open spaces. Mumbai appeared under siege, imperilled by spacial mutations and occupation by uncivil masses, a wasteland of broken modern dreams’. India has not always been like this, it has always been intense, but the invasion of its cities by the rural poor is something new. In another book on Shruti’s shelf the architect Charles Correa writes about his plans for Navi Mumbai – the  extension to the city that he designed. He suggests that all nations experience a period of explosive urban growth at some point in their history. When it happened in England, we were able to ship off our surplus people to the colonies. In the US, New York was able to send its surplus people to the west to populate an empty continent. But India is urbanising with no safety valve – huge urban growth with inadequate infrastructure and limited resources. No wonder the cracks are showing. Many of the Indian people we spoke to, including Sahid our guide in Ahmedabad, bemoaned this lost India of only a few decades ago.
               The question of growth is therefore key in India. Over the next fifty years the projections are that the proportion of the population living in cities will rise from one third to three thirds. The troubles of Mumbai are therefore nothing to what the future might hold. One of the reasons for our visit was a three day workshop at the Aayojan School of Architecture in Jaipur to explore the growth of the city. Professor Parul Zaveri had argued on the first day of the workshop that the priority should be to reduce rural migration to the city by investing in the quality of life of the villages. Important as this undoubtedly is, there is little precedent across the world to show that the tide of rural/urban migration can be held back. My involvement was on the second day of the workshop that looked at how the city of Jaipur might plan for its population growth. Currently a city of around 3.6 Million, for much of the last 50 years its decadal growth rate has been around 50% although more recently this has dropped to just over 30% (which compares to decadal growth rates of 13-15% for high growth parts of the UK and 20% that we assumed in our Wolfson Essay – albeit for a much smaller place). We need to factor the average household size in India which at five persons is more than twice that in the UK. So at the workshop we assumed that Jaipur would double in size in the next thirty years and in doing so would need to build up to 1 million new homes. The planning authorities in Jaipur and Delhi are trying to plan this growth, linking it to investment in new metro and BRT lines through planned urban extensions. The problem is not so much an understanding of what is needed, but an ability to get ahead of the wave of urbanism that is taking place.
               Interestingly amongst all of this growth there is also urban decline. The centres of Indian cities, once the place where the rich merchants were to be found, are emptying out. People with money no longer wish to live in the cramped conditions found In the centre of Jaipur and Ahmedabad. They have decamped to the suburbs just as they have done in the West and for the same reasons. More than half of Ahmedabad’s exquisitely calved Havelis (courtyard houses built by rich merchants) are empty and under threat. I talked in my lectures in Delhi and Jaipur about the decline of British cities and was asked by students about whether it could ever happen in India. The rate of population migration to the cities makes drastic urban decline unlikely, but if the trend of suburbanisation and urban abandonment takes hold and spreads from the rich to the middle classes, then they may well see the hollowing out of cities as we have seen in Europe and the US.
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The Haveli of Ahmedabad

               The gap between the rate of urban growth and the ability of cities to plan for this is manifest in the informal settlements and slums that can be found in every Indian city – often also around the edge. Travelling with Shruti out to the architecture school on the southern edge of Jaipur, we travelled along a main arterial road passing first a series of established slums built of bricks, cement and wrought iron. A few minutes later we passed a more recent settlement of wrought iron and tarpaulins and as we moved out of the city the slums became more recent and less substantial. Finally on the edge of the city we passed tented nomadic encampment of migrants who had come to work on the nearby construction sites but would move on at some point in the future. The Indian government classifies slums into three categories based on their construction and level of services and our journey illustrated how these relate to the transept of the city – the poorer slums being further out and less accessible. However all slums are precarious, as witnessed by a widening scheme that had recently taken place on our road which has sliced-off a strip of one of the more established slums. ‘Slice’ is the right word because the road engineers had literally cut through the settlement, through the middle of homes, even through rooms that were left exposed, often with furnishings and even occasionally occupants still in place. Yet at ground level the residents and traders were already at work creating a new commercial frontage to tap the passing trade. Self-regenerating urbanism at its most visceral.
               Standing on the Chulgiri Jain Temple on a hilltop that was once the eastern edge of Jaipur we could see the city spreading onto the plain beyond us. The expanding city stretched almost to the horizon, most of it unplanned. Indeed there were plenty of neighbourhoods that were well-establish, solidly-built and reasonably affluent, that shared the same morphology as the slums. This is part of the argument that Shruti and I are trying to make with our Climax City book. Without wanting to romanticise slums the suggestion is that their form is essentially the same as the beautiful old cities that we saw elsewhere, such as the Pols of Ahmedabad or perhaps more obviously in Jodhpur, where the medieval core of the city is ancient but where most of the buildings are of modern blockwork construction. Our argument is that slums are a form of proto-urbanism that, given time, a little money, basic services and security, will grow into something very similar to the blue city of Jodhpur or to Ahmedabad’s old town (which is being considered as a World Heritage Site). It is an argument that academics have worried about in the U.K. perhaps due to the romanticising slums issue. Indian academics by contrast were much more supportive and indeed saw it almost as a statement of the obvious.
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The Blue City of Johdpur

               On that first morning we visited the School of Architecture and Planning in Delhi. That afternoon we met with friends Swarup Dhar, Anindya Ghosh and Deepika Saxena, and were taken to see the sights and to eat in a restaurant. You soon realise that you can live in these cities in a way that it largely insulated from the riotous life of the street. Even travelling in a Tuc Tuc feels as though the chaos all around you is being played out as a travelogue on a particularly high definition screen (with sound and smells). Even our liberal friends become inured to the sights around them as did we after a few weeks. The tiny children, grey with dust squatting next to a pile of rubbish or sleeping with feral dogs on a traffic island. The begger with no legs pushing himself on a wooden platform through traffic and of course the ubiquitous sad women with unconscious babies. After a week, maybe two, you stop being quite so shocked and, if you live there, you stop seeing them altogether, which is, if anything, more disturbing. This is formalised through the caste system, even though pretty much everyone we met opposed it. It creates that vital ingredient for indifference, the idea that the people who suffer are different to us, and that somehow their fate is inevitable.
               And so to the traffic. I sometime use a film of London traffic in my presentations. It was filmed in 1903 and shows a chaotic street of horse drawn carts and omnibuses, pedestrians and horse riders going in all directions at the same time yet somehow not colliding. I used to say that it was a chaotic system regulated by eye contact, something that we are trying to recreate in Europe through the Shared Space movement. Indian roads are just like this, there are traffic regulations and even occasionally traffic cops, but no one pays them any heed. People drive the wrong way around roundabouts, the slow lane on motorways runs in both directions and traffic turning right out of a side street does so without stopping even on the busiest roads. Then there are the pavements which are impassible because of all of the hawkers so that pedestrians wander unconcerned amongst the traffic along with dogs and of course cows. And everyone blows their horn, all the time, not in anger but to say ‘I’m here!’ – indeed most lorries have ‘please horn’ painted behind them for anyone wishing to overtake.
               It is not just eye contact that regulates this system, although there is a lot of that. It is the way that every driver works on the assumption that everyone else on the road is likely to turn into their path at any moment and thinks that this is just fine. Even in the fast lane of a motorway you will at some point encounter a cow! By contrast in Europe we drive on the roads in the knowledge that the highway is exclusively ours, something reflected in our speed and the span of our attention. The death toll on Indian roads is of course astronomic (130 deaths a year per 1000 vehicles compared to 4.5 in the U.K.). This is not helped by the numbers of people who can be crammed into each vehicle (we saw 10 people plus the driver in a tuc tuc and a family of four on a motor scooter). But we never saw even a minor accident and could only admire the real-time spatial awareness of the drivers.
               Like China, this traffic is a recent consequence of urban growth. Twenty years ago there was only a few of models of car on Indian roads – the Hindustan Ambassador (a version of the Morris Oxford) and the Fiat 1100, both made under licence by Indian companies. There were also licensed versions of the Royal Enfield motorbike and various versions of Italian Scooters and three wheelers (the tuc tucs). But most people traveled on foot, by cart or by pedal power.  Since then traffic has grown hugely and everyone has become mechanised, yet they still drive as if they were under pedal power. It is a remarkably efficient use of road space and everything flows – we only experienced one real traffic jam. But presumably it can’t continue, the roads can’t become any busier and, as cities expand, it will just become untenable to move around.  If Indian cities are to continue growing they need to invest in public transport as indeed many are doing. Both Delhi and Jaipur are investing in new metro lines and BRT services but the planners we spoke to worried that they wouldn’t be cheap enough to encourage people off their scooters.
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               India’s traffic is a good metaphor for how the country operates – chaotic and unregulated, on the brink of collapse but working remarkably efficiently. It is tempting to say that this is what Dickensian London must have been like, but that would be to imply that India is 150 years behind us in terms of its development which would be wrong. India has chosen a different path, one which is both brutal and cruel as well as exciting and endlessly fascinating. In many ways it is a pure unregulated capitalist economy with huge disparities of wealth. But it is a capitalism of small businesses, there are no supermarkets here and precious few chain stores. Food is bought at the market and the needs of life are met through trade – everyone is buying and selling, doing deals, making contacts and calling in favours from their cousin’s second cousin. When Helene bought a saree under the guidance of Shruti’s mum Ila, she bought the material from one shop, the petticoat and blouse from another, and then used a local tailor to make it up, three businesses, perhaps ten jobs supported.
               While we were there, Prime minister Modi announced that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender (with immediate effect) and that all banks would close for two days. Problem enough for western tourists with their money in 1000 rupee notes, but more so for those millions of small businesses who’s savings are held in cash. They will get their money when they take their notes to the bank, once they have answered questions about where it came from and what tax has been paid. The aim is to make this economy where 80% of transactions are in cash and where the untaxed black economy accounts for a quarter of GDP) into one where all large transactions go through a bank account. The feeling on the street (well from our waiter) is that it is necessary change.
               Like the traffic, the economy is a system that needs to change, a little more regulation, a little more tax collected, a little less capitalism red in tooth and claw. But like the traffic you hope that this can be done without losing the exuberant urbanism of this huge country. This is not a less developed country but one that has chosen a different form of development. The consequences of its economy – like the carnage on the road – are horrific in many ways, but we find ourselves thinking that if we are going to have capitalism, then we should maybe try to combine the small business economy of India with the safety nets of Europe – which is what people assumed that Modi is trying to do.
               This is a country of huge potential and the way that it answers these questions will affect all of us. As it embarks on a great phase of urbanisation in the coming decades it needs to find a way of expanding its cities, regulating its traffic and reforming its economy. The presentation I gave in Delhi and Jaipur was called ‘How the U.K. Messed up its cities and how India might avoid doing the same’. However I was stronger on the ‘what not to do’ than on suggested solutions. The hope is that reform happens without destroying the vitality that makes Indian cities so compelling (and disconcerting).
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