Gau­tam Bhan

Af­ter a year of ur­ban dis­as­ters, per­haps it’s time to speak a lan­guage that is hum­bler than the trans­for­ma­tive grand­ness of the ‘smart, swachh, dig­i­tal city’

India Today - - INSIDE - By GAU­TAM BHAN

AAT THE END OF THE YEAR, I find my­self re­turn­ing to Ray­mond Carver. Read­ing his sto­ries, the clas­sic “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” chief among them, had al­ways been a re­minder of the slip­per­i­ness of mean­ing. I mar­velled at how a writer fa­mous for be­ing so blunt, so di­rect was the one who re­ally showed us how dif­fi­cult it was to know what, in fact, we were talk­ing about. The In­dian city in 2017 felt like a char­ac­ter from a Carver story. The year has left me won­der­ing: what is it, in the end, that we talked about when we talked about the city?

Ur­ban dis­course this year was sat­u­rated, blus­tery, bold, ur­gent. A vo­cab­u­lary of re­newal, smart­ness, ex­pan­sion, emer­gence sur­rounded us. It filled our lan­guage and our ex­pec­ta­tions, mak­ing us wait for signs that any or all may find fruition at any point. We were asked to think in leaps, not steps. Smart cities. Hous­ing for all. Open defe­ca­tion-free towns. Each was a trans­for­ma­tion, not an im­prove­ment. This was to be the year of the smart, swachh, dig­i­tal city. In a way, it seemed in­evitable: this was a year that be­gan with de­mon­eti­sa­tion. What in­cre­men­tal­ism is pos­si­ble to even imag­ine af­ter that? The scale and the stakes seemed set.

Twelve months later, ev­i­dence of even the be­gin­nings of this great trans­for­ma­tion has been hard to find. Lakes in Ben­galuru con­tin­ued to foam even as a new Master Plan plot­ted re­lent­less ex­pan­sion. Delhi’s win­ter air had its an­nual apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal ar­rival, yet the city man­aged to not buy a sin­gle bus, bring back con­trols on cars, or en­force its mul­ti­stage, colour-coded anti-pol­lu­tion mea­sures. In Mum­bai, our dis­tance from trans­for­ma­tion came into sharp re­lief as a bridge col­lapsed at the El­phin­stone Road rail­way sta­tion, tak­ing the lives of many, while the city still kept imag­in­ing that a new coastal road was what it most needed. In Chen­nai, the last large wet­lands of En­nore Creek con­tin­ued to strug­gle against newly ag­gres­sive re­de­vel­op­ment plans even as the city’s an­nual floods drew puz­zle­ment, with few be­ing able


to think that th­ese two are some­how con­nected. One of the first big real es­tate con­glom­er­ates—Unitech—tot­tered, then fell. Va­cancy rates re­mained stub­born, home loan in­ter­est rates dropped and yet the evic­tions of the homes of the poor­est per­sisted. In Lucknow, Kochi and Jaipur, new met­ros started, claim­ing a lion’s share of city and state bud­gets even as nine out of ev­ery 10 cit­i­zens in those cities con­tin­ued to walk or take buses and para-tran­sit. NREGA (Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act) re­mained ru­ral as did the Na­tional Ru­ral Health Mis­sion—their ur­ban coun­ter­parts still await­ing any real imag­i­na­tion so that ur­ban res­i­dents could feel the pres­ence of some­thing like a so­cial safety net.

Smart­ness, trans­for­ma­tion, and re­newal have felt—to put it gen­tly—elu­sive. In a way, it was in­stead a year to ad­mire the re­silience of our cities against the grand schemes of pro­gram­mers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the high priests of trans­for­ma­tion. I say with­out cyn­i­cism that there is no small re­lief in this. The fail­ure—or at least the post­pone­ment—of the grand is also the sur­vival of the or­di­nary and the ev­ery­day; the sur­vival of cit­i­zens over cities; of in­fra­struc­tures of ev­ery­day dig­nity over big, sig­na­ture, spec­tac­u­lar projects; of in­cre­men­tal change over in­stan­ta­neous trans­for­ma­tion; of the bazaar over the mall, the shared auto over the ex­press­way, sur­vival over smart­ness.

Yet watch­ing smart cities be­come fa­mil­iar, or­di­nary and block­aded rather than the dra­matic dis­rup­tions they were meant to be is not a cause for cel­e­bra­tion, not even with the dark­est sense of hu­mour or the deep­est ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence. No one wins when pub­lic pol­icy stut­ters. What this mo­ment must be­come then is, at the very least, an op­por­tu­nity. The ‘we’ who read this mag­a­zine have a chance, once again, for hu­mil­ity. If we take it, this is no small gain. The end of 2017 is a chance to lis­ten rather than speak, to find new words, to seek gen­uinely and pa­tiently to un­der­stand. Carver, and love, would de­mand no less. In all the time we talked about smart­ness, he might ask: what all did we not talk about? What is it that we could have been talk­ing about?

We did not talk about the value, for ex­am­ple, of squat­ting. Slow, in­cre­men­tally and self-built hous­ing is the pri­mary way in which most ur­ban In­di­ans find, build and oc­cupy space in our cities. If we took this built hous­ing se­ri­ously in­stead of call­ing it a ‘slum’, we would re­alise it was the an­swer to our hous­ing short­age rather than an ex­pres­sion of the prob­lem. It would change our idea of real es­tate. It would make us see that Unitech’s fail­ure is not a sin­gu­lar story, but an in­evitable ex­pres­sion of the lim­its of a real es­tate mar­ket that 80 per cent of ur­ban house­holds can­not en­ter.

If we did so, we could get a new lan­guage around hous­ing—a fo­cus on pro­tect­ing and sup­port­ing what peo­ple have al­ready built rather than putting all our at­ten­tion onto what to do with Unitech. It’s pos­si­ble: when Odisha gave land rights to over 200,000 ‘slum dwellers’ late in the year, it qui­etly put into place a scheme that is as open as it is grand and, most im­por­tantly, one that is clever enough not to call it­self ‘smart’.

We could re­mind our­selves of the cen­tral­ity of re­pair and retro­fit that could help us change our re­la­tion­ship to the small ‘i’ of in­fra­struc­ture, al­low­ing us to imag­ine more than just the dig­i­tal draw­ings of brand-new, peo­ple-less land­scapes with glit­ter­ing bul­let trains, ex­press­ways and glass build­ings. In­stead, we could speak proudly of the slow im­prove­ments of a lo­cal train sta­tion whose bridges get checked and re­paired on time; a hous­ing colony that

gets the un­der­ground drains it should have got 20 years ago; a bazaar that gets a new awning along with li­censed and se­cure plots for its ven­dors; a foot­path de­sign that can hold both the ven­dor and the pedes­trian rather than pit­ting them against each other while build­ing for even more cars. We could revel, like we of­ten do in love, in the smaller mo­ments where it feels real rather than in its grand procla­ma­tions that so of­ten seem scripted for some other au­di­ence.

We could take the chance to think about how to con­sol­i­date rather than build anew. We could ask how our ex­ist­ing sys­tems of ser­vice de­liv­ery—whether in health, ed­u­ca­tion, trans­port, wa­ter or san­i­ta­tion—could be con­nected with each other in­stead of ig­nor­ing ex­ist­ing (if in­for­mal) means of ac­cess­ing ser­vices. Do­ing so would let us take se­ri­ously all the ways in which house­holds in our cities ac­tu­ally get wa­ter—the tanker, the shared pipes and com­mu­nity stand-posts, the in­di­vid­ual con­nec­tions, the main wa­ter­lines, the makeshift con­nec­tions and ‘leaks’— rather than the ways we think they should.

Do­ing so would mean we could build on the quiet gains we have made in ex­tend­ing san­i­ta­tion, elec­tric­ity and wa­ter to un­served neigh­bour­hoods by mak­ing them univer­sal re­gard­less of the le­gal­ity of the set­tle­ment or the cur­rent mis­sion of a cur­rent govern­ment. Do­ing so would mean re­al­is­ing that, even to­day, the real scheme worth watch­ing was never Smart Cities, but al­ways AMRUT (Atal Mis­sion for Re­ju­ve­na­tion and Ur­ban Trans­for­ma­tion), its less glam­orous but far more rooted cousin.

Squat, re­pair, con­sol­i­date. It’s the lan­guage that re­mains af­ter you turn off the spot­lights and the last guest has left the in­au­gu­ra­tion. Words that are not imag­i­na­tions of con­trol from 10,000 feet, the but­ter-pa­per sheet of the plan­ner who feels they can move things as they like as they erase, draw, re­draw at will. Words that are not about a smart­ness that re­quires an in­sis­tence on re­newal and trans­for­ma­tion rather than re­pair and con­sol­i­da­tion. Words that start from who we are, that root them­selves in the way our cities have been built and run, that don’t look for mod­els any­where other than our own streets.

Th­ese are words that know that change takes time, pres­ence and pa­tience. If I have one wish for 2018 for our cities, it is this sense of time. It is that we, for once, al­low our­selves to be hum­bled by our cities rather than rush with an ar­ro­gance that thinks we can trans­form them at our will. Carver would tell us that it’s the only way to un­der­stand love rather than just know it. He would be right about the city as well.


Gau­tam Bhan is a fac­ulty mem­ber at the In­dian In­sti­tute for Hu­man Set­tle­ments, Ben­galuru

Illustrati­on by RAJ VERMA

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