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’
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
LAKES IN BENGALURU CONTINUED TO FOAM, DELHI’S WINTER AIR HAD ITS ANNUAL APOCALYPTIC ARRIVAL
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.
WE COULD BUILD ON THE QUIET GAINS WE’VE MADE IN EXTENDING POWER, WATER AND SANITATION TO UNSERVED NEIGHBOURHOODS
Gautam Bhan is a faculty member at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru