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World Class Cities or Livable Cities?

11-02-2011
Urban infrastructure is riveting our policy-makers’ attention.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recently said that the Indian ‘cities can no longer continue to develop in a haphazard manner.’ He exhorted that the cities need to ‘invest in world-class public infrastructure and improve quality of living’. Recently he said that in Mumbai. And he said that again in Bangalore.

What makes a city world class?  In a heavy downpour, if one can walk down to a nearby bus stop in one’s best dress with an umbrella in hand, take a bus, get off at another stop, finish the job on hand, return to the bus stop again in the rain, take the bus, get off the bus and return home dry with no dirt and sludge on oneself one can call that a world class city.  Clean piped drinking water available 24/7, regular dependable garbage collection, uninterrupted and quality power supply, well-marked and signalled roads with efficient traffic management, reliable ambulance and fire services are some of the other essentials that one expects a world class city to possess.  In other words, a liveable, loveable, and laudable city is a world class city.  Which Indian city today is liveable?

For decades we looked askance while our cities grew.  Breakdown of basic amenities seemed natural collaterals to urbanization.  We complained on the one hand but reconciled that that was the price one paid for modernization.  We did not take traffic jams, crowded public transport systems, scarcity of drinking water, and uncollected garbage as symbols of decay, degeneration, and marks of our incompetence.   We perhaps took them as indices of growth.  The more brutal our life became, the more urban we thought we became.  Cities won’t be like villages, we told ourselves.  Nobody knew who was in control, or who were accountable for the planning of our cities.  During the early phases of our urbanization, our cinema unfailingly showed the confusion of a rural boor on entering a city to give a comic relief.  But today city dwelling has become a tragic experience.  Most city dwellers are not proud of their cities.  At best they are only nostalgic about them.

In what form and for whom are we planning and reengineering our cities today?  Let us examine the case of Hyderabad, the most happening city in the country.  By 2008, its international air port is likely to be ready.  The part of the multi-lane express highway connecting it to the hi-tech city and the area where an amalgam of high-end businesses are located will also be ready by then.  The city’s civic and state administrations are bending backwards to provide quality power, 24/7 water at affordable rates to these projects.  The road corridors that service these locations to come to town and return are specially taken care of.  Gated residential communities which are springing up around and along this growth corridor are being well-provided for.  Sadly, the attempt at reinvention seems to stop there.  While legitimate civic demands from the citizens of the existing city go unheeded, market call is answered in indecent hurry.  This is typical of what is happening in almost all the cities across the country.

But then what happens to the original core of the city?  It turns into what has come to be known world-wide as ‘inner city’.  It would become symbol of decay and degeneration.  In the process, we create two cities in every city: one, the up-market, high-street, new age one; the other, neglected, crowded and that is loathe to the gen-next.  This is the fate of most of the metropolitan cities all over the world.  Inner cities are the ugliest faces of the metropolitan life all over the globe.  They have become bases for juvenile delinquency, crime, drug peddling, illegal trafficking, and of late terrorist modules.

While the modernization processes of cities world wide offer several lessons we somehow choose to copy only the glitter.  We are eager to have clones of the developed world’s airports, road networks, multi-layered flyovers, and shopping malls with glazed elevations in our cities.  But we ignore all the related but essential urban needs such as decent public transport, car parks, fire safety, garbage collection, sewerage treatment, and footpaths and road crossings for pedestrians.  In other words, we overlook the gamut of services that support urban life.

While we are content with halfway houses in aping, we are much worse in learning lessons on what to avoid.  The original city should not be allowed to languish as a left behind residue of the development process.  The metropolises around the world are paying heavy price for this neglect.  We need to reengineer our urban growth in such a way that the new age infrastructure is not grafted on to the periphery of the decaying old core.  It should be a seamless continuum, a natural accretion.  In essence, it should capture the splendour of coexistence of old and new.  It must be a civilized reinvention of our urban life.

One needs to take a critical look at other cities in the world to arrive at a model.  Perhaps, one should not at all look at other cities.  We can set the example.

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