Thursday, September 25, 2008

Build a dream, not a nightmare

In the latest issue of Tehelka, the Finance Minister, P.Chidambaram, has said: “My vision is to get 85 per cent of India into cities.” Professor Tarun Khanna, the Harvard don who has made a name for himself through his comparative studies of China and India, has a chapter in his latest book Millions of Entrepreneurs entitled “Why can China build cities overnight while Indians have trouble building roads?” It appears there are prob lems with the Finance Minister’s dream.
Some problems are self-inflicted. For instance, there is no city in India where footpaths are usable. Much space is allotted for them; much money is spent on them. In Delhi, for inscrutable reasons, footpaths are routinely ripped open every year and rebuilt. That must be costing a lot of money and effort. Even though the footpaths are rebuilt every year, they remain unusable.
It is not that our municipal engineers do not know how to build usable footpaths: The Marina in Chennai, Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bangalore, Marine Drive in Mumbai, Connaught Place in Delhi are examples of eminently usable footpaths. Yet, the same engineers that built those worthy footpaths ensure that footpaths are unusable everywhere else.
There is no secrecy about footpaths. Ministers may be too important to walk in our streets, but they can see that they are unusable everywhere. At the other end of the power structure, municipal engineers should be equally aware that they are wasting a lot of precious space and money for nothing. Therefore, it is worth asking, if the state cannot build even footpaths, how will it manage other more complex urban infrastructure?Refusing to reform
For example, consider the problem of drinking water in the city of Bangalore. Nature is not ungenerous to Bangalore. Rainfall over the city amounts to, on an average, 220 litres of water per day per person. That is quite a luxury. It does not require a great feat of engineering to harvest and distribute that copious supply of water. In fact, Bangalore used to have large numbers of lakes to store rainwater. Almost all of them have been built over. The same greed is manifest in all our towns and cities — our town planning systematically destroys water bodies and then commandeers — at great financial, political, social and environmental cost — water from faraway rivers. I mention footpaths and drinking water as illustrative of urban governance that refuses to reform. Mountains of garbage, horrendous public transport, virtual absence of space for children to play, growing insecurity are other crosses our city dwellers are condemned to bear. Then, is there not a risk of the dream of urbanising 85 per cent of our population becoming a nightmare — unless we rethink our urban policy?
Let us not be carried away by Chinese achievements either. They may build cities overnight but they make a shoddy job of it: Chinese cities are notorious for being environmental disasters. It was not an accident that in the recent earthquake children were the largest casualties — their schools had been built sloppily.
Gigantism is the fashion these days. We want the biggest, the tallest and the most expensive artefacts to bolster our ego. Multi-storey apartments look nice in photographs but they do not promote neighbourliness. The next-door flat is a number, not even a name, let alone a known family.
One can walk an hour in a crowded market of a metro without seeing a familiar face but you cannot walk down a village lane without recognising everyone you come across.
As Jane Jacobs has explained eloquently, criminals fear not so much the armed guards at the gate as the prying eyes of neighbours. In spite of elaborate security systems, elderly people are murdered every week in the impersonal flats of Delhi. Only designs that promote good neighbourliness will make our cities safe.
Gigantism has other problems. Multi-storey buildings are beyond the reach of the poor. Thousands died in the Bhopal disaster because the offending factory was inside a city. If such a disaster were to occur near high-rise cities, casualties can rise to tens of thousands.A plan worth remodelling
For these reasons, I suggest that our city planners take a second look at the way Mr Jag Mohan, former Vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) conceived the idea of low-rise, high-density habitation.
Till recently, most of Delhi was developed to that specification with four-storey walk-up flats. His design, which is a cross between a city and Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal of India living in villages, is worth a re-look. However, as the design is over four decades old, it requires changes to meet the changed environment. For instance:
It makes no provision for water harvesting and recycling.
It has no provision for waste management.
The design is pre-automobile; streets are too narrow for cars.
It is designed as an isolated dormitory and not integrated with the work place of residents.
It is not inclusive; it does not include all the poor.
Further, it would be worth copying the child-friendly play spaces that the PWD colony in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, abounds with.
Hence, I suggest the following modifications:
Each DDA colony has several open spaces. Convert a couple of them into water bodies to harvest and store rainwater.
Use part of open space to treat sewage and to separate different types of waste locally. That will aid their recycling and enhance environmental quality for the whole city.
Raise minimum width of streets to 12-15 metres.
Allocate space for work and employee residences jointly and within walking distance of each other.
Mix dwellings for the poor with those of the middleclass.
Cluster flats round child-friendly courtyards. Overcome the intractable 5
These changes will overcome the five intractable problems that bedevil modern Indian cities — water supply, waste management, daily commuting, slums and insecurity. It is not impossible to ensure, in future extensions of our large cities, abundant water supply, clean environment and greatly reduced burden on local transport.
With sewage treated within each neighbourhood, pollution of rivers and other water bodies can be avoided at relatively low expense. These cost savings can be used to fund affordable housing for the poor. We can also minimise the ever-mounting problem and expense of landfills. With neighbour-friendly designs, security can also be improved dramatically.
It is not clear what kind of cities Mr Chidambaram has in his dreams. He has seen the kind of cities India has built in the past five-six decades. If he is content with the present style of urbanisation, we will end up with a nightmare and not a dream.
Our urban policy needs drastic revision that will ensure the five cardinal features of good urban design, namely, ample water, cleanliness, non-congestion, civilised existence for the very poor, and security.
Planners forget that good design is never expensive and bad design is ever costly. They do not give up outmoded designs because they think that accepting change means loss of face.
As an outsider to urban management, Mr Chidambaram does not bear that handicap. As Finance Minister, he can gently but firmly redirect the future course of urbanisation into directions that will be more human, less expensive, cleaner and more secure too.

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