SOUTH ASIA Harvard South Asia Institute
The City and South Asia
southasiainstitute.harvard.edu 1730 Cambridge Street, 4th Floor Cambridge, MA 02138, USA All rights for each essay included in this publication are reserved by the author(s) of the essay.
Harvard South Asia Institute Cambridge, Massachusetts 2014
CONTENTS From the Director 2
Archaeology and the Ancient City Nayanjot Lahiri 7
The Season of Migration to the City Namita Dharia 11
Housing in Karachi Today Arif Hasan 15
The Beautification of Postwar Colombo Harini Amarasuriya and Jonathan Spencer 19
Modern Chandigarh Maristella Casciato 23
Urban Planning in Bangladesh Fuad H. Mallick, Aminur Rahman, and A. K. M. Sirajuddin 27
The Changing Urban Space of Colombo Jagath Munasinghe 31
Decoding Dhaka Farooq Ameen 37
Impatient Capital and the Indian City Rahul Mehrotra 41
Inhabiting The Land and Tilism of Hoshruba Musharraf Ali Farooqi 45
Durga Pujo in Kolkata Anirban Adhya 49
In Varanasi We Trust Andy Rotman 53
Waste and the City Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey 57
Finding the Citizen in the City Niraja Jayal 61
Whose City, Whose Art? Romita Ray 65
Floating on Waste Islands Venkata Krishna Kumar Matturi 69
Digital Romance in the Indian City Payal Arora and Nimmi Rangaswamy 73
From Pettai to Nagar A. R. Venkatachalapathy 77
Forever Amber Kaiser Haq 81
Courtesy of Vineet Diwadkar
FROM THE DIRECTOR
For the past five thousand years, South Asia has supported one of the worldâ€™s greatest concentrations of cities. In recent years, however, the South Asian city has presented contrasting images of skyscrapers and slums, temples and factories. More recent, and much more crucial, is the scholarship on contemporary urbanism in South Asia whose value is not merely in debunking fantasies or revealing hidden agendas, but in analyzing the parallax between perception and the spatial, economic, and cultural aspects of the lived urban experience. Home to over one-third of the worldâ€™s population, this region is important to understand how and why humans congregate in urban clusters. Cities in South Asia challenge our very understanding of urban area. Space making, mobility, densification, urban migration, and identity formation are a few among a number of the salient issues arising from these cities. Experts from a variety of fields have come together in these pages to hold up a cross-disciplinary lens to the paradoxes endemic to urban centers in South Asia; they delineate questions that may remain unanswered but are necessary to frame: How does the beautification of Colombo ignite a contest of religious identities? How is it that an urban ritual transforms Calcutta into a magical city of dreams, but only for five days each year? The Harvard South Asia Institute has a long-standing commitment to connect the Harvard community with professionals working in South Asia and to cultivate cross-institutional collaboration in the region. This volume brings together urbanists from diverse disciplinary perspectives, ranging from the scholarly to the aesthetic, with a shared street-level emphasis on the specific issues they address: a Bangladeshi scholar asks if the answer to many of Dhakaâ€™s challenges 2 The City and South Asia
lies in reidentifying it with the riverbank; two Indian digital anthropologists explore the virtual love lives of the urban poor; an urban planner from Karachi discusses how the changing density of the city affects lower-class lives; a poet remembers the sounds heard from the streets on a sultry Dhaka afternoon; a Tamil scholar writes poignantly of middle-class neighborhoods in Chennai; an art historian reminds us that the Indian street inspires global high fashion as well as a new aesthetic of political protest; a historian and an anthropologist team up to write about waste, a problem more pressing in South Asia than nuclear arms; a political scientist insists that the citizen cannot be forgotten when making a city; an architect critiques impatient capital; and a historian of antiquity writes that there is so much we have yet to learn from our ancient urban ancestors. I interpret some of these vignettes as an expression of individual agency, of vibrant entrepreneurship in the urban sphere. We hope this volume not only sheds light on planning and architecture, and other existing elements of urban development, but also provides a sense of the new forms of urbanism emerging in contemporary South Asia. As always, we invite you to engage actively with the essays that follow. Please feel free to take notes in the blank pages provided, and share the digital book with your friends and colleagues.
Tarun Khanna Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School Director, Harvard South Asia Institute
Harvard South Asia Institute 3
Anirban Adhya is associate professor of architecture and urban design at Lawrence Technological University
Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology as professor in the Department of History at the University of Delhi.
Harini Amarasuriya is senior lecturer in anthropology of development at the Open University of Sri Lanka.
Fuad H. Mallick is pro vice chancellor of BRAC University in Dhaka, as well as professor and chairperson in the Department of Architecture at the university.
Farooq Ameen is principal of City Design Studio, an urban design, architecture, and planning firm in Los Angeles.
Venkata Krishna Kumar Matturi is a recent graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is the executive lead and cofounder of [FEED]BACK, in Boston.
Payal Arora is assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Maristella Casciato is professor of architectural history in the School of Architecture “Aldo Rossi” at the University of Bologna. Namita Dharia is a Radcliffe Institute graduate student fellow and doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University. Assa Doron is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the School of Culture, History and Language, at Australian National University. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a Pakistani-Canadian author, translator, and novelist. In 2012 he was among the five writers shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Kaiser Haq is a poet, essayist, and translator, as well as professor of English at the University of Dhaka. Arif Hasan is a Pakistani architect, planner, and writer. He is a recipient of Hilali-Imtiaz, one of Pakistan’s highest awards for its citizens. Niraja Jayal is professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Robin Jeffrey is visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asia Studies and Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.
4 The City and South Asia
Rahul Mehrotra is professor and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He is founder principal of RMA Architects. Jagath Munasinghe is senior lecturer and head of the Department of Town and Country Planning at the University of Moratuwa in Katubedda, Sri Lanka. Aminur Rahman is lecturer at the Asia Institute, University of Virginia. Nimmi Rangaswamy is adjunct professor in the Department of Liberal Arts at the Indian Institute of Technology–Hyderabad. Romita Ray is associate professor of art at Syracuse University, as well as a curator of numerous exhibitions. Andy Rotman is professor of religion, and on the faculty of Buddhist studies and South Asian studies, at Smith College. A. K. M. Sirajuddin is assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at BRAC University in Dhaka. Jonathan Spencer is deputy head of school and the Regius Professor of South Asian Language, Culture, and Society at the University of Edinburgh. A. R. Venkatachalapathy is professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He is a historian, translator, and editor.
Harvard South Asia Institute 5
Archaeology and the Ancient City
Courtesy of sunil_shanbag
6 The City and South Asia
Forty-five years ago, I read Mulk Raj Anand’s tale of an ancient city, A Day in the Life of Maya of Mohenjo-Daro. I still remember that story’s beguiling beginning (“It was five thousand years ago . . .”) and how I was drawn to its description of the ancient city. While Mohenjo-daro was seen through the eyes of a young girl, the images made the ancient seem very modern—public and private buildings ranging from the Great Bath to little bathrooms, wide roads and narrow lanes, merchants who journeyed to and from other cities, and noisy marketplaces. In “the talking and the laughter and the haggling” at Mohenjo-daro’s stalls that sold ribbons, brooches, and hairpins, the memory of the cities of my childhood lingered. It lingers still, in the variety of urban forms dug out by the archaeologist’s spade. For one, there is the juxtaposition of an older past and the living present in all forms of the city. The Saka-Parthian city at Taxila which followed the alignment of the more ancient Indo-Greek grid plan there calls to mind Delhi’s Chandni Chowk whose layout goes back to the Mughal era. For another, urban areas were teeming with exotica. The ancient Punjabi at Harappa wore exquisite jewelry made from Afghani lapis lazuli and Central Asian jade. They also enjoyed marine catfish as much as Amritsar’s residents today enjoy kingfish from the Indian Ocean. It is not as if foreign goods did not reach the countryside. It is just that there was what the physicist Geoffrey West described as superlinear scaling, where the usage was many times more in the environs of cities. The scaling can be most vividly seen in in the first two hundred years of the Christian era when all kinds of lands became part of a thriving Indian Ocean trade. That is when cargo loads of Roman objects were carried to InHarvard South Asia Institute 7
dian ports and cities. Beyond the wine-filled Mediterranean amphorae, ships brought gold coins, northern Adriatic olive oil, Spanish garum (fish sauce), and even bronze statuettes of Cupid and Poseidon. Figurines of these gods, along with bronze vessels manufactured at Campania’s workshops in southern Italy, became part of the repertoire of a rich household in Brahmapuri (in present-day Maharashtra). From India, along with luxury goods like spices and gemstones, images of deities are also known to have migrated, and one of them, a Lakshmi rendered in ivory, came to be eventually buried in the volcanic lava that destroyed the town of Pompeii in 79 CE. What about the city’s residents, those who governed, lived, worshipped, and worked there? If one begins with powerful politicos, one major difference in the imaging of rulers in the ancient cosmopolis, as compared to contemporary cities in South Asia, is the impossibility of providing a human face to many such figures. The largest and most important metropolis in this part of the ancient world was Pataliputra in present-day Bihar. While this was the capital of the Mauryan dynasty, their political authority left no palpable imprint. There are neither imperial portraits on coins nor in the form of sculpture. Nor is there a palace complex where the emperor resided with his family members. Compare this to a modern city where political leaders like Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and Narendra Modi in India constantly stare down at citizens from banners and bus stops, from city walls and highways. Perhaps this distinction is a consequence of the inability to dig into the bowels of political centers. This is certainly true of Pataliputra, much of which lies buried in some twenty-two centuries of strata under modern Patna. The welter of ruins that have been dug out—wooden defenses and drains, dancing terra-cotta figures and sophisticated stone-carved discs—are not from the center, where the royal palace was likely to have been located, but have emerged from the edges and outskirts of the city. More tangible than politics was the religiosity of the ancient city’s inhabitants. Mathura in north India and Nagarjunakonda toward the south were among the cities where there was a profusion of shrines, ones that cut across religious boundaries. At Mathura, Buddhist monastic residents, Jain worshippers, followers of Naga deities and of the legendary Krishna lived and worshipped side by side. And just as foreigners regularly make donations in India’s pilgrimage centers today, “Yavanas” (a word frequently used to denote foreigners from the West) were donors at a variety of places. The most famous of them was Heliodorus, the Greek ambassador from the northwest who came to the court of a king in the city of ancient Vidisha and set up a pillar in honor of the god Vasudeva Krishna. While an interacting heterogeneous religious universe is an integral part of large segments of South Asia, in ancient times, it was most palpable in the penumbra of the city. The houses where people lived can be reconstructed as vividly as religious architecture. Usually fronting streets and lanes, residences were orga8 The City and South Asia
nized around courtyards which were crucial for natural light and ventilation since wide windows, the norm today, do not show up in ancient domestic architecture. It is possible to reconstruct the uses of some of the rooms in such residences. Where soak wells and large water jars are found in rooms with rough flooring, one can imagine clothes and utensils being cleaned. When a row of chambers fronted the houses, they may have served as shops, as they were along public pathways. The presence of “living rooms” and “sleeping rooms,” though, is not based on anything other than the positioning and size of these rooms. The professions of those who lived in such homes are occasionally known, especially if they happened to be bankers, members of guilds, traders, and artisans, because they usually had their names and callings inscribed on seals. At Vaishali, bankers like Vishnudasa, Vyagrabala, and Kanka commonly figure, as does a corporation of bankers, traders, and artisans (Sreshthi-sartthavahakulika-nigama) whose seal impressions occur as many as 274 times. Among the city seals, the names of women are largely invisible, the exceptions being royal figures. Also absent from the archaeology of the ancient city is its underbelly—such as manual scavengers and sweepers whose professions placed them at the bottom of the social ladder. We know, for instance, that at Mohenjo-daro, open soak pits, especially at the junction of small lanes and big streets, had to be regularly cleaned. Similarly, the house drains carried their waste into public drains. To keep soak pits and drains in working order obviously required a large workforce for cleaning, but where this segment of the urban populace lived and how they went about their work remain unknown. The urban poor, in fact, are doubly unfortunate because modern scholars have not considered them to be worthy subjects of research in quite the same way as more prosperous residents. The ancient city, then, is as much about limits as it is about possibilities. At practically every point in the ancient timeline of urbanism, unless scholars seek out new ways of digging out lives of the less fortunate, their social world will appear as a one-dimensional one. The bustle of the trades and businesses of the well-to-do will be spotted as will their well-appointed large houses, but not the servitors whose sweat and blood have supported this social spectrum.
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The Season of Migration to the City
Courtsey of Ekta Patel
10 The City and South Asia
Twenty-year-old Veer strode across the construction pit to start his day.1 A yellow helmet topped his striped shirt and dusty-brown pants. Picking up his cement scraper, he teased a woman worker: “You, you—I saw you eating that mango yesterday, hun. Don’t lie, hun.” He sauntered up to the concrete footing he was building and cajoled his supervisor: “Today we will all leave early, hun. Go see a movie.” Everyone around laughed at his antics. Veer is a twenty-year-old mason, one of over two million migrant construction workers in India’s National Capital Region (NCR).2 His life narratives question the ways in which we plan and perceive the urban. I meet Veer on a hot summer’s day at the bottom of a thirty-foot construction pit. The walls of the basement-to-be were scarred with mechanical tooth marks of excavators. Bands of golden-brown earth radiated heat upon us. “We are blacksmiths (lohars),” Veer explains to me. “That does not mean you beat on metal the whole day. It means working with any metal tool—a cement scraper, a hammer, and . . . furniture work too.” Veer comes from a large family of carpenters from Bihar. His father is a formwork carpenter in NCR and his uncle runs a furniture workshop. Veer’s father has seven brothers. Each brother has five to six kids of his own. Together the family totals over a hundred. Communities and areas in India are historically identified with specific building skills. The past three decades saw building methods shift from craft to industry. Veer responds to this changing employment pattern by moving out of carpentry work and into layout masonry—a move that discounts craftsmanship but improves his job prospects. Migrant workers transform their skill sets in order to make ends meet as industries and economics in NCR change. Harvard South Asia Institute 11
It is not uncommon to find workers who split their lives between agricultural, masonry, and manufacturing work. When Veer was thirteen his father’s alcoholism and sister’s wedding expenses pushed the family into debt. The family could not afford the thirty-five-rupee monthly fees for Veer’s “private English school.”3 “The public school did not teach anything,” Veer contends. He traveled to Ranchi and apprenticed as a mason. He was hired as a skilled mason six months later. He moved to NCR with his family in 2006 and spent the last seven years of his life working: “[This is] my age to walk around, roam around. And here I am, I am working, I am earning.” Veer’s young age is notable as the industry thrives on youth. The high physical demands of construction labor drain workers of strength. Chronic illnesses are perpetuated by atmospheres of dust and diesel. Alcoholism and tobacco addictions thrive. As workers grow older, they are less in demand, and pushed out of construction and the city. The city prefers the young. In the city, Veer is hired and paid through a contractor, who is hired by the general contractor on-site, who in turn is hired by the developer. A subcontracted mode of employment is common practice in the construction industry. Labor activism surrounding the New Delhi Common Wealth Games (CWG) has led to positive changes such as the creation of labor camps with electricity and sanitation, the construction of child-care centers, and emergency medical attention for workers. Companies are required to contribute to labor welfare funds based on the number of workers they hire. The developer subcontracts laborers; thus their welfare does not become company responsibility. Workers are deliberately drawn from the hinterlands, and local populations are avoided. Local workers are considered dangerous because of their political connections and ability to unionize. Recruiting workers from rural India, keeping them subcontracted, and shifting them from site to site empower employers. A fluctuating urban-rural population is produced through both socioeconomic factors and political motives. In 2006 Veer’s extended family divided up their ancestral land. His father was left with a small house and no land to grow crops. Veer had to supplement the family income. The division of agricultural land in joint families, the increasing dependence on fertilizer and high-yielding seeds, and the cost of equipment make agriculture an uneconomic venture. Financial incentive, boredom, and lack of other livelihoods push individuals into the city. Construction and agricultural economies work together: one income supplements that of the other. Migration patterns match agricultural cycles; rain slows down construction and increases agricultural activity while the summer slows agriculture and speeds construction. The lives of migrant workers are both urban and rural. As a male member of his family with an income, Veer is likely to be married in the coming years. Women do not work on construction sites in his fam12 The City and South Asia
ily. His mother migrated to NCR to look after their home in the migrant camp. Women from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh do not work on sites but often look for domestic work nearby; and women from the states of Chhattisgarh and Bengal work alongside their husbands. Unmarried women rarely migrate. The number of women on large-scale construction sites such as the one Veer works on has reduced drastically in recent years. Machines now do the lifting tasks that women once did. Media reports of rape and the presence of children on sites make employers wary about hiring women. Gender ratios in urban and rural India change as employers selectively draw only men from villages. Veer, too, is likely to marry in Bihar and leave his wife in the village. Narratives of Veer’s life demonstrate that the urban and rural in northern India are bound by the lives of migrant workers and their families. The urban cannot be thought of as detached from the rural: their social, economic, and political worlds are intertwined. Veer’s engagement with the city is governed through various temporalities: shifting industry demands, human life and health cycles, hiring patterns, and agricultural rhythms. Migration matches these tempos. Planning and development strategies must take into account these geographical connectivities and temporalities of engagement with urban space.
1. Name changed to protect the subject’s identity. The data in this essay is part of a larger research project on India’s building construction industry. 2. Number derived from “Census of India, Migration Tables.” Census of India, January 1, 2001; accessed September 2, 2014. R. S. Bora, “Migrant Informal Workers: A Study of Delhi and Satellite Towns,” Modern Economy 5: 562–79, http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/me.2014.5505. 3. Thirty-five Indian rupees are a little over fifty American cents as per current exchange rates.
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Housing in Karachi Today
Courtesy of Brenna McDuffie
14 The City and South Asia
Major socioeconomic changes have taken place in South Asian megacities over the past two decades, and even greater changes are expected in the coming ten years. One of the important drivers of these changes is the phenomenal population increase that has taken place, especially between the last two censuses. Let us take Delhi as an example. Between 1961 and 1971 its population increased by 52.9 percent (a population increase of 1,407,086) to become 4,065,698. Between 2001 and 2011 it increased by 21.6 percent (a population increase of 2,970,259) to become 16,753,235. Again between 2011 and 2012 it increased by 22 percent (a population increase of 3,685,711) to become 20,438,946.1 Other cities such as Mumbai and Dhaka have similar trends. In the case of Karachi, the city I live and work in, the demographic change is far greater. Between 1951 and 1961 the population of Karachi increased by 161 percent (a population increase of 906,377) to become 2,044,044 with an average growth rate of 11.5 per year. However, between 1998 and 2011 Karachiâ€™s population increased from 9.8 million to 21.2 million at the rate of 8.1 percent per year.2 No city in the world has ever grown so much in so short a time. This phenomenal increase has had many sociopolitical repercussions that are beyond the scope of this essay. One important repercussion is that Karachi has expanded spatially. Many of the new rapidly emerging informal settlements on the outer fringe have no system of state governance in place, such as police stations and utility agencies. This makes it easier for the settlements to be controlled by politically backed developers and their musclemen. Also, these new settlements are very different from the old informal settlements which were nearer to the city and hence closer to employment zones. In addition, transport was affordable, commuting time was comparatively much less, and health Harvard South Asia Institute 15
and education access was easier. Government land was available for the politician-bureaucrat-informal developer nexus for the development of katchi abadis. This land was also affordable for low-income groups. The growth of a middle class, especially in the 1990s, and its increasing demand for housing, has also put most land, except that at the extreme fringe of the city, out of reach of the poor. It is interesting to see these changes in financial terms. In 1991 one square meter of land on the Karachi city fringe was Rs. 176, or 1.7 times the daily wage for unskilled labor at that time. In 2007 it had become Rs. 2,500, or 10 times the daily wage for unskilled labor in 2007. Similarly, construction costs for a semipermanent house (materials and labor) were Rs. 660 per square meter in 1991 and had increased to Rs. 5,000 per square meter in 2007. Rents for a semipermanent house in a katchi abadi also increased during this period from Rs. 350, or 2.5 times the daily wage for unskilled labor, to Rs. 2,500 per month, or 10 times the daily wage for unskilled labor.3 Travel costs also increased from 1.25 percent per trip of daily wage for unskilled labor to over 2 percent per trip.4 As a result of these changes, it is becoming increasingly difficult for poorer sections of the population to live on the expanding fringe of the city. Apart from the time and cost of commuting from the fringe to the city center, there are issues of security; difficulty in finding work for women in nearby areas; problems in accessing places of entertainment and recreation; and, above all, loss of time that commuting workers are able to spend with their families. Surveys reveal that increasingly poor families find it more affordable and convenient to rent in the city than to live on the city fringe.5 City planners feel that these issues can be overcome by a rail-based mass-transit system for Karachi. However, the plans that have been prepared will be unaffordable for the vast majority of the poor commuters unless the travel costs are heavily subsidized. Also, the proposed plans will not serve more than 2 percent of the trips generated in the city and will reach only a small fraction of the outer fringe. The informal market has found ways of overcoming some of these problems. The old katchi abadis, which are within the city or on the immediate fringe nearer to the city, are increasingly dense. Originally, they consisted of single- or, at best, double-story houses on 60- to 120-square-yard plots along a 20-feet-wide lane. Today houses in these settlements are being converted into six to ten multistory apartment blocks. This densification is taking place through two processes. First, people build additional floors to house the expanding family or to rent out to relatives migrating from the rural areas. Second, the developers approach a house owner, buy his plot for a certain sum of money, and offer him two apartments on the top floor. The ground floor is invariably set aside for commercial use. The buildings have no elevators and the apartments are often no more than 40 square meters so as to make them affordable for the low-income market. No building regulations are followed, since this is an informal activity. The build16 The City and South Asia
ings have severe light and ventilation issues and will collapse in an earthquake.6 This process is converting the katchi abadis, which many planners admired for their pleasant physical and social environment in spite of poor infrastructure, into physical and social slums. Women complain that they can no longer use the street as an extension of the home. Also, their children are taking to drugs and forming gangs since they lack collective adult supervision of the older neighborhoods. There are other complaints, as well. Older residents do not know the new people who are entering the neighborhood. The commercial activity generated by this form of development opens up previously pedestrian-friendly streets to vehicular traffic and creates a sense of insecurity. Congestion increases as the courtyard and the street are no longer available as spillover spaces. Furthermore, congestion gives greater freedom to young people to stay away from home much to the resentment of the “woman of the house.” The process also results in the breakup of the extended family. But there are advantages. Places of work are accessible. Children’s schools and health facilities are nearby and of relatively better quality. Women can find work closer to home. Renting in these apartment settlements is financially and socially more beneficial than living on the expanding fringe of the city. This trend and manner of urban densification are also happening in the formally planned settlements within the city.7 In the 1970s the government launched its Katchi Abadi Improvement and Regularisation Programme that provided benefits of infrastructure and tenure security to katchi abadi residents. With the current trends, a totally new form of social and physical environment is being created in these settlements. It has to be understood that the old-style katchi abadi improvement and regularization are irrelevant to the changed reality of Karachi. A new program is required to understand the changes taking place, bring improvements to the ongoing densification process, and tackle the serious tenure-related legal issues that are emerging. The proposal for demolition and redevelopment of these changed settlements is simply politically and financially impossible. Yet, to my knowledge, no academic or government institution in Pakistan is studying this issue sympathetically. 1. Based on Government of India Census Report, 2011, and Demographia World Urban Areas, 2012. 2. W. Cox, “World Urban Areas Population and Density: A 2012 Update,” New Geography, March 5, 2012. 3. A. Hasan, “Housing Security and Related Issues: The Case of Karachi,” United Nations Habitat (unpublished paper, October 2008). 4. Calculated by the author. 5. A. Hasan, Karachi Rising: The Densification of Low-Income Settlements in Karachi (film) (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2013. 6. Ibid. 7. A. Hasan et al., Land Ownership, Control and Contestation in Karachi and Its Implications for LowIncome Housing (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2013).
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Courtesy of stebox78
Courtesy of stebox78
The Beautification of Postwar Colombo
18 The City and South Asia
Harini Amarasuriya and Jonathan Spencer
The long war between the government of Sri Lanka and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came to an end in 2009 with the comprehensive defeat of the rebels, who by then had retreated to a small strip of beach on the island’s northeast coast. Five years later, visitors to the island’s capital, Colombo, notice that there is a lot of construction work going on in the city. Unlike the past, when there was a certain randomness to the city’s roadwork and disruption, this roadwork has a new, uniform quality. Old pavements are dug up and pale pink bricks are laid in newly constructed pavements. Roads have been widened and a bewildering one-way system has been established. Old and not-so-old walls that surrounded government buildings have been pulled down, making spaces suddenly larger than before. Trees that had lined the streets for hundreds of years, and grown somewhat chaotically—proving hazardous for unwary walkers or causing sudden disruptions during thundershowers because of falling branches—have been chopped down or pruned. New trees are being planted at regular intervals. Observant visitors would also note that those working on the construction, clearing, and cleaning of spaces are not typical workers. Many of them are dressed alike, sport the same haircuts, and carry themselves with precision. Many of the construction workers in Colombo, it turns out, are military personnel. This is a feature of postwar Sri Lanka, where the military has been gradually involving itself in assuredly nonmilitary activities, ranging from farming to construction to the hospitality trade. When vegetable prices skyrocketed in Colombo, the military sold vegetables. In the Jaffna Peninsula, they have opened a luxury hotel. In Colombo, military involvement followed the takeover of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) by the Ministry of Harvard South Asia Institute 19
Defence in 2010. The ministry is controlled by the president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and “beautification” is widely seen as his personal project. In Colombo, certain spaces have been completely transformed. Independence Square in Colombo 7 is marked by a rather majestic monument built to celebrate independence from the British. This area occasionally attracted attention during Independence Day, or when a visiting foreign dignitary arrived, but otherwise was used mainly by Sri Lanka’s elite athletes for training. A few of Colombo’s residents also used to walk for exercise in the area. Under the UDA Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, the area has been turned into a beautifully organized walking area. Paths have been laid out between neatly planted trees and carefully laid grass. The area is well lit and police patrol discreetly. During early mornings, and in the evenings, the surrounding areas are filled with walkers who have driven there for their exercise. Men and women of all ages and sizes can be seen walking briskly and purposefully along the paths. An occasional jogger may brush past the walkers. In the evening, children learn to ride bicycles along the paths. The link to the military is never quite far in spaces like this—but nowhere is it perhaps as obvious as in the Nawala Urban Wetland. Nawala is an emerging Colombo suburb, midway between Colombo city and the new capital complex in Kotte. A long, neglected canal runs through Nawala, and at one end of the canal a small expanse of empty land was used by construction workers for many years as a site to buy and sell cement and sand. In 2012, the construction workers were abruptly moved and the area was cordoned off. The area has now been neatly landscaped and artificial ponds and waterfalls created. Walking paths have been laid and the adjacent canal cleaned up. Admonitory signboards abound: food cannot be consumed in the park; dogs cannot be walked. Everywhere there are signs requesting people to behave “decently.” Weirdly, a military tank has been placed in one corner—children visiting the park can be seen clambering in and around the tank and posing for pictures by it. But alongside this new vision of urban beauty, there have been darker developments, and beautification has been accompanied by a growing sense of insecurity and apprehension, especially for minority groups like Muslims and Tamils, who make up the majority of the city-center population. Mosques and churches have been attacked, meetings disrupted, threats reported. These fears have most recently surfaced as a result of the activities of a new group of militant monks and their supporters, called the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). BBS emerged, seemingly from nowhere, as the proud occupants of a shining new multistory Buddhist Cultural Centre, built on a prime site close to the Colombo University campus and the army headquarters in 2012. In early 2013, BBS launched a campaign against the use of halal certification in food labeling in the supermarkets that have proliferated over the last decade. Within weeks, there were attacks on Muslim businesses, amid wild rumors of jihadi groups training in mosques, and secret contraceptives being fed to unwitting Buddhist 20 The City and South Asia
women who made the mistake of shopping at Muslim-owned stores. It was widely believed that BBS enjoyed the support of the defense secretary himself, a belief that appeared to be vindicated when he made a speech at the opening of a new BBS training center in early 2013. Colombo is not a traditionally Sinhala Buddhist space. The areas marked for “development” are spaces where Buddhists are a minority and Muslims are the biggest ethnic group. The ruling regime strongly identifies with its Buddhist nationalist base, and has responded somewhat incoherently to the threats of the radical monks of the BBS, sometimes condoning their activities, sometimes attempting to establish a degree of distance from them. The new capital that is promised to emerge from the process of beautification will not be a self-evident bastion of traditional Buddhist values—plans for casinos and property speculation dominate the headlines, rather than Buddhist piety. Colombo, it seems, aspires to be a “world-class” city—like Singapore or Los Angeles (where Gotabaya Rajapaksa resided before he took up his position at the Ministry of Defence)—but the middle-class residents of the emerging city also hanker for an ideal of Buddhist purity to accompany the explosion of consumption that has followed the war. Somewhere in this contradiction a space has opened up for a new politics of intolerance, exemplified by the far-from-beautiful monks of the BBS.
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Courtesy of Daveybot
22 The City and South Asia
Conceived and built as the capital of Indian Punjab in the years immediately following the country’s independence (1947), Chandigarh remains to this day an extraordinary site for examining the physiological transformations that planned cities undergo over time. Moreover, Chandigarh offers a unique vantage point to revisit the criteria for interpreting a historical phenomenon—the emergence of new cities—that is currently experiencing a significant resurgence in Asia. Over the span of half a century, our understanding of Chandigarh has gone through a radical revision: from the city as the work of a lone genius—Chandigarh as the masterpiece of the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier—to the city, in the words of Indian architectural historian Vikramāditya Prakāsh, as a “well established brand name.”1 This change in perspective was one of the driving ideas behind an exhibition I recently co-curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.2 Titled “How Architects, Experts, Politicians, International Agencies and Citizens Negotiate Modern Planning: Casablanca Chandigarh,” the exhibition traced a new history of modern urbanism by focusing on two major experiments undertaken in the Global South during the first wave of decolonization. In confronting the phenomenon of decolonization, we questioned interpretive frameworks that rely on an all-too-sharp opposition between dependency and independency, and looked instead at the local histories of Chandigarh and Casablanca through the lens of gradual transition and mediation. In the decades since Chandigarh was built, Western critics have regarded it as a product of modern European architectural culture, as a city that only by some chance of history happened to rise in the rural plains of India—an operation of cultural colonialism carried out well past colonialism’s expiration date. Recent studies, however, have overturned this perspective and brought to light how the city was from the very Harvard South Asia Institute 23
24 The City and South Asia
plan conceived by the city’s founders—a plan, indeed, that for many of the younger inhabitants is not part of their everyday experience. Such a plan, however, has proven capable of adapting to modern urban lifestyles far removed from those of the city’s beginnings—and, in fact, is able to shape and foster a new mode of urban living itself. From its modern identity, expressed by the plan and its architecture, Chandigarh has generated an instrument for weaving the links between memory and visions of the future. With its capacity to adapt and develop, Chandigarh represents one of the most fertile town-planning experiments of modernity. A search for Chandigarh on YouTube reveals how the city has become in recent years an important location for Bollywood cinema—a setting for movies, TV series, commercials, and music videos. The city even features a Bollywood Facilitation Centre, which seeks to assist and encourage filmmakers and producers to shoot in the city’s most beautiful locations. This new vocation of Chandigarh may seem incongruous with its previous history. Can a city be visually seductive, as demanded by the Bollywood industry, and at the same time include within its territory pockets of shacks and informal developments, as well as glaring, unresolved inequalities? Can a city planned for five hundred thousand inhabitants remain viable when it is now home to over one million people and appears destined to a further doubling of its population over the next twenty years? Can a city maintain its original identity as a “horizontal city” consisting primarily of low-rise buildings when skyscrapers and techno-parks are being built at a rapid pace on the city’s outskirts? To those who continue to imagine India as a place of pastoral fields and semi-naked gurus, such impending scenarios may appear alarming. The reasons for Bollywood’s choice of Chandigarh as a prized location are easy to understand, however. If there is a city in contemporary India that can sum up in a single place the country’s history from its independence to the present—a city that can conjure India’s dramatic beginnings, represent the country’s idealism in the search for a new social and political order, and bear witness to the vitality of the path traveled since 1947— it is Chandigarh. Courtesy of harpreet thinking
beginning a place of encounter and exchange, and how that initial imprinting may, in fact, underlie the city’s present-day success. Le Corbusier’s Indian adventure began in February 1951, when the architect was well into his sixties. Alongside him were his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and two English architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who had previously worked in British Africa. The Indian government named Le Corbusier “architect adviser” and charged him with drafting the city’s master plan and overseeing the Capital Project. Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew were given the role of “senior architects” and put in charge of the Architects’ Office, the office that was to design and see to the construction of the master plan’s various components. Fulfilling an explicit request of Prime Minister Nehru, the Architects’ Office employed a group of young Indian architects and engineers, offering them an opportunity to learn from their foreign colleagues and ultimately turn the Capital Project into a veritable design and planning laboratory. The outcome of this exchange was aptly summarized by the Indian architect Charles Correa: “India was lucky to get Le Corbusier; Le Corbusier, too, was lucky to get India.”3 This statement contains a truth that is often overlooked—namely, that India could count not only on a centuries-old architectural tradition but also on a remarkable capacity to engage with and master modern building techniques. The country’s awe-inspiring railway stations, its great bridges and dams, and its monumental public buildings continue to bear witness to such architectural and engineering mastery. The image of Chandigarh as a highly ordered city proceeded directly from Le Corbusier’s gridded master plan. However, the orientation of the urban structure, the city’s overall extent, and the distribution of its major functions were to a large degree determined by the physical attributes of the site—namely, the waterways that delimited and carved the plain on which the city was built and the mountain chain that defines the city’s horizon. The basic unit of the plan was the “sector,” a model of urban fabric that enabled the allocation of government dwellings on the basis of residents’ membership in different social groups. Each sector measured 800 by 1,200 meters and contained all the facilities necessary for the life of its residents. The sectors were thus envisioned as urban microcosms that functioned on the model of the neighborhood unit. The city is world-renowned for its Capitol complex, undoubtedly one of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces. But Chandigarh is made, above all, by its houses, schools, cinemas, theaters, libraries, markets, and collective facilities. In their forms, in their architectural expression, these buildings embody the needs and desires that were explored during the initial planning of the capital and allowed for the flowering of a distinctive architectural and spatial vocabulary for the new India. Today Chandigarh is a multifaceted city, at once monumental and domestic, rationally regular, and at the same time deeply connected with its natural landscape. It is a city that grew and evolved by constantly negotiating the emergence of new needs and uses (the massive arrival of immigrants and new generations, the explosion of car traffic, the transformation of the traditional family) in relation to the original plan—without ever overturning it. The difficult process of negotiation has profoundly affected the
1. Vikramāditya Prakāsh,“The Many Names of Chandigarh: An Index for Heritage Planning,” in Transcultural Modernism, ed. Modern House Research Group (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 50–65. 2. The result of a research project initiated by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), the exhibition was curated by the author and Tom Avermaete and presented in the winter and spring of 2013–2014 in the CCA’s main galleries. The volume Casablanca Chandigarh: A Report on Modernization, published in 2014 by the CCA and Park Books (Zurich), collects many of the original documents displayed in the exhibition as well as the results of the long research that preceded it. 3. Charles Correa, “Chandigarh: The View from Benares,” in The Le Corbusier Archive: Chandigarh; Capitole, Vol. 1, Assemblée and Other Buildings and Projects, general ed. H. Allen Brooks (New York: Garland, 1983), xiii.
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26 The City and South Asia
Courtesy of Fuad H. Mallick, Aminur Rahman, and A. K. M. Sirajuddin.
Indiscriminate physical development and diminishing green and waters. This has become the common consequence of poor enforcement of urban planning regulations in Bangladesh. Partial view of Banani and Gulshan in Dhaka.
Urban Planning in Bangladesh Fuad H. Mallick, Aminur Rahman, and A. K. M. Sirajuddin
Urban settlement in Bangladesh can be traced back more than 2,500 years. The relics of Mahasthangarh and the recently explored Wari-Bateshwar evidence the remains of ancient human settlements in present-day Bangladesh. Though it is arguable whether these historical settlements were efforts of conscious planning, findings from archaeological excavations depict the prosperity of these ancient inhabitants. Flourishing as an urban center during the Sultanate period, Dhaka enjoyed the status as Bengal’s provincial capital during the Mughal rule. However, since then, Dhaka has experienced mixed fortune in its official status. Modern-day urban planning in Bangladesh during British rule started centering Dhaka in the Indian subcontinent. Sir Patrick Geddes, a pioneering British town planner, stayed in Dhaka shortly between visits to a few other British Indian cities. Though Geddes’s 1917 report contained many invaluable suggestions and guidelines, it was not considered a comprehensive planning document. Following the Partition of India in 1947, and then the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign nation in 1971, the nature and rate of urbanization in Bangladesh changed significantly. In both historical moments, Dhaka was central to the ideas of urbanization. However, while urbanization spread across Bangladesh through decentralization of the administration, the country’s cities have been devoid of many amenities, facilities, and services required for their distinction from nonurbanized areas. The first four divisional headquarters—namely Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi—were marked as the metropolitan cities; but Dhaka, being the capital, has enjoyed an uncontested primacy. Dhaka’s status has remained even after the proliferation of designated urban areas, because economic growth and urban services and Harvard South Asia Institute 27
facilities are largely confined within Dhaka. This is evident in that the rapid growth of population in Dhaka, home to more than fourteen million people on an area of 590 square miles, is mostly attributable to migration from other parts of the country. In the absence of a holistic regional approach to planning, other major cities have failed to grow as regional urban hubs, and hence urban growth in those cities is not significant. Even Khulna, the second port city of the country, is experiencing negative population growth. Among the other major cities, plans for Sylhet, Barisal, and Rangpur have recently been drawn up, but apprehension about their implementation persists. The realization of the need for institutional efforts in urban development in Bangladesh originated in the formulation of the Town Improvement Act, 1953 (East Bengal Act XIII of 1953). This act initiated the evolution of Dhaka Improvement Trust (DIT) in 1956 to look after the building and development issues within Dhaka and its surroundings. Later, the master plan of Dhaka was formulated in 1959 for execution through the DIT, which became RAJUK (Capital Development Authority) in 1987 with Dhaka’s jurisdiction extending from 320 to 590 square miles. Likewise, the master plans for Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi were prepared for execution and implementation through respective development authorities. These plans were prepared with a view to twenty years into the future from their time of formulation. The top-down master-plan approach in urban planning is perceived as a “blueprint” that would guide the development of cities in a predictable way. This approach is criticized for its rigidity since it does not allow much room to accommodate unforeseen changes in a city and its surroundings. Understanding the limitations of the master-plan approach, urban planners moved to a new approach in the mid-1960s, known as strategy planning. This method was not followed in Bangladeshi urban planning until the mid-1990s when the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan (DMDP) was generated. Subsequently, other major Bangladeshi cities adopted this approach. The master plans for the major cities in Bangladesh lacked proper enforcement, largely owing to the absence of appropriate institutional arrangements and abundance of agencies without adequate coordination mechanisms. The legacy of failure in planning enforcement has continued even after adoption of the modern strategic planning approach. The reluctance to comply with the strategies of the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan (DMDP) and the repeated deliberate concessions and revisions which overlook public interest demonstrate the poor enforcement of planning regulations in Bangladesh. The very spirit of planning is thus compromised. Planning is incomplete if the plans are not duly implemented. Thus, the planning process goes far beyond the realm of planners. It calls for thorough institutional arrangements backed by political will to make plans work. The leverage that an appropriate planning process has to offer to an economy in the long run requires political discretion. However, the detrimental effect of 28 The City and South Asia
Bangladesh unwisely neglecting its role in planning is inescapable. With a density of nearly ten thousand people per square kilometer and scant services and facilities for the inhabitants, both Dhaka’s overcrowding and deficiencies are visible and overwhelming. From formulation to implementation to monitoring and review, planning requires skilled human resources and good governance supported by political vision. Planning is a complex and dynamic process that has ramifications on a range of issues beyond the spatial domain. Urban development that does not comply with planning instruments leads to inertia in further physical growth, and has a far-flung effect on socioeconomic attributes of the nation. Such is the case with Dhaka. The ever-increasing concentration of economic activity in Dhaka has resulted in a disproportionate growth of the city’s population. Overpopulation could have been avoided had urban planning been designed in a more integrated and effective way, taking into account the country as a whole, as well as the global forces that influence urbanization in a country like Bangladesh. The intricate human-space relationships vary across geographical and social contexts, and that calls for innovative planning approaches. Given Bangladesh’s uniqueness in its unmatched urban population density, rural-urban disposition, and difficult climate, strategic planning followed by strategic design would offer urban planners the opportunity to respond to Bangladesh’s country-specific challenges.
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The Changing Urban Space of Colombo
Courtesy of Ravages
30 The City and South Asia
Inspired by Henry Lefebvre’s statement in The Urban Revolution that a “social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language, and on space,” I pose a question, albeit in reverse form: Can the effective changes observed in daily life in a city be the manifestations of a social transformation in the form of any creative capacity, revolutionary or otherwise? In the pages that follow, I shall attempt an answer by analyzing the changing urban space of the Sri Lankan city Colombo. From the time that the Sri Lankan government forces hailed victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, ending a period of nearly thirty years of anarchy and transitional governance over the entire island, Colombo, the nucleus of all administrative, trade, and commercial activities in Sri Lanka, has experienced an unprecedented transformation. Abandoned and colonial buildings are the sites of massive regeneration efforts, and construction projects are gradually changing the skyline. Barren marshlands and other low-lying areas have been refashioned as new green public areas adjacent to flashy waterfronts. The roads that were dotted with security checkpoints are open again for free movement, and crowds that avoided public spaces for fear of possible terrorist attacks are now back on the streets. Colombo has seen many positive changes in recent years; however, many of these new developments also reflect important oversights. Originating as the small seaport near the Kelani River on the western coast of the island, Colombo has been subjected to Portuguese (1505–1658), Dutch (1658–1796), and British (1796–1948) colonial occupation and pseudo-nationalist rule. The Portuguese, Dutch, and early British establishments Harvard South Asia Institute 31
were located inside a fortification and were reserved exclusively for colonial administrators, their close associates, and families. However, extension of the city space for better exchange with the native merchants, and the establishment of the Colombo Municipal Council in 1847, transformed the city space both in extent and governance. The transformation was partially a result of the formation of the city’s segregation of state-employed white-collar workers and local entrepreneurs from the majority of the natives who were dependent on agriculture. This new urban society, characterized by hybrids of European and native values, and steeped in European customs and language, reinforced Colombo as a colonial space intended only for the privileged. In a move to expand the city, both the British rulers and the successive governments of independent Sri Lanka invited many British planners to design Colombo. Patrick Geddes, the widely praised British town planner and lover of garden-city developments, was the first among them. Geddes’s dream to make Colombo the “Garden City of the East” had a tremendous impact on the subsequent developments of the city, though his plan was never fully realized. Following independence from British rule, a major transformation in Sri Lankan society began in 1956. The nationalistic movements, fueled mainly by the native Sinhalese community, took a lead in mainstream politics. The dominant socialistic attitudes and the resultant policies of the government established state-owned public transportation, education, and health facilities, while the Colombo port continued to be the single largest employer of the city’s citizens. For over thirty years the growth was moderate and the alien detachment gradually disappeared, providing opportunities for many agricultural workers to enter Colombo-centered administrative and business sectors. Thus a new middle class was born, and its new members were able to achieve higher social status through free education in their native languages (Sinhala and Tamil) and opportunities provided by the improved public services. Colombo was becoming a common man’s space, free for all to claim as their own. The introduction of economic liberalism in 1978 by the then-formed pro-capitalist government enabled a large influx of commercial activity into Colombo, and the increased business opportunities attracted a large population to the city and its suburbs by the late 1980s. The northern part of the city was occupied by warehousing and industry, as well as residences for the working class. Immediately outside the city limits were low-order residential developments, occupied mainly by the middle class. Small towns in Colombo’s outskirts, now known as Colombo’s Metro Region, were rapidly growing with increasing populations and new businesses. This contiguous urban entity today comprises a city of nearly two million. The dark age of Colombo began with the terrorist activities of the mid1980s. The city was an arena for protests and terror of the Tamil Liberation movements operating from the North and East of the island. Security was the main concern for all. Bunkers, barricades, and high-walled fences were a 32 The City and South Asia
common sight, and armed soldiers could be found at almost every junction. The situation remained so for twenty-five years. As soon as all areas of the country were freed from terrorist groups and peace and order were established in 2009, the new government introduced a massive rehabilitation and redevelopment program. To boost the economy, trade and tourism became a focal point, transforming Colombo, the gateway to Sri Lanka, into an attractive, livable place. Urban-development activities that had been stymied are now being realized. The more peaceful environment and the recovering economy, along with more favorable government policies, have brought Colombo into yet another era of transformation. Large-scale city beautification projects are rehabilitating existing public open spaces. Around six thousand “economically backward” families, who occupied prime but underserved lands of the city, are being rehoused in high-density, multi-story residential developments. Many massive development projects have been sponsored by foreign investors. Colombo is expected to attain a new global outlook through reclamation of five hundred hectares of the sea for new businesses and residential developments, construction of a lotus-shaped tower duly serving as a telecommunication and tourist site, and a new skyline of high rises for business and recreation. While these developments are ambitious and futuristic, there are several pitfalls in their design. Their scale is stunning but overwhelming for a humble city whose majority population is native Sri Lankan. For one, the amount of shopping, office, and apartment space supplied by these massive developments is far greater than the foreseen demand. The population of the city, along with its metropolitan region, is unlikely to increase beyond four million, where the whole of Sri Lanka’s future population is predicted to be static around twenty-four million. Colombo will also continue to compete with other Sri Lankan cities for new residents. Under such circumstances, the critical mass required to meet the demands of the upcoming developments in Colombo will depend more upon a large influx of foreign visitors and international businesses than on local commerce and consumers. This will be a critical challenge, for Colombo will compete with other South Asian and Southeast Asian cities attempting to attract international businesses. Furthermore, the new large-scale structures are international in style and do not have adequate regard for the sense of identity and uniqueness of their local context. Colombo is transforming rapidly into a global city, which in time may not have many differences from Singapore, Dubai, or Bangkok. Of paramount importance are emerging signs of exclusivity in Colombo. First, the middle-income earners, employed by small- and medium-scale businesses, and who make up the vast majority of Colombo’s population, are restricted from many of the recently developed residential apartments and the lands. The real-estate market provides immense opportunities for high-income earners, and the government provides improved housing for low-inHarvard South Asia Institute 33
come groups. But the middle class is forced to find its own residences in the peripheries of the city. Second, the newly developed public spaces and shopping facilities in Colombo are designed and operated by rules which assume a particular type of consumer behavior that is not compatible with that of the cityâ€™s population at present. Pricey food items, consumables, and other goods sold in these stores are beyond the purchasing power of most of the patrons. Establishment of the new facilities and spaces may have been a conscious decision as the governmentâ€™s main intention is to fuel fast growth in the economy. To that end, high-technology industries associated with creativity and innovation have been promoted. Such industries depend heavily upon individuals with high human capital and attracting them to Colombo may be the underlying reason. Yet, the question is whether this policy of exclusion will evoke a Colombo reminiscent of its colonial era. Furthermore, development efforts should not focus solely on Colombo, which would result in lopsided development of the island. While 80 percent of Sri Lankan industry is centered in Colombo, roughly 70 percent of the countryâ€™s total population and workforce is located outside of the port city. The recent developments and changing urban makeup in Colombo provide clear signs of a social transformation. Perhaps this transformation is not revolutionary, but subtle and still incomplete. The varying intentions, aspirations, and values of this transformation are reflected in the emerging built environment of Colombo, which at a glance is dazzling and promising, but also foretells problems of oversight and exclusivity.
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Courtesy of Orangeadnan
36 The City and South Asia
When the Portuguese missionary Fray Sebastian Manrique visited Dhaka in late 1640, he observed that “many countries resort to this city on account of its vast trade and commerce. . . . These have raised the city to an eminence of wealth which is stupefying.” The experience of trying to maneuver through the city today is a shocking contrast to this image of affluence. In fact the Economist Livability Ranking of 140 cities considers Dhaka less habitable than war-torn Baghdad or Kabul. Thus, it may be surprising to learn that the size of the megacity’s economy is about a twelfth that of the United Kingdom.1 Reconciling this paradox of productive energy and poor governance is key to decoding Dhaka and understanding the state of many South Asian cities today. The unprecedented growth of the city’s population from ten to fifteen million people in the last decade reflects the tumultuous ebb and flow ever since its establishment as Jahangirnagar, the Mughal capital of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa in the early seventeenth century. In the three decades before Manrique arrived, the city had grown over nine times because of its strategic geography at the confluence of the two great river systems, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges. Within a decade, Dhaka in the former colonial hinterland will be the fourth-largest metropolis in the world, with its historically privileged sister city Calcutta (only as far away as Harvard is to Yale) following closely behind in West Bengal. This rapid growth in population and productivity, but not prosperity, raises enormous challenges for policy makers, planners, designers, and administrators. On how to mediate this growth, Professor Kenneth Frampton suggests that “the gargantuan ever-expanding Asian conurbations such as Tokyo, MumHarvard South Asia Institute 37
bai, Bangkok, Jakarta, etc., at fifteen million plus can no longer be regarded as cities in any traditional sense. . . . [They] can no longer be realized as coherent entities according to some [static] master plan.”2 For Dhaka, the challenge is escalated as its boundaries are determined by the river system and lowlands, with no room for expansion. The urbanized area measures only about twelve kilometers wide and about twenty-three kilometers long north to south, effectively the most compact megacity in the world. Accordingly, Dhaka’s urban density is about three times as high as that of Hong Kong.3 Mobility in this dense, compact metropolis is overwhelming, with the only north–south road at a standstill for several hours on weekdays. Like many other Asian cities such as Delhi or Osaka, Dhaka is a palimpsest that is manifest in the layered urban fabric representing a Mughal, Mediterranean (Greek/Armenian), British-Colonial, provincial, and, finally, Bangladeshi worldview. The narrative has its beginnings on the banks of the Buriganga, a tributary of the mighty Ganges. If one can imagine a patrician profile, Sadarghat is ground zero at the throat and the city has consistently grown north past the ears on to a buoyed hairline and beyond. As in many medieval towns, carriageways and pedestrian walks have shaped the earliest remaining fabric. Old neighborhoods are still called after their former inhabitants such as Armanitola (Armenian) or Farashganj (French) or guilds such as Shakharipur (shell artisans). English Road has not been renamed from its use during the East India Company’s dominance. Dhaka’s expansion northward was propelled by the implementation of a railway to Tejgaon, which was envisioned as a sort of industrial EPZ, an export processing zone in the “suburbs,” so to speak. The geometry of the rail line conveniently separated the colonial overlay of a wide-open garden city fabric (Ramna) from the old town. The development of an adjacent high-density central business district continues to overlook some of the most impoverished areas in the city. The influx of people into the provincial capital after independence from Britain (1947) led to planned residential districts comprised of detached single-family communities (Dhanmondi, Gulshan, and Baridhara) that did not anticipate the growth to follow. Since 1971, as Dhaka has embraced its role as the national capital with a robust economy, this suburban texture has been superimposed by a dense fabric of mid-rise towers that have overwhelmed the existing infrastructure beyond capacity. Even newer development north of the airport (Uttara) mimics this fabric. This standard tool kit of hotels, malls, and vertical gated communities results from the flow of global capital into a concentrated handful of individual and corporate patrons. While these physical symbols may have global aspirations, they are accompanied by the inevitable proliferation of informal shantytowns that are an unplanned but integral part of this schizophrenic symbiosis. Perhaps as much as a quarter of the city’s population comprises these organic communities that burgeon along railways, lakes, and drainage canals—that is, 38 The City and South Asia
the least desirable and, therefore, the most secure from fear of displacement. This disenfranchised population is drawn to the city’s many opportunities, including garment factories that have grown consequently throughout the megacity. Dhaka’s challenges of unbridled growth and density are magnified by poor governance, grinding poverty, and the total collapse of mobility. It is in many ways an enormous urban laboratory in search of yet unimagined formulas that will solve many complex issues. Relying on a master plan prepared through a more “traditional” approach is unlikely to temper this monumental kinetic experiment from evolving in unpredictable ways. In earlier, relatively static periods, there had been tectonic interventions such as Sher-e-Banglanagar, the National Assembly complex by Louis I. Kahn, an iconic inspiration for modernity and democracy. Set within a pristine garden in the heart of the city it is an idyllic monument that, in the post-9/11 period, is only able to engage the city from a distance. The answer to the megacity’s emancipation must emerge from that unconventional, creative, and strategic process that has led to the immensely successful simplicity of the Grameen Bank. If Paris is a city of great boulevards, Hong Kong a mountain of skyscrapers overlooking a magnificent bay, and London a collection of great parks, then what is Dhaka’s identity? The fact that Dhaka’s citizens celebrate the accessible riverbank (Hatirjheel) near Tejgaon is a clue. Perhaps the answer to its many challenges relies on embracing its origins, and its inherent code, at this unique geography of land and water.
1. Dhaka is about $217 billion at purchasing power parity (PPP). 2. Kenneth Frampton, “Megaform as Urban Landscape,” 1999 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture (College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, 1999). 3. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s analysis based on actual urban land coverage.
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Impatient Capital and the Indian City Rahul Mehrotra
Urban India, in the post-liberalized economy starting in the 1990s, is characterized by physical and visual contradictions that coalesce in a landscape of incredible pluralism charged with polarities. With globalization and the emergence of a postindustrial service-based economy in Indian cities, urban space has been fragmented and polarized with the rich and poor jostling for access to amenities. Further, the state has more or less given up the responsibility of projecting an “idea of India” through the built and physical environment as it had done in the post-independence era with the several state capitals, government, and educational campuses across the country. Today the major state-directed projects are highways, flyovers, airports, telecommunications networks, and electricity grids which connect urban centers but don’t contribute to determining or guiding their physical structures. In India’s post-liberalization economy, cities and their burgeoning peripheries have become sites for the shifting of responsibilities and, concurrently, an evolving relationship between the private and the public. Today, private capital chooses to build environments that are insulated from their contexts, without the burdens of facilitating citizenship or place making necessary in a real city. These gated communities take the form of vertical towers in the inner city and sprawling suburban compounds in the peripheries. In fact, in the state-controlled economy the physical relationship between different classes was often orchestrated according to a master plan founded on entitlement to housing and proximity to employment. In the new economy, the fragmentation of service and production locations has resulted in a new, bazaar-like urbanism that has woven its presence through the entire urban landscape. With the retreat of the state in the 1990s (in different measures across 40 The City and South Asia
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India), the space of the “everyday” has become the place where economic and cultural struggles are articulated, and the physical shape cities in India have taken manifests itself in the informal landscape of the bazaar city. This bazaar-like form, or the kinetic city, can be seen as the symbolic image of the emerging urban Indian condition. The processions, weddings, festivals, hawkers, street vendors, and slum dwellers all create an ever-transforming streetscape—a city in constant motion where the very physical fabric is characterized by the kinetic. The static city, on the other hand, dependent on architecture for its representation, is no longer the single image by which the city is read. Thus, architecture is not the “spectacle” of the city, nor does it even comprise the single dominant image of the city. Quite in contrast, festivals such as Diwali, Dussehra, Navratri, Muhharam, Durga Puja, Ganesh Chaturthi, and many more have emerged as the visual and representational spectacles of contemporary India. Their presence on the everyday landscape pervades and dominates the popular visual culture of India’s cities, towns, and villages. In fact, the increasing concentration of global flows in urban centers has exacerbated the inequalities and spatial divisions between social classes. In this context, an architecture or urbanism of equality in an increasingly inequitable economic condition requires a deeper consideration, so as to locate the wide range of places that signify and commemorate the cultures excluded from the spaces of global flows. Such places do not necessarily lie in the formal production of architecture, but often challenge it with a counterculture that takes on multiple forms. These are the landscapes of the self-help settlements often referred to as slums or the peripheries of cities that grow outside the formal state-controlled urban limit. Similarly, the over three hundred small towns in India that are expected to become cities of one million people and more in the next two to three decades are actively producing forms of urbanism outside the mainstream discussion on architecture or urban planning. In India today, hyper-consumption, fueled by a rapidly growing, economically mobile middle class, is resulting in the construction of a new landscape of global derivatives or the images of globalization. And it is an irony—that of the collusion of consciously dysfunctional land markets and exclusionary design and planning at multiple scales—that has created a deeply conflicted fabric within which poorer communities have managed to survive, thrive, and also alter and contest the notion of formality. This is deeply challenged by the world-class city idea and slum-free city imagination—often propelled by the government and financial institutions with a poorly informed appreciation of Dubai and Shanghai, the havens of impatient capital. The architecture that results from this attitude often displays a complete detachment from its ambient environment, as well as the place and community in which it is set. Furthermore, its tectonic quality and materiality are most often unmindful of local resources and traditions of building. Such architectural 42 The City and South Asia
production is usually a quick response to large-scale infrastructure projects (such as upper-income housing, hospitals, schools, colleges, and commercial development) that allow private participation in otherwise largely governmentcontrolled sectors. Most importantly, this form of global architecture thrives on its perceived competence to provide predictable and stable services for (often impatient) capital searching for a host terrain in which to invest. Consequently, design services are often outsourced to Western firms perceived to be competent and well experienced in configuring global buildings—namely, those well versed in the use of new materials and technologies that meet international standards and facilitate the predictable value of the building’s performance. This notion of design by a remote agency enhances, rather than diminishes, the perceived value of this form of global architecture. The built landscape in India today symbolizes the two simultaneous transitions at play in our political landscape—one is a transition out of socialism and the other a transition into capitalism. In the simultaneous play of changes such as these, the built environment is naturally a muddle with the fallouts of both reforms finding expression in the physical form of the cities. Ruptures in the urban fabric and startling adjacencies characterize the city that evolves with these narratives colliding in urban space. The two narratives of political rhetoric that then are put into play are those of “building a global city” (the Singapore, Dubai, and Shanghai models) or a city that panders to global capital and those of building a civil society or a city that supports lives. The paraphernalia in each one of these cities is different. In the former the ground has to be prepared to allow capital to land softly and securely. In the other citizens are placed first and basic infrastructure and patterns of mobility determine how the city grows and how people have equitable access to these amenities. It is really the choice between these two directions or attitudes to city building that will be central to the discussion about the future of urban India.
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The Land and Tilism of Hoshruba Courtesy of Andrew Halladay
Musharraf Ali Farooqi
The eleventh-century CE collection Kathasaritsagara recounts how King Patruka with a miraculous staff—which he had stolen—sketched out on the ground the outlines of a city for his beloved Princess Patali. The staff had the power to materialize anything written with it. Once drawn out with the staff, a whole city, together with its citizens—and furnished with an army of infantry, cavalry, archers and elephants—sprang up by magic. Named after a beloved and raised on occult foundations, Pataliputra was likely the first magical kingdom conceived of in literature. It was an instance of magical foundations supporting a geographical world: Pataliputra was the historic name of the city today known as Patna. Some seven centuries later there arose in literature a far more resplendent kingdom named Hoshruba. Draped in layers of enchanted architecture, it was a tilism, or magical world, created by a group of sorcerers. We encounter this world in the first-ever magical fantasy epic Tilism-e Hoshruba (1883–93). Written in Urdu and spanning over eight thousand pages, it was composed from its various oral traditions by two Indian storytellers, Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar, in Lucknow, India. It was the fifth book of the forty-six-volume Dastan-e Amir Hamza cycle. A glimpse into Hoshruba’s magical underpinnings reveals that inanimate matter infused with planetary and cosmic forces was employed to raise its edifice. Powers that defied the laws of God and the physical world could be exercised within its precincts. Hoshruba housed beautiful and grotesque illusions and exhibited extraordinary marvels, which were produced by configuring and exploiting the planet’s inherent physical forces. Hoshruba’s three regions—Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden, and 44 The City and South Asia
Harvard South Asia Institute 45
Zulmat the Dark—were also tilisms, and contained countless dominions and smaller tilisms filled with thousands of buildings, enclosures, and palaces; and governed by sorcerer princes and sorceress princesses. Ordinary citizens of Hoshruba lived in the region of Zahir the Manifest. The royalty and the nobility made their abode in Batin the Hidden. Zulmat the Dark, inhabited by powerful sorceresses, was a secluded region of Hoshruba to which few had access. An enchanted river called the River of Flowing Blood divided the regions of Zahir and Batin. A bridge made of smoke and guarded by two smoke lions, which was called the Bridge of the Magic Fairies, stretched over it. From this bridge a three-tiered tower rose to the skies. On the lowest tier of this tower, magic fairies stood alert, holding trumpets and clarions to their lips. From the second tier, another group of magic fairies constantly tossed pearls into the river to the fish that swam there, carrying them in their mouths. On the topmost tier, gigantic Abyssinians arrayed in double rows skirmished together with swords. The blood that flowed from their wounds poured into the water below and gave the River of Flowing Blood its name. There was no dominion that could equal Hoshruba’s grandeur and majesty, nor anyone who could match the splendor and stateliness of the master of Hoshruba, Afrasiyab, the emperor of sorcerers, who ruled over the tilism with the sorceress empress Heyrat. Afrasiyab moved freely between the three regions of Hoshruba. Whenever anyone called out his name in the tilism, Afrasiyab’s magic alerted him to the call. He possessed the Book of Sameri, which contained an account of every event inside and outside the tilism. And he had a magic mirror that projected his body into his court during his absence. But the many layers of Hoshruba, its seemingly endless space, and the marvelous powers of its master, were all enclosed in finitude. No tilism can be created without a key inscribed with the directions for its unraveling and the name of the one who would destroy it, and Hoshruba was no exception. Like human life, the tilism was a formula set to a limited existence. Tilism-e Hoshruba makes it abundantly clear that nothing a mortal creates could dare compete with the Creator’s work or have any attributes of eternal existence. As with the man so with his work, both must disintegrate at the end of their term. Over the years, the whereabouts of Hoshruba’s key were forgotten. The thought that the illusion would one day disappear itself became inconceivable. Afrasiyab, a usurper who had deposed Hoshruba’s legitimate ruler, Lachin, now endeavored to perpetuate his empire and the tilism by foiling the tilism’s destroyer when he appeared. But Hoshruba is in turmoil even as the story opens. And as the saga proceeds, cycles of warfare wash away the defenses of Hoshruba. The narrative of rivalries, betrayals, and love undermine the tilism and its ruler’s hold as the destroyer of the tilism enters Hoshruba in search of the magical key. Hoshruba is a wholly fictional entity and its furniture is entirely made up of the fabric of imagination. But within this magical world the conventions of social code— 46 The City and South Asia
from the idioms, food, dress, and etiquette, to the poetic metaphors employed in describing its exaggerated beauty, down to the social prejudices and the definition of gender roles—are all borrowed from nineteenth-century India. If magical foundations supported a geographical world in the case of Pataliputra, Hoshruba was the example of a cultural world enclosed within a magical universe. Despite the finitude of the tilism itself, the Tilism-e Hoshruba is considered a living repository of nineteenth-century Indo-Islamic culture.
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Durga Pujo in Kolkata
48 The City and South Asia
Courtesyof Dipshikha Mitra, 2012
Courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly, 2013, GFDL, CC-BY-3.0
Writing about Durga Pujo takes me down memory lane. Ichapur, a small suburb outside Kolkata. Late 1980s. We, eight boys around ten years old, are running through the crowded street across the bazaar. Dressed in new clothes for the pujo, we make noise and move fast, excited to reach the community ground and try out some jhal muri (spicy puffed rice that is quintessential street food in Kolkata) with pocket money given by our grandparents. Fast-forward about ten years to the Kolkata of my teens. Mid-1990s. I eagerly look at the pandal (large temporary shelter), a terra-cotta structure with glitter and lights, where a representation of the goddess Durga is situated and where I have promised to meet my new date, the girl I always liked next door. Fast-forward about twenty more years. Present-day Kolkata. I meet with some old friends while back in the city for a short vacation. The pujo has turned into Sharadotsav (an autumnal festival), sponsored by big corporations, teeming with thematic lights, innovative structures, rejuvenated vernacular art from rural Bengal, and contemporary Bengali music, presenting a complete package of spectacle, aesthetics, and ritual. Though these events last only five to seven days, the memories endure. The recollection is largely of a dramatic transformation of the cityâ€”its streets, markets, parks, and neighborhoodsâ€”from a site of everyday drudgery to a magical place of imagination and dream. Kolkata and Durga Pujo are inseparable. The geopolitical and spatial topology of the city is embedded in the historic development in three zones: White Town (colonial roots, identity, space, buildings, architecture), Black Town (Bengali elites copying the British, masses segregated by class, crooked lanes, temples), and New Town (modern vocabulary of globalization, and towers, parks, highways). It is interesting that as the pujo evolved from being a home rituHarvard South Asia Institute 49
al of the Indian elites to a community-organized event to a public festival for all, Durga Pujo cuts across this spatial evolution. Durga Pujo is celebrated as the homecoming of goddess Durga (along with her two sons and two daughters)—a religious festival at its roots, but a social milieu and cultural festival in a more contemporary sense. Like many South Asian cities, Kolkata is structured around its neighborhoods. Durga Pujo—its planning, organization, outcome, and experience—acts as a strong identity generator for these neighborhoods. People in communities organize themselves to plan throughout the year for this annual event in several ways. The planning process reinforces a social structure connecting neighborhood elders with youth through interaction and volunteer works. The process instigates entrepreneurial enterprises for pursuing and collecting funding, corporate sponsorship, resource allocation, and management. Competition among neighborhoods encourages higher sensitivity toward design aesthetics and promotes integration of international themes with vernacular arts and crafts. The result is development of a unique informal system comprising comprehensive planning, economic development, resource allocation, implementation, management, and even deconstruction. Monumental structures are built as a temporary residence of the deity in a strategic neighborhood location—park, street, alley, or market. The neighborhood becomes a single location for a mélange of multiple emplacements—real and unreal at the same time—where time and history are collapsed, and excess and extravagance are permissible for the next few days. One can move from one neighborhood to another and experience a grand Hindu temple, an Assyrian palace in Mesopotamia, the Taj Mahal, and Victorian gothic structures. Neighborhood after neighborhood, Kolkata presents an illustration of theme, experimentation, illusion, and metamorphosis combined with aesthetic aptitude for art and sensitivity to emerging social narratives. And everything is gone after a week—the spectacular art forms and structures taken down, and the deity immersed in the river. Behind this dramatic transformation, what are the opportunities for Kolkata? How can the city leverage integration of such community spirit with urban organization and artistic expression? What are the lessons for urban design and planning from this temporary spectacle? First, Durga Pujo allows us to reimagine the urban content of Kolkata for the few days of the festival. The urban infrastructure, people, and environment assume a new dimension and meaning. Durga Pujo encourages us to rethink possible relationships among these multiple actors. Second, Durga Pujo illustrates dynamic urban processes. From neighborhood dynamics and migration of people to reconstruction of identity with changing demographics, it demonstrates a community-oriented, city-making process supported by people, crafts, and corporate houses, briefly convening in a strategic partnership. Third, Durga Pujo is an urban representation. It is a project and process for production of locality. We need to carefully examine its agency, its purpose, its vision, and its 50 The City and South Asia
design. However temporary, Durga Pujo in Kolkata can be imagined as an expression of comprehensive city making, a construction of a public sphere. The festival—in its processes and aesthetics—has become a civic response, a domain for Bengali civil society to form and express public opinion.1 For the city of Kolkata and for Bengalis, Durga Pujo is a festival of its own. During the pujo, the city becomes the site of transformative exploration of artistic thinking, design imagination, problem solving, and vernacular craftsmanship.2 Durga Pujo is a window of opportunity for Kolkata to articulate subconscious social, political, and economic thinking. Such progressive and creative expression otherwise remains obscure behind public apathy, political differences, infrastructural inefficiencies, and increasing economic inequity. This connection between social awareness and its urban reaction highlights potential for architectural aesthetics, alternate thinking, and design agency. If Durga Pujo can jump-start a creative arts renaissance and generate such an illusory and mythical public space in the city, why does Kolkata suffer from a blight and dilapidated everyday environment? If Durga Pujo can summon such fervor and spirit in connecting arts, crafts, and the vernacular, why does the city neglect the care of local Bengali architecture? If Durga Pujo presents a beautiful package for historic imagery and powerful storytelling, why does Kolkata fail to demonstrate sensibility toward historic conservation and heritage? If Durga Pujo embodies urban management of complex problems such as public safety, sanitation, and transportation so effectively, how does urban management of Kolkata’s public works remain weak? If Durga Pujo, at least for these five days, illustrates such powerful expression of rigor, details, and aesthetics, why does the city fail to embody such aesthetic values in its architecture and planning practices? It is unfortunate that Kolkata has failed to translate the spirit and efficiency of the temporary spectacles of the Durga Pujo into a formal framework for the city. The possibilities are endless for resource management, neighborhood development, historic conservation and beautification, and formal urban design. Till then, Durga Pujo in Kolkata remains a dream—a dream that the city and her people wait to live for a week every year, a dream that shows what Kolkata is and can be.
1. S. Bhaduri, “Of Public Sphere and the Sacred Space: A Study in the Origins of Community Durga Puja in Bengal,” in Folklore, Public Sphere and Civil Society, ed. M. D. Muthukumaraswamy and M. Kaushal (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and National Folklore Support Centre, 2004), 79–91. 2. A. Mitra, Kolkata O Durgapujo (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2003).
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In Varanasi We Trust
Courtesy of Andi H
52 The City and South Asia
Keval aap kaa vishwaas chahiyee. That’s the sign that meets you when you enter Raj Bandhu, one of Varanasi’s premier sweetshops, located in the heart of the city’s main bazaar. Actually, the sign is posted twice, with no other written words greeting the customer—only images of various divinities and photographs of assorted VIPs, which testify to the shop’s elite status, where divinity and royalty meet. The sign, which literally means something like “Only Your Trust Is Necessary,” might better be translated, “Your Trust Is All That Matters.” But why does trust matter so much? As one of the city’s most renowned sweetshops, Raj Bandhu could promote itself in other ways, proclaiming its commitment to quality, its pre-independence pedigree, or the fact that it has provided sweets to prime ministers and film stars. But no. Within the logic of the bazaar and throughout much of the city, trust—in Hindi, vishwaas—is the most crucial commodity; it is the moral substratum that allows for much of the business in the city to take place. Trust, in fact, is even more than this: it is an active element, crucial for cultivating and maintaining networks that tie the city and its inhabitants together. This notion that trust is the basis for much of what happens in the bazaar, and that trust is an idea and practice that then infiltrates and undergirds society at large, may seem bizarre at first, for the city is also riddled with doubt. There is, to be sure, a kind of trust deficit that manifests itself in doubt in just about everything. For example, I’ve frequently been told that Varanasi is overrun by two kinds of crooks, khaki and khadi—police and politicians, signaled here by their clothing—for both are deemed to be corrupt. As one merchant in the bazaar told me, “No one trusts the police. This is fact.” And few trust the political process or their elected officials. “I’ve never seen an honest election in Harvard South Asia Institute 53
Varanasi,” said one lifetime resident. He then regaled me with stories of how various family members would invariably be removed from the polling lists because of their political allegiances, and how other family members would be shown to have cast their votes, although they had long been deceased. But even greater disdain is reserved for politicians themselves, particularly for their promises to improve the city’s crumbling infrastructure—promises, to be sure, that have rarely been kept. To this day the electricity supply is erratic, with massive and irregular power cuts; the water supply is fitful; and the roads are in a perpetual state of disrepair. As one exasperated allergy sufferer proclaimed, “There’s more dirt and dust in Varanasi than in the desert!” Absolutely every adult in Varanasi has stories of corruption within the domain of governance. I once likened politicians in Varanasi to Mafia dons only to be corrected: Mafia dons are more like junior politicians, working their way up the extortion hierarchy, from illegal to quasi-legal. Politicians themselves drain the city’s coffers for the benefit of family, friends, and political allies, while the police pay for choice posts and then recoup the cost through various forms of extortion, both small and large. For those beneath these overlords, bribes are the grease necessary to lubricate one’s activities in the city, and police and politicians are at the top of this greasy—if not slimy—mechanism, extracting the money of those beneath them in exchange for various forms of permission or compliance. Anticorruption crusaders are thus popular in the city, although most citizens complain that corruption is so deeply embedded within the domains of politics and law enforcement that change won’t come anytime soon. In response to my questions about when the city’s pernicious corruption might end, the phrase I most often met with was “not in my lifetime.” Though trust in government institutions is lacking, there is a robust form of trust to be found within the bazaar, beginning with the relationship that merchants and shopkeepers have with each other. Since the colonial period, commercial transactions in the bazaar have primarily been regulated by systems of trust and reputation, not commercial law, courts, or police. Within this matrix, one’s creditworthiness is closely connected with one’s meritoriousness, such that merchant credit and religious merit are easily convertible currencies, and a supply of both are necessary to facilitate financial and social engagements. In the colonial period, this led many wealthy merchants to build temples, and as businesses prospered and temples proliferated, many temple complexes themselves turned into businesses, with both merchant families and religious institutions running successful commercial and banking houses. This matrix of market and religion helped the city thrive, but it also kept the state marginalized, an outsider to much of the city’s development. Residents of the city prized their independence, to the extent that one’s commercial credit was likely to suffer if one was too openly involved with the government. This independence helped ensure that the economy developed 54 The City and South Asia
in an insular fashion, with the financial and the religious as two sides of the same coin, and the state anathema to both. And that meant that Varanasi was to a large degree self-contained and self-governed, with townsmen, merchants, and religious specialists functioning and thriving together, and in the process creating a new kind of moral economy. And it flourished. During the rise of the East India Company and then the rise (and fall) of the British Empire, Varanasi was the subcontinent’s inland commercial capital and its religious center. But the state never flourished—it did little to develop the city’s infrastructure, and it never earned the trust of the city’s inhabitants. In May 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s newest prime minister, choosing Varanasi as his constituency although he had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a dozen years. Immediately after his inauguration, while standing on the banks of the Ganges, he promised to clean up the river and develop the city’s infrastructure, but as he explained, it could not be done by the government alone; the people must do their part. The people of the city are generally excited that the prime minister has chosen Varanasi as a kind of test case for his model of development, but after centuries of distrusting the state and its politicians, will they now change their ways? And will the city’s merchants, so used to functioning independently, work with Modi’s government, which plans to transform Varanasi as part of a multi-crore development of heritage cities? Prime Minister Modi is asking the city of Varanasi for its trust. The city happily extends its trust in its sweetshops, but will it trust its government?
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Smoke gets in your eyes. Overseen by an advertising hoarding, a scavenger collects and sorts waste in an open dump near Chalai market in Kerala’s capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. January 2014.
Waste and the City
Courtesy of Assa Doron
Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey
56 The City and South Asia
Indian cities today can be likened to an organism: they consume material and excrete waste. It is a highly differentiated organism: the prosperous components consume with gusto and leave abundant waste that affects health, environment, and especially the lives of the poor. The rapid growth of cities, the rise of a consuming middle class, and rural migration drive an ever-increasing volume of refuse. In the twentieth century, M. K. Gandhi, India’s “father of the nation,” preached a frugality that was unique among national heroes of the past two hundred years. For Gandhi, the perfecting of spiritual village life was the antidote to industrialization and its accompanying urban greed. Though much of Gandhi’s philosophy was ignored in India after independence, Indian governments inherited a deep skepticism of urbanization. “Keep people in the villages” was often an implicit message. A Ministry of Urban Development was not created until 1985, and the country’s five-year plans began to highlight urbanization only with the Ninth Plan (1997–2002).1 Such skepticism of urban life, coupled with slow economic growth, meant that India did not experience a rush to the cities after independence. One in six Indians (less than 18 percent of the population) lived in a town or city in 1961. Until the 1990s, town dwellers were remarkably frugal because the middle class was small and government policy discouraged the manufacture or import of consumer goods. A refrigerator was an unimaginable luxury for a school teacher in the 1970s; mass production of television sets did not begin until the mid-1980s. The economic liberalization of 1991 brought more people to urban locales. Towns and cities added close to 170 million people in twenty years, and Harvard South Asia Institute 57
by 2011 more than 375 million people (31 percent of the population) were urban. The country had 53 cities of more than one million people each and 412 towns with populations of more than one hundred thousand. Overcrowding, piecemeal planning, and changing consumption patterns mean that today’s cities and towns face surging waves of waste. Liquid and solid waste chokes urban India, spilling over to contaminate every part of the city except the protected areas of gated, middle-class privilege. For the affluent, the problem of waste is largely resolved independent of municipal infrastructure. Private facilities provide electricity, sanitation, and waste disposal. Little confidence is placed in local government. Poor people, living near dump sites and sewage outflows, are most exposed to the harmful effects of waste and pollutants expelled by gated communities, shopping complexes, and commercial districts. The volume and variety of the material entering the waste stream of Indian cities defy easy containment. Municipal solid waste management (MSWM) and public sanitation are the most formidable challenges facing Indian cities. “Not a single political system here realizes the gravity of the problem,” the municipal commissioner of one of India’s largest cities told an interviewer in 2013. The problem of waste—garbage, refuse, sewage—is “even worse than nuclear warfare [because] nuclear warfare is not likely at all. This is inevitable.”2 Local governments were estimated to collect about 180,000 tonnes of solid waste a day or about 65 million tonnes a year in 2013.3 But no one knew for sure how much solid waste urban India generated. What was clear was that waste was winning: most towns and cities were overwhelmed, and local newspapers wrote repeatedly of “crisis” when they wrote of waste. The most obvious landmark in the growth of waste in urban India was the expansion of plastic packaging. In the 1970s, a plastic bag was precious, probably secured from overseas, put away for safekeeping and used for special purposes. In the 1980s, as plastic bags took off in North America and Europe and as India’s petrochemical industry grew, circumstances changed.4 Five years after the economic liberalization of 1991, plastic bottles began to multiply like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) rabbits, as did polyethylene bags. Plastic poses perhaps the most visible and emotionally charged waste question for urban societies, though it is not the biggest contributor to waste. In average garbage collection of US cities in the 1990s, paper products made up 40 percent of what went to dumps and landfills; plastics contributed between 20 and 25 percent.5 The other big contributor was construction and demolition (C&D) waste, which accounted for an estimated 18 percent of landfill in a developed American state like Pennsylvania; but C&D increases rapidly when cities expand.6 A survey in India in 2013 estimated C&D debris at an incredible 531 million tonnes; an official estimate put the figure at an equally improbable figure of only twelve million tonnes.7 The correct answer, of course, was that no one knew for sure; but such waste presented a steadi58 The City and South Asia
ly growing challenge very different from that of plastic, paper, and the “wet waste” of homes, markets, slaughterhouses, and the excretions of human beings. In fast-expanding urban areas, waste is often dumped furtively in collusion with garbage mafias or complicit officials. Governments can reduce waste in urban India by regulating packaging, by providing incentives for collection and disposal, and by ensuring segregation of waste at the time of collection. But regulation of solid waste presents another challenge. Much processing of waste is still done by impoverished waste pickers who recover items of value but leave the rest to fester. Introducing more mechanized and institutionalized collection methods increases their marginalization and provokes resistance. No city or major town in India has devised a program that effectively deals with all waste within its own natural boundaries, which may include a number of local-government units. The social and political challenges, even to make a relatively small program work effectively, are immense. The urban poor who live off processing waste need to be included in systems that recognize their trade and improve their social and economic conditions. Municipal authorities in Pune, Delhi, and no doubt elsewhere have experimented with ways that draw such people into comprehensive systems of waste management. Making such projects work is an essential first step to preventing India’s cities from replicating the squalor of British and American urbanization in the nineteenth century and becoming global hotspots of disease and poverty in the twenty-first.
1. Ninth Five Year Plan, vol. 1, para. 1.38, p. 10, http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/ fiveyr/9th/default.htm (accessed August 29, 2014). 2. Interview with R. Jeffrey, October 16, 2013. 3. Times of India, September 25, 2013, quoting R. A. Rajeev, principal secretary (environment), Maharashtra. 4. Kaveri Gill, Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Informal Economy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12. Gill says that India produced sixty thousand tonnes of plastic in 1960 and four million tonnes by 2001. 5. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), 103. 6. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Construction and Demolition Waste,” http://goo.gl/EcTqZ1 (accessed August 25, 2014). 7. Avikal Somvanshi, “Solid Wealth,” Down to Earth, August 31, 2014, http://goo.gl/qAGk8J (accessed August 26, 2014).
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Finding the Citizen in the City
60 The City and South Asia
Courtesy of Todd Brown
The government of India’s budget for 2014 provides for Rs. 7,060 crores (US$12 billion) to create one hundred “smart cities.” A “smart city” is defined as a city in which everything from infrastructure to public utilities, and from traffic management to waste management, is enabled by information technology. The plan is apparently to modernize some existing middle-sized cities, and create others as satellite towns of the larger Indian cities. Sistema JSFC, a large Russian conglomerate, has already expressed its interest in developing smart cities in India, complete with lines of credit. The news stories that convey this information are likely to appear as science fiction to anyone who lives in an Indian city today. Not only is such a technologically driven future difficult to envision, but it is also supremely challenging to imagine the citizens that would populate such spaces. Would they be versions of the people who live in the elite neighborhoods of India’s cities today? Would the services currently provided by a battery of chauffeurs, guards, concierges, cleaners, cooks, and nannies be provided, in smart cities, by robots? This is a relevant question because life in urban India is presently sustained by a gigantic human scaffolding that supports a precarious architecture of inequality. Contrary to conventional wisdom, citizenship in India is nowhere less at home than in the city.1 The twenty-first century Indian city is a deeply uncivic space in its denial of basic entitlements no less than of opportunities for civic participation. This is partly a result of the accelerated pace at which urbanization has occurred in recent years, with 590 million people projected to be living in Indian cities by 2030.2 Cities are home to large numbers of poor migrants. Delhi alone has half a million people arriving every year in search of livelihood. Though the urban Harvard South Asia Institute 61
economy depends on their labor, their status remains that of outsiders. In the city, the urban poor lead a shadowy existence: their access to essentials like housing, electricity, and water is marked by illegality, and their occupations by informality. Of Delhi’s population, 85 percent works in the unorganized sector; 75 percent of the city’s households have more than four members; and 50 percent of its population lives in one- or two-room homes.3 Placing these official statistics alongside the fact that Delhi is among the top three states in terms of per capita foreign direct investment yields a significant inference about the concentration of wealth and economic opportunity, and the marginality of the majority of denizens of this city. Historically, the city has been the birthplace of cosmopolitan cultures; in contemporary India, the most violent forms of nativism are encountered there, whether against non-Maharashtrians in Mumbai or young people from the northeast in Bangalore. Culturally marked populations are ghettoized, such that Hindu landlords will refuse Muslim tenants, and upper-caste Hindus will not buy apartments in housing societies run by Dalits.4 Slum settlements in most Indian cities are distinguished by the shared ethnicity of the excluded, huddled together in makeshift tenements of cultural solidarity. Arguably the most vulnerable among these are the migrants from Bangladesh, disproportionately represented in the ranks of the lowest-status occupations, ragpickers and scavengers. Elsewhere, the city, as the home of citizenship, has held out the promise of equality; in India, it remains the site of mortifyingly visible inequalities. Many cities in the Global South have organized inequalities through their geographies. The convergence between spatial and social exclusion in cities like Johannesburg and São Paulo is mimicked by the capital city of India as it pushes (or, euphemistically, “resettles”) the poor to the physical margins of the city. But Delhi also provides for additional spaces of marginality that are, mindful of the conveniences of its more prosperous citizens, located within the core. Behind the main streets in affluent neighborhoods, there are service lanes and rusted iron service staircases that convey domestic help to their small, poorly furnished sleeping spaces. Beside these neighborhoods are slum settlements where providers of other essential services reside. The map of India’s capital city is an improbable mix of poverty and prosperity, subsisting in nested proximity rather than neat segregation. As India’s elites move closer to a certain aesthetic imagination of the “worldclass” city, the presence of these pockets of poverty amid gated communities, glass and chrome offices, and malls appears an unseemly blemish. It provokes the anxiety to render invisible the very people who help sustain the glitz. This impulse finds expression in policies that relocate the poor to a safe distance from the spaces where the wealthy live and work, thus also keeping at bay the smells and diseases that mark the habitat of the urban poor.5 Here, sewage flows in open drains, electricity is stolen from poles by dangerously exposed wires, toilets are rare except occasionally on a pay-as-you-go basis, and water is provided by 62 The City and South Asia
the slumlord twice a week on payment. Some have recently discovered in this squalor an opportunity for conveying the message of global justice to potentially do-gooding tourists from the Global North. Half a dozen tour operators today offer tours—short, long, or customized—of Dharavi in Mumbai. Several organizers of slum walks in Delhi are listed and reviewed on Trip Advisor. The objects of their curiosity are justified in having a different view of these excursions and of the violations of dignity that are inevitably entailed. Those who govern India have long aspired to create “world-class” cities. The prime ministerial dream of a few years ago was to redesign Mumbai as Shanghai. The new prime ministerial dream of the smart city has only displaced this with a more ambitious plan. But neither vision of the world-class or smart city tells us what the social geography of these cities will be. Meanwhile, till the smart cities come up, there is always the commercially comforting thought that more slums will generate more slum tourism.
1. A famous Hindi film song of the 1950s (Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan) expressed the soullessness of the Indian city and its lack of humanity, remarking on the hypocrisy of city dwellers who mocked the homeless and called them “loafers,” but were themselves ready to cheat and kill in the pursuit of what they described as business. 2. India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth (McKinsey Global Institute, 2010). 3. Figures from the Economic Survey of Delhi 2012–13 and the Census of India, 2011. 4. http://ambedkar.blogspot.in/2004/10/no-takers-for-homes-in-dalit.html. 5. Gautam Bhan shows that “slum clearance” schemes caused the demolition of 45,000 homes between 2004 and 2007, and an even larger number in the preceding decade. “‘This Is No Longer the City I Once Knew’: Evictions, the Urban Poor and the Right to the City in Millennial Delhi,” Environment and Urbanization 21, no. 1 (2009): 127.
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Fig. 1. A model presents a creation by designer Little Shilpa during the second day of Lakme fashion week in Mumbai, March 28, 2009.
Whose City, Whose Art?
Fig. 2. A sculpture by Indian artist Jitish Kallat entitled Aquasaurus is shown as part of Indian Highway at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, China, June 27, 2012.
64 The City and South Asia
© Adrian Bradshaw/epa/ Corbis
© Punit Paranjpe/Reuters/ Corbis
Picture this contrast: the Taj Mahal towering against a pristine blue sky versus the crush of cars and people that thickens as one wades through the sprawl of urban India. One image is the poster child for India’s artistic heritage and a permanent fixture on the list of the world’s Seven Wonders, its marble splendor so recognizable that some of the world’s most famous women have staked their claim on its serene beauty (Princess Diana, Aishwarya Rai, and Oprah Winfrey have all posed before the Taj). The other is a bewildering cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds that defines the pulse of an Indian city—the exact opposite, if you will, of the neatly packaged Taj. For this is a pulse punctuated by the unholy specters of pollution, poverty, and, more recently, rape, with which urban India has come to be associated. Yet this is also the pulse that coaxes new artistic thresholds into being, forcing us to look beyond the countless art galleries dotting urban India into the very heart of a city’s rhythms—into the maze of streets, alleys, and lanes—where the urban beat of art is always evolving. In 2003, the photographer-turned-activist Jasmeen Patheja created Blank Noise, a public art project aimed to combat street harassment in Bangalore, which became more relevant than ever in the wake of the headline-hitting 2012 gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus in Delhi. But it is I Never “Asked for It,” another collaborative project by Patheja, that drew the trauma of sexual harassment into a disturbingly private viewing space—a Facebook page on which survivors posted images of the garments that they were wearing when they were heckled or abused. The owner remained faceless, yet another stranger amid the teeming millions who inhabit urban India, but it is her visual anonymity that brings into question the desire to violate distance and intimacy, with her garment standing in for her like a second skin. What is striking is that the clothes Harvard South Asia Institute 65
displayed in this virtual street gallery are stunningly unremarkable in their everyday appearance. Yet in their folds lies the powerful imprint of painful memories, and in their collective presence, a map of the social life of the city’s streets where anxiety, pleasure, and resistance coexist and often collide. Far from the gritty reality of streets, Patheja has mobilized a safe space where women can visualize, verbalize, and challenge the assumption that “provocative” clothing attracts the attention of a rapist, a topic hotly debated on Indian television channels with even Bollywood stars (perhaps the most glaring examples of “provocateurs”) weighing in on the issue. The streets may not be where the stars walk, but they are where the everyday woman begins and ends her journey each day when she goes to work, shops at the local bazaar, drops her children to school, strolls through a park, or visits a friend. The street is also where two radically different Indias come face to face— the India of small kirana shops carrying all sorts of odds and ends, and the India of global High Street brands meant to lure middle-class and elite consumers into one of the many glitzy malls sprouting across India. And it is this eccentric mixture that appeals to the artist, accessories designer, milliner, and stylist Little Shilpa (Shilpa Chavan) whose spectacular one-off hats and headpieces (fig. 1) have transformed the heads of some of the world’s biggest celebrities including Lady Gaga. A self-proclaimed “hoarder” who collects Indian fabrics, bras, toys, coins, stainless-steel strainers, dried twigs, ribbons, feathers—in short, “anything that interests” her—Shilpa regularly dips into local markets and kirana shops for her “raw materials.” “You know, on the art scene, my work is conceptual fashion,” she says in a recent interview with CNN. “In fashion, it’s sculptural art.” In her collaboration with the Argentinian fashion designer Martin Churba for the BBC’s Collaboration Culture project, Shilpa created accessories and headpieces, while Churba designed textiles and dresses. The project culminated in the artists photographing their models, styled by them, in the streets of Mumbai. One such shoot took place in front of a local temple where the model, dressed in a sari with Churba’s textiles coiled around her shoulders, and Shilpa’s confection of gold foil disks perched on her head, described feeling like an “Indian god.” The observation is not out of place. For Hindu gods frequently shape the spectacle of urban India in neighborhood temples, roadside shrines, and ornate pandals (tents) propped up during annual festivals like Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi for which a glittering ensemble of icons, dressed in their best, hit the city streets. Tapping into these carefully crafted extravaganzas, Shilpa and Churba’s collaboration produces its own unique street spectacle. Not surprisingly, a crowd gathers almost instantly and mobile cameras click away as the models strut about, their sartorial splendor inviting curiosity, amusement, and several nods of approval. “All the key themes of life get enacted on a Mumbai street; pain, happiness, anger, violence, and compassion are all played out in full volume. These in turn stack up within my art like a palimpsest of colliding signs.” For Jitish Kallat, one of India’s most cutting-edge contemporary artists, a water tanker or an auto-rick66 The City and South Asia
shaw plying the city streets is perfect fodder for his hard-hitting urban fantasies (fig. 2). Take, for instance, Aquasaurus (2008), a monumental sculpture of a water tanker reinvented as a primeval creature with a menacing toothy grin and a skeletal chassis whose bony bits and pieces draw attention to the starkness of death. Like Patheja and Shilpa, Kallat is also deeply concerned with the human body, but he focuses on something as basic as water, a natural resource in dire threat as rapid urban development pushes pumps and pipes deeper into the ground to meet the demands of growing urban populations (according to a report published by the Indian government’s Ministry of Water Resources in 2011, more than 50 percent of the water consumed in India’s urban areas is unaccounted for). As groundwater levels drop, local public works departments are forced to distribute water in water tankers. And it is these barrel-bellied vehicles threading their way through the thickness of India’s city traffic with their precious cargo that inspired Kallat’s satirical Aquasaurus, a grotesque interpretation of the plight of human survival trapped in the messy alliance between unplanned urban development, government corruption, and corporate profit. Kallat’s urban satire makes its way into art galleries across the world, Patheja’s virtual gallery refuses to keep up urban appearances, and Little Shilpa’s whimsical concoctions fashioned out of Mumbai kitsch glide across fashion runways: three urban artists with three very different takes on the mechanics of the city street, each proving that the art of the Indian city is a dynamic conversation with the very human desires and deprivations that urban life has a way of magnifying. Water, clothing, cars, buttons, and toys are all fundamental to those magnifications, for they fulfill basic human needs. Mixed up, rearranged, reconstituted, and deconstructed by Kallat, Patheja, and Shilpa, they make us look harder at the buzz of urban living, at the things urban consumers take for granted. And it is precisely because they are mundane that their magnifications render them magical or macabre amid the jumble of human encounters that makes the Indian city undeniably perplexing, never boring, and forever humbling.
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Floating on Waste Islands Venkata Krishna Kumar Matturi
The Maldives is sinking! While the process of island extinction is not straightforward, the nature of change is what bothers us the most because of our influence on geological processes. But a lack of understanding in identifying deeper issues only results in hurdles to develop adequate adaption strategies. The Maldives’ garbage problem is one of them. Few places in the world evoke such a sense of leisure, tranquility, and, in equal measure, urgency as the Maldives. The urgency is a result of a highly publicized and prevalent notion of island extinction because of sea level rise. These days climate change is on everyone’s mind. Whether against or in denial of it, climate change is constantly being written about, reviewed, and debated. Much of the attention the Maldives has garnered during and after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 has made it a champion of small island developing states (SIDS) in debates against climate change. If you are a tourist staying at one of the island resorts, you are unlikely to notice anything unwelcoming or unexpected from how the Maldives is portrayed. Tourist travel is extremely streamlined—so much so that resorts have their own landing pads for sea planes, and dedicated islands for each resort. Tourism is indeed the largest contributor to the Maldives’ economy making it the richest nation in South Asia in terms of per capita income. But tourism’s effect on the Maldives is far greater than mere economic consequence. I visited the Maldives as a researcher. Of course, my trip differed from that of a typical tourist. My first stop was Malé, the capital and the largest city in the Maldives. Malé acts as a microcosm of Maldivian island culture and practices, especially when it comes to managing its waste. Unlike in most capital cities in South Asia, the narrow streets of Malé, bustling with motorcycles, are kept 68 The City and South Asia
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relatively clean. Solid waste generated on the island is consolidated at a specific location only to be transferred later to what is now known as the “waste island,” Thilafushi—an island created entirely by dumping garbage in the ocean! Thilafushi, where mountains of garbage are burned, is a landfill expanding at a rate of one square meter a day. It hosts the only industrial area in the nation, built over a consolidated land reclaimed from the garbage-filled lagoon. What’s even more alarming is it is also inhabited by close to 2,000 people, mostly immigrants from Bangladesh, employed in the small manufacturing industry on the island. Some of these immigrants also help clean up Malé and other islands. Waste has a unique culture in the Maldives. Strikingly enough the beaches are part of that culture. Maldivians refer to the beach as Gon’dudhoh and Athiri— roughly translating to “a place to throw stuff ” or a “toilet.” My subsequent investigation took me to the islands located hundreds of nautical miles southwest of Malé and Thilafushi in Ari Atoll. Villages located on different islands have adopted various strategies to handle their garbage. After the tsunami wreaked havoc, the UN-funded integrated waste management centers (IWMC) were built on every inhabited island. Almost all of them remain unused. While some islands like Fenfushi burn their garbage to use it for land reclamation, other islands bury it. After all, land is the resource these island villages don’t have. Also unsurprising, the groundwater in Fenfushi is contaminated and possesses a thick yellow color indicating a strong presence of dissolved organic matter or metals. From construction of IWMCs to the ongoing governmental efforts funded by various international organizations like the World Bank, waste management is certainly not neglected. These efforts are, however, focused solely on managing the waste. Unlike nations with abundance of land where treating and recycling are viable alternatives, the Maldives’ geography, size, and diversity render it more difficult for the country to fit these conventional molds. While the rate at which people produce waste is ever increasing, the institutional capacities and a general lack of understanding of the very idea of waste are endangering the sensitive ecosystem—both of humans and of the corals in the ocean’s depths. When household waste used to consist only of easily disintegrable materials, the surrounding ocean took care of cleansing. Now waste presents itself in complex forms, often requiring highly specialized techniques to manage it. While the Maldives is part of a globalized and urban world in material consumption, its evolution, both systemically and economically, is incompatible with handling issues like waste management with piecemeal solutions. Complex ecosystems like the Maldives demand a higher level of scrutiny where no aspect can be excluded from interrogation, such as politics or cultural attitudes, in defining the problematic. In other words, characterizing problems as closed yielded no results and only culminated in further complications. Before tourism became a dominant industry in the Maldives, men were employed in various forms of fishing while women focused on subsistence agricul70 The City and South Asia
ture and island-level cleanup. Now, most of this workforce is employed by the tourism industry. The exotic nature of tourism ensures that materials and goods are imported consistently. Most of this packaging ends up as garbage. Even the fish that are exported are imported back as processed food to cater to tourists from around the world; this indicates that a much larger issue is at hand. The Maldives may not disappear in our lifetime, but the side effects of urbanization can be witnessed in its food, energy, water, and waste. Although the Maldives feels a certain cultural conformity and sense of belonging to South Asia, this unique island setting merits closer, more connected attempts to understand the transformation in the geological processes. While we may not be able to stop its extinction, we certainly are capable of adapting to the changing conditions in a far more comprehensive way. A good start would be to regulate the tourism industry and resurrect subsistence farming on the islands.
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Digital Romance in the Indian City Payal Arora and Nimmi Rangaswamy
The Indian city is no Paris. Far from being a city of love, it is marked by crowds, chaos, and confusion. Within desperately strained urban infrastructures lie “gray zones,” gray markets, and “gray practices.” In Mumbai alone, the most populous city in India, more than half of its population of 30 million lives in gray zones such as slums, with speculation that by 2025 they will pervade much of Mumbai’s urban landscape.1 Characteristic of slums are inhabitants sharing small spaces but, paradoxically, such forced intimacies come with major social distance architected by caste, class, gender norms, and even the color of one’s skin. In a contemporary urban culture where arranged marriages still dictate one’s social life and being “fair and lovely” is a ticket to social mobility, the city can serve as a traditional and chronic entrapment. For instance, it is not unusual for young men in slums to have hardly spoken with girls in their life. As Mohan, age eighteen, says, “In the 10th and 12th I never used to talk to girls . . . even now I don’t.” However, having recently gotten onto Facebook, his romantic prospects seem to have expanded considerably: “On FB, one can talk freely without having any fear. That girl asks me ‘come on FB.’ She cannot ask me like that to come outside. . . . She also uses [informal vocabulary]. She may not talk outside at all . . . it is easier to talk with a girl [friend] on Facebook than in person. . . . Face to face, we cannot really [say] anything.”2 Mohan has found a creative way of connecting with girls in an otherwise restrictive urban setting: the fifty shades of gray have gone digital. Seems like Facebook in India, currently the third-largest market with over 100 million users, is creating a topography of romance, even in the slums of the Indian city. In recent years, there is much celebration about the “making do” culture or jugaad, a practice of being innovative and creative with limited resources and 72 The City and South Asia
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under constrained situations.3 It has become synonymous with being Indian, and knowing how to navigate the complexities of the Indian city and its social fabric. Jugaad is everywhere it seems: from Tata’s Nano, the world’s cheapest car (US$1,700); to Aravind Eye Care hospitals’ award-winning and cost-effective eye surgeries; to the Jaipur Foot, the inexpensive prosthetic leg, all underline ingenuity in urban survival. While most talk about the economic mobility through jugaad, there is much silence when it comes to employing jugaad in navigating the matters of the heart. Mohan is far from being alone in this jugaad of love. From the North to the South, from Almora to Hyderabad, from Kolkata to Chennai, from the slums to the townships, youth are finding multiple ways to seek each other out and live a rich and subversive digital life. Brief glimpses into their digital worlds reveal sizzling and wide-ranging budding romances: boys and girls in Almora meet at a cybercafe to do their homework while simultaneously and surreptitiously Yahoo chatting with one another;4 in a Kolkata slum, girls log into their MSN messenger and join the “love and friendship rooms” to look for more educated and upper-class boys. As they befriend boys who are strangers, they express confidence that these males are not from their slum: “You don’t go online to meet a boy from the bustee [slum],” says a young woman of twenty-one.5 At a Hyderabad slum, a young man expresses anxiety of “making the first move” as he sends a friend request to a girl he desires to befriend on Facebook. After all, luring the girl as a “friend” doesn’t come easy. Jugaad is needed to profile oneself as a desirable male. Young men signal modernity and an upper-class status by cutting and pasting English-language posts onto their timeline. They friend foreign girls to show off their international standing. They strategically select cool Hollywood actors as their profile photos and craft their personas through their choice of movies, songs, and jokes online. Besides, these activities take time, and time is money. While mobile technologies and plans in India are marveled at for their cheapness and breadth of choice, it is still a considerable cost to youth in the slums. Kulbeer, a sixteen-year-old high school student from a Hyderabad slum, knows only too well the struggle to sustain his digital life. He began using mobiles four to five years ago. He worked summers assisting a pharmacist and spent an entire month’s salary (US$89) on a secondhand Nokia N83 to support advanced gaming. Two years ago, for the first time, he used an Internet prepaid coupon. The capacity to aspire to romance is tremendously high in a society where Bollywood’s prime narrative of love contradicts the dominant social practice of fixed marriages. While we seem to have fleshed out a richer picture of middle- and upper-class youth consuming romance through Mills & Boon romance novels to matrimonial sites, we often neglect to see how the youth inhabiting the numerous gray zones in the Indian cities exercise their jugaad to fulfill their love fantasies with a bit of reality through their digital life.6 A slum can be like Paris from time to time. 74 The City and South Asia
1. World Bank, “54% of Mumbai Lives in Slums” (2014), http://infochangeindia.org/poverty/ news/54-of-mumbai-lives-in-slums-world-bank.html. 2. N. Rangaswamy, Mental Kartha Hai: Indian Urban Slums and Unmasking the Mobile Internet (Hyderabad: ISBInsight, Indian School of Business, October 2013). 3. N. Radjou, J. Prabhu, and S. Ahuja, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013). 4. P. Arora, Dot Com Mantra: Social Computing in the Central Himalayas (London: Ashgate, 2010). 5. K. Chakraborty, “Virtual Mate-Seeking in the Urban Slums of Kolkata, India,” South Asian Popular Culture 10, no. 2 (2012): 197–216. 6. R. Parameswaran, “Western Romance Fiction as English-Language Media in Postcolonial India,” Journal of Communication 49, no. 3 (1999): 84–105.
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From Pettai to Nagar
Courtesy of R E B E L
A. R. Venkatachalapathy
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The distance between Vannarapettai (Washermanpet) and Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar (K. K. Nagar), Google Maps tells me, is barely ten miles. But the metaphor that comes readily to mind is chalk and cheese. In early 1974, when I was about six, my family moved from the early colonial neighborhood to the newly developing suburbâ€”a geographical shift accompanied by a complete historical, sociological, and cultural reorientation. Our tenement house in Vannarapettai was on the first floor: a lone Orient fan suspended from a long rod whirring from the slanted and tiled roof made little impact on the stifling heat. Three families shared a single toilet. (My present home boasts three!) One stepped on to the narrow Tiruvottiyur High Road, a busy road bustling with traffic and out-of-bounds for a boy. Outings meant Sunday visits to Pandian, Maharani, and Agastya talkies. I have no memory of seeing the sky or even a bird. The auguries were good the day we moved to K. K. Nagar. Coincidentally it was Thaipusam day, an auspicious day for the Tamil god Murugan. Barely two hundred meters from our new home a film shooting was in progress: the veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan, with a healthy paunch and dressed in a lavish coat, was acting the role of a street-side acrobat. The reigning actress Vanisri fit the stereotype of snooty actress to a T. Heavy rose powder, the kind some Tamil politicians still daub liberally, passed for makeup. Later I gathered the film shoot was for the blockbuster Vani Rani. With the airport a few miles away as the crow flies we gawked at aircraft as they rumbled overhead. With well-laid roads and parks and squares, mid-1970s K. K. Nagar was the antithesis of what passes for real-estate development these days. Besides it was the ideal location for shooting films. The land was flat, with nary a tree in sight. Famous film studios, out of which Tamil films would be liberated soon, were Harvard South Asia Institute 77
just around the corner: AVM, Vijaya, Bharani, Velan. The gardens of M. M. A. Chinnappa Thevar, who specialized in making films with animal protagonists (and, it used be joked, emoted better than human stars), was half a mile away, and believe me, I was once woken up to the roar of a lion (or was it a tiger?). Scarcely a day passed without a darshan of a film star. Each sector—not the town-sized segments in NOIDA and Gurgaon of Delhi, but more a block by American urban definition—enclosed a playground. K. K. Nagar was then dotted with numerous unbuilt plots. A variety of weeds— one came with spiked leaves and poisonous-looking berries—overran them. Butterflies flitted past and we took great pleasure in sucking the stalk of the white thumbai flowers. Breaking the pods of erukkam was a delightful pastime. A mix of (state-defined categories of) HIG (high-income group), MIG (middle-income group), and LIG (lower-income group) apartments, government staff quarters, one-ground plots, 800-square-feet artisan plots with a slum— Vijayaraghavapuram, now completely gentrified—thrown in, K. K. Nagar was a microcosm of the city with its full complement of social classes. The playground was a liminal place where everyone joined. By some inexplicable logic, as though by state fiat, games changed overnight. Marbles giving way to tops to seven stones to kiteflying. Cricket cut across seasons. Improvisation ruled the day. Puny, with a snotty nose and often the baby of the crowd, I easily made friends across class divides. A gaudily dressed young man who indulged me with goodies and bicycled me around, I later found out, was a petty thief. Vijayaraghavapuram was the buffer between K. K. Nagar and Vadapalani. The genteel folk of K. K. Nagar preferred K. K. Nagar bus terminus to Vadapalani’s, though they were equidistant. At the arrack shop greeting visitors to Vijayaraghavapuram, fried duck eggs and salted fish overwhelmed the reek of alcohol. A local barber doubled as nagaswaram player. A small plot of land, now a playground named for Dr. Ambedkar, was the venue for feats such as seven days of nonstop cycling. The highlight was the daredevil stunts on the last day after which the athlete was felicitated and given a purse. An early hero was Arputham—true to his name, he was a real wonder. One day he performed a stunning display of surul kathi—actually a bunch of long and thin rusted tin strips used for packing. One false move and not only would one lose some pounds of flesh but would make the most potent anti-tetanus serum ineffective. After repeated entreaties Arputham agreed to teach me silambam, the traditional Tamil martial art. Thursdays were auspicious for silambam practice, and it began with a small puja of betel leaves, bananas, and country sugar. The mandated dakshinai was a rupee and a quarter. On the day when one started practice with a real staff, Arputham demanded a vetti (a white dhoti). The status of a guru came with gravitas and an otherwise unruly, even rowdy man, Arputham was the very epitome of discipline in class. A knife went through my heart some years later to see my guru, his once muscular body wasted by drink and women. 78 The City and South Asia
Reflecting on those years I value the sociological lessons I learned then, as my daughter now grows up in a gated community on OMR, the Old Mahabalipuram Road, the great software corridor which services the entire Western world—a cocoon that gives little scope for encounters across classes. The street on which we lived in K. K. Nagar, I later learned, was named for India’s first finance minister. Not only the layout but the street names of K. K. Nagar also had a method unlike the madness of neighboring Ashok Nagar with its noncontinuous numbers for its streets and avenues, the very antithesis of the American grid system. Jeevanandam, Bobbili Raja, A. Lakshmanaswamy (Mudaliar), A. Ramasamy (Mudaliar), “Sunday Observer” Balasubramaniam (Mudaliar), Muniswamy (Naidu), Alagirisamy, P. T. Rajan, Natesan (Mudaliar), W. P. A. Soundarapandian (Nadar), Ponnambalam, A. T. Panneerselvam—streets were named thus, and invariably without caste surnames. To a student studying in a school governed by a federal government authority, these regional names carried no meaning. In the first years of the Tamil nationalist party’s power, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s ideological moorings evidently remained strong. And it was reflected in the studied choice of street names. The whole pantheon of the non-Brahmin movement, from the Justice Party to the Self-Respect Movement to the early Communists, was thus memorialized. I suspect the then chief minister of the state who gave the nagar its name was behind it. And not to be left behind, an eager party man gave the name of the chief minister’s mother to a nearby neighborhood—Anjuham Nagar! Not until I was mentored by a local cultural activist with strong Dravidian movement leanings was I educated about the history behind the names. As I grew into a scholar primarily studying the history of social change in Tamil Nadu, these names jumped at me from archival documents and faded newspapers, giving them a special resonance. Reading the Dravidian patriarch Periyar’s tearful tribute to A. T. Panneerselvam on his tragic death in 1940, on his way to join the Secretary of State’s India Council, in an air crash in the Gulf of Oman, brings to memory the days I cycled on the street named for him.
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Courtesy of joiseyshowaa
Courtesy of joiseyshowaa
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More populous than Kolkata, Dhaka has surpassed all other cities except war-torn Damascus in another respect: it’s been adjudged the worst city to live in several years in a row. Sometimes one gives in to nostalgia, and why not? Having been the Mughal capital of Bengal for two centuries is no small matter. So what if fortresses and palaces have dissolved in monsoon rain? The life of a city doesn’t throb in palaces. It is a truism, pace Walter Benjamin, that the character of a society, a culture, is most vividly manifested in public places. Like Parisian boulevards and arcades, Dhaka’s streets, alleyways, and bazaars make up the city’s physiognomy. Once one could have mentioned canals as well, but they have been filled up to make room for a few more congested streets. Even the bordering rivers have been encroached upon; they’re viscous with toxic pollutants. Observe the sari salesman, in a shop or on the pavement, with a flick of flexible wrists spreading his merchandise like a peacock’s tail: an exemplar of a centuries-old tradition. Until Manchester textiles destroyed the muslin industry, Dhaka was an emporium for the finest fabrics ever. One variety of muslin survives; weaving jamdani or Dhakai saris remains an important cottage industry centered round Dhaka. The saris are expensive, the weavers ill paid—perhaps worse off than garment workers whose dismal work conditions make the news, particularly when tragedy strikes: Rana Plaza is a symbol of the inhumane side of global capitalism. And yet, denizens of Dhaka—for that matter, Bangladeshis generally—are better fed and clad than before. Also, the richest in the city or country are richer—and the gap between the richest and the poorest wider—than ever. Rich, poor, the layers in between—all are out in the city streets every day. The most Harvard South Asia Institute 81
conspicuous are female garment workers. From slums within walking distance of their factories they walk in groups, for safety, out of a sense of solidarity; purposefully, with serious expressions, when going to work; relaxed, smiling, chatting when heading home. Never before were so many women seen on Dhaka streets: a sociological revolution. No wonder it is anathema to the religious right, whose breeding grounds are madrassas unregulated by the government— scores of them in the city, poky places tucked away in corners, with thousands of boarders droning medieval lessons. When they take to the streets everyone is nervous. The city’s population has risen dizzyingly since independence. At first rural immiseration brought desperate villagers, then real opportunities in a global economy looking for cheap labor. Outcome: a 6-percent growth rate in spite of bad governance. The state of governance, whichever party holds power, is evident in the streets. Mercedes, BMW, Lexus. Battered buses that brake in the middle of the road for passengers, motorized three-wheelers, rickshaws, pedal vans. All in a scramble, like dogs nosing each others’ bottoms, often on the wrong side of the road, while pedestrians cross any which way, wading into traffic, making occult signs to ward off vehicles, chatting on mobiles (a girl got run over while having a romantic conversation with her boyfriend), swinging legs over barbed-wire road dividers (a man in lungi had his scrotum ripped and bled to death). Signal lights—red, green, amber—and scrolled messages on electronic boards advising obedience to rules go unheeded; traffic policemen control the chaos with ambiguous hand signals; timer lights blink, 100, 99, 98 . . . pointlessly: reductio ad absurdum of Deconstruction. Of course some are making money on these signs that do not signify. Pavements are hogged by goods spilling over from shops, by vendors and beggars; all pay for the privilege, to the appropriate honchos, even beggars—to beggar masters; people must jaywalk. Time was when a couple of hundred thousand lived in thick-walled houses, balconied with wrought-iron banisters, built around tiny, cool courtyards (all pulled down and replaced with stuffy jerry-built quarters). How they’d have joked at the thought of traffic jams, our laughter-loving “Cockneys,” who supplied rickshaw-drivers and coachmen for hackney carriages. “How much to—?” asked a visiting Kolkata babu. “—Taka,” said the coachman. “Too much! Why, you can see the place from here.” “Babu, please look up, you can see the moon.” Our “Cockneys” have been swamped by internal migrants; humor is under threat; we’re 100 percent homo economicus. I’ve made it back, we sigh in relief as we reach home, and offer double thanks if there’s nothing to drag us out again. Time was when we came home from work only to freshen up and head out for the evening—to the cinema, a party, or an adda with friends. Now it’s the chat room, cell phone, Viber, Skype, Facebook, or dreary soap operas. 82 The City and South Asia
Reclining after dinner, eyes narrowing in weariness, against the background rumble of traffic and the manic tooting of horns, other sounds play in memory: hucksters’ cries that have remained unchanged through changing times, peddling saris, tea (Chai garam!), peanuts (Cheena badaam!), paan, cigarettes (Paan-bidi-cigarette!). In hot weather, ice cream (Arse kireem!) Sometimes late on winter evenings I still hear the plaintive cry Haat pattiss! Hot patties! As in boyhood, my heart goes out to the lonely vendor, hot box slung across his shoulder, padding through the misty chill, hoping to find a buyer for the last couple of his savories, for they may not keep till the morrow, and a few extra takas matter. My sleepy head fills with a prayer: may he find a customer and go home in quiet satisfaction; may he take care lest a mugger waylay him; may he walk with caution, for reckless trucks are abroad. In daylight or in darkness it’s wise to be guided by the light of caution. Only one signal makes sense: amber. Forever amber. May he reach his slum home safely, relish the humble supper his wife has saved for him; may he find warmth in her embrace and the tatty quilt they share; and if he dreams, may his dreams be sweet.
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y Patna Ancient cities Colombo Urban anning Low-income Housing Post-war Beautification Garbage Temporary city als Street art Digital city Slum tourism r Construction Citizenship Durga Pujo cal city Dhaka alleys Karachi Kolkata Mumbai Delhi Chandigarh Archaeology mbo Varanasi Density Bazaar Chennai urga Global city Smart city Pataliputra
Harvard South Asia Institute's second publication. Released January 2015.