Friday, 7 October, 2022
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Big cities, capital drain

Our biggest cities have continued to rot away in the last decade, but why should the future of India's urbanisation policies remain bleak too.

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Can there be anything more pretentious and lazy for a political/current affairs columnist than to use anniversaries of one’s own writings or ideas to revisit them? Exactly 10 years ago, National Interest (‘Liberate Our Cities’, August 6, 2005) raised a fundamental question on the rotting state of our cities: do they languish because they are reduced to being colonies of the large states to which they belong?

Is it that our politicians have their votes in the hinterland of large states, so collect their power by winning elections there, and then use it to lord over the big, rich cities? Or to put it more charitably, but accurately, collect their votes in the countryside and then check out their fungibility with cash in the cities, particularly if they also happen to be state capitals and thereby the seats of power?

Is that why Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai have rotted all these decades while Delhi has improved comparatively? Or why even bureaucratic Chandigarh, more sarkar per square foot than any other part of India, has generally survived? Do the villages have disproportionate vote power and similarly the cities disproportionate money?

Our original solution then had looked like an idealistic fantasy if not a flippant wish: liberate the big cities from their colonial status, at least shift states’ political capitals out of there, as America has done (New York’s capital is Albany, California’s Sacramento, Illinois’s Springfield, leaving New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and so on, free).

The cities would then be run by local bodies, if not powerful mayors, in the style of the US or China, as, for example, Maharashtra’s capital moves to Sangli or Akola, West Bengal’s to Purulia, Andhra’s to Guntur (which is now happening for other reasons), Karnataka’s to Hubli, and so on.

An added gain for India would be the justification this would create for the building of new cities, and a charming little incentive for the politicians to make arbitrage as property booms break out in these new capitals.

Also read: Liberate our cities

Things haven’t stayed the same through this decade. All our cities have rotted even further; in some cases, like Mumbai and Chennai, even faster than before. To be fair, Kolkata hasn’t rotted further lately, and I find the idea of playing pleasant music at traffic lights quaint, even if not good enough to calm the nerves of stranded drivers.

On my Twitter timeline last week, one of the most viral was a cheeky one from a bright Mumbai-based Indian Railway Service officer, Ananth Rupanagudi, who, after watching Detective Byomkesh Bakshy wrote that the movie, set in the 1940s, looked so realistic because Dibakar Banerjee did not have to do very much to give Kolkata a period look, because not too much has changed since the ’40s anyway.

One thing has changed most visibly with many of these cities: their names. So we are talking Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru now. All of our big cities, Chennai and Hyderabad included, also have governments of parties different from a decade ago.

The most important changes that call for us revisiting the idea, however, are not these. First, in Narendra Modi, we have our first ever prime minister talking unhesitatingly of the gains of urbanisation and not bemoaning its sad inevitability as most of his predecessors did.

Gandhi gave us the villages-are-virtuous-cities-are-sinful idea long before John Denver sang his tribute to ‘Wild Montana Skies‘ (there was something in the city that he said he couldn’t breathe, there was something in the country that he said he couldn’t leave).

Gandhi’s “India lives in its villages” rudely pushed aside Ambedkar’s “but must it continue to do so forever?”. So a decade ago, when we were asking for our cities to be liberated, the buzzword in India was then President APJ Abdul Kalam’s PURA, or Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas.

UPA politics was hostile to the cities and the middle classes who live there. Cities developed, if at all, by stealth or collusion between local political and builder mafias. In Modi now we have our first leader since Ambedkar who holds out urbanisation as a promise and a virtue. On his political CV he proudly lists modernisation of Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar where he is now developing a global financial centre.

The restructuring of our electoral constituencies has also increased the cities’ political leverage. There is a new awakening and a sense of empowerment in the cities. No surprise that the first new political movement and force to rise in India in decades is entirely a big-city phenomenon yet, the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. The city, you could say, is now in fashion.

Also read: The key to transforming India: making its villages much smarter

It is in this environment that the latest developments in Mumbai, where I write this week’s National Interest from, stand out. The new Maharashtra chief minister, its youngest and most modern in a long time, has first imposed a total ban on eating beef in India’s most cosmopolitan and chilled city by far. He then followed it up by decreeing that cinema multiplexes screen at least one Marathi film at prime time before rolling it back.

Since the idea behind the first step is Hindu-isation of Mumbai and if the second its Marathi-isation, both strike at the very basis of Mumbai’s unique strength – its cosmopolitanism. Expect more to come in the same direction, particularly as the two partners, the BJP and Shiv Sena, compete for the common Hindu-Marathi vote banks.

But if political sociology in India worked in such straight lines, life wouldn’t be so much fun for us journalists. Note, for example, how the new generation of Sena leadership has a different view on the city. Aditya, Uddhav Thackeray’s barely-out-of-college son, has come up with probably the most radically modern idea in our city governance in a long time, building a really buzzy nightlife in Mumbai.

The Sena is by no means more liberal or libertarian than the BJP. But it is definitely more urban in its head. It is most certainly a lot more Marathi than the BJP, but has better sense when it comes to appreciating the downside of mofussilisation.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is modern but comes from distant Nagpur, which is a far cry attitudinally from Mumbai even if not quite Sangli from where that self-styled slayer of dance bars, late R.R. Patil, hailed.

Nagpur is among India’s most conservative-thinking societies, if Mumbai is its most liberal, and the location of the RSS headquarters there is neither coincidental, nor inconsequential. Even more than Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, Nagpur is the gallery Fadnavis has to play to, and he simply doesn’t have the political stature to grow out of it yet.

But because Modi does have that stature, he can use his political capital to institute new ideas in city governance. It may still be premature to talk of shifting Maharashtra’s capital outside, but the process of shifting the capital of Mumbai outside the Mantralaya should begin now. It doesn’t deserve to be a colony of Nagpur or Sangli. If the experiment works, it will set an example to the rest of crumbling urban India.

Also read: Modi says Mumbai’s new infrastructure will be up by 2022, but the past isn’t encouraging


The very special power of Indian cricket is illustrated by how it enabled you to build landmarks named after you in your own lifetime. Wankhede, D.Y. Patil, M.A. Chidambaram and even Subrata Roy Sahara personify this.

We tend to overlook Sharad Pawar because the most impressive cricketing monument he has built in his name is actually a club, a cricket ground (not stadium) and an academy, named what else but Sharad Pawar Indoor Cricket Academy, in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex. The indoor academy, with bowling machines, high-speed training cameras, is comparable with any in Australia, he said proudly as he showed me around last week.

We strolled in the playground area. The clubhouse has an entirely English feel to it – its wooden ceiling and furniture were imported from there, he says. But the skyline is stunning, BKC, Mumbai’s newest financial district, bright, modern, glassy, even what you might describe as Indian skyline’s largest “O”, as the new ONGC building has been designed.

Pawar reminisces on how this was a wasted swamp. He chose it as Mumbai’s alternative to old Nariman Point, lands were auctioned and banks, financial institutions, the diamond bourse came up here. As a result, though, Mumbai now has three downtowns – BKC, Nariman Point and Worli-Parel – all along one narrow, longitudinal axis. Serial traffic bottlenecks obviously can’t get worse.

Also read: Being Sharad Pawar


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