Killing urban spaces, by degrees

Killing urban spaces, by degrees

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

Soon after V-Day celebrations at Trafalgar Square in London, one of the visitors to arrive there was the renowned Kannada playwright Sivaram Karanth who was to make a second visit a decade later. He told the former information advisor to Indira Gandhi, Sharada Prasad, in a TV interview, somewhat later, that he saw no hope for India after he witnessed the transformation he had seen in London and other European cities and how they had all been rebuilt and completely recovered from the ravages of the war.

He was particularly amazed to see the German city of Dresden that had been bombed to the ground, being completely restored to its original glory and the magnificent church that was strafed repeatedly by the British fight planes being rebuilt by the architects of the same enemy country. The Thames was a sewer and the London fog was exactly as had been described by Charles Dickens and these had been completely cleaned up.

He was so contemptuous of India’s record during this span of a decade and said, with a contempt that he did not even hide in the interview to the national channel, that this country had no future and it was doomed to eternal prediction. He went on to explain that during the period he had visited many Indian cities and had found, to his shock, that they had become, within a decade after the British left, so run down and crumbled that these had become virtual slums with cattle on the roads. How could they do this to such elegant places like Connaught Place and Gole Market in Delhi and the Fountain and the Fort area of Mumbai?

Things had not been any better either in other metropolises like Kolkata and Chennai with the Mount Road and the Rippon Building in the Tamil Nadu capital and the Esplanade and Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, now reduced to an utter state of complete neglect. The influx of Partition refugees or the rural drift towards the cities for work or construction activities or because of drought or famine cannot be an excuse for such degradation that had been wrought. There has been virtual abdication of responsibility by those at the helm, whether they be urban planners or political leaders who have to give shape to development and aesthetic aspects as well. There had also crept in megalomania and power that had turned their heads.

The recent move to revamp the grand Central Vista and the Parliament House - and the judiciary is not far behind mentioning that the Supreme Court has also become too small for the purpose of administering justice and needs a bigger space - must give cause for concern. This comes after the previous regime had sought UNESCO’s Heritage Status for the 11-km stretch and the sandstone structures and the India Gate and moats and green stretch in between that are the lungs of the city. It is to overturn all these that the next regime withdrew the request to the world body and chalked out a grand Rs. 20,000 crore plan for the revamp of this parade route that used to reverberate to the martial tunes and cymbals of the folk dancers from the tribal regions during the Republic Day parades.

In this context that the remark of the American town planner and expert on third world urban development, Charles Adams, however cynical it may be, seems significant. He said, in an observation that has become almost an epiphany, that the Indian town planner, if you scratch him, is a fascist. Suddenly thoughts of Mohammad bin Tughlak come to mind. Not only the town planner, but the one who orders the planner to implement the master plan for the cities or the development projects, seem to have been have been driven by something else. The use of authoritarian strategies for the solving of urban, or even, human problems has not been the prerogative of these Tughlaks alone. We are still bearing the burden of the effects of the two international games that were staged in this city.

In the case of the Parliament House building, the ostensible reason is the pressure of space and the need to accommodate the growing number of elected members. What was designed for 600 members has now burgeoned into almost double that. So the hall from where Nehru made his famous ‘When the whole world is asleep...’ oration and from where Bhagat Singh threw a bomb into the almost vacant hall, and where such orators as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Hiren Mukherjee made their speeches which were listened in stunned silence and from where CN Annadurai made that emotional speech about the country’s unity when the Dravidian movement had threatened to break it, is to be broken down to make way for a larger hall would be a tragedy. This circular hall, built on the model of Chausath Yogini temple of Morena in the 11th century at a time when that place was known as the centre of education and astronomy, certainly was designed by visionaries was replicated by even someone like Curzon was also a megalomaniac and had done enough damage otherwise, .

The fascination for what is modern, whether they are the smart cities or the faster rail traffic or mono rail and the digital marvels that are being invented almost every other day, is not that of the new leaders alone. Nehru was so charmed by the Soviet five-year plans and hydel projects and modern concrete cities like what Corbusier had made, so completely devoid of the human touch, and it is amazing how such a sensitive person like Nehru could have been swayed by all this glitter. Even Stalin did not destroy the Kremlin built by Czar Nicholas with its onion domes church bells that tolled in this ungodly regime. How could anybody build an oil refinery between one of the sensitive biospheres of Vrindavan, in Mathura, the stomping ground of the pastoral lover god, and the dream-like Taj Mahal. Now that edifice is being treated for the marble cancer which has turned the stones yellow.

The revamp project for the Central Vista, estimated to cost Rs.20,000 crore, in part to erase the vestiges of the 250-year old colonial era, is to be completed in four years with no ostensible strategy, but would adopt a’ plan as you go’ strategy. The objectives of the project seem to be to ‘create new iconic structures that shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least... to represent the values and aspirations of a New India – Good Governance, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability, and Equity and that is rooted in the Indian culture and social milieu,’ while simultaneously proclaiming with pride ‘our 5,000-year urban history.’

Even Gujarat’s track record in urban planning seems to support Charles Adam’s quip. The city that Ahmed Shah founded in 1411 had become a play ground for urban planners since the 1950s with Lois Kahn building the Indian Institute of Management and Le Corbusier the Textile Association Building and Buckminister Fuller building a geodesic dome for good measure. But except for a few monuments the economic liberalisation had led to the decay of the urban space with no medieval architecture to lighten the drabness of the Soviet-style modernism. And Gandhinagar represents the dreary crumbling modernism at its worst. How majestic those spires and domes of the ancient and medieval places of worship and resting look in this landscape of concrete!

The energy and talent that the new century has unleashed could have been utilised better, by restoring the monuments and water bodies and reviving the amazing water conservation strategies that the ancients had devised in such arid places as the deserts of Rajasthan and Ellora. Delhi alone had been gifted with serais (seraglio or resting places) and kuans (wells) and step wells that are excellent examples of water harvesting. The Yamuna waterfront, once so sacred and full of legends, and where young wrestlers used to practice in mud pits on the banks in the shade of small temples, now is a stinking drain choking with weeds and urban detritus. To be spending so much on revamping while this expanding city does not have even one auditorium with perfect acoustics seems a sad commentary of the state of affairs. When Zubin Mehta came with his orchestra to perform here he found no auditorium suitable and he finally settled for the Indira Gandhi stadium with thick curtains. The only place with perfect acoustics is the Bahai Temple!

Poetic license it might be, but Karanth was spot on, as also the architect Adams.


The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.