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Assorted City – A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity

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Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

“India has been among the fastest growing economies in the world for two decades now. This growth is characterized by the growth of middle class and inadequate planning that is socially and financially unsustainable. This growth also raise question- how people go about their lifestyles without compromising the natural resources. Indian cities are riddled with infrastructural deficits and service delivery gaps due to poor financial health and planning. This jeopardizes the quality of urban populace and undermines the competitive edge of these cities. This is attributed to weak institutional capacities. The questions for planners and policymakers is how to improve the quality of life in cities to accommodate the future growth ensuring better living conditions?” said Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global on Assorted City- A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity.

Suptendu Biswas _ Assorted City- A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity
Suptendu Biswas _ Assorted City- A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity

Dr Suptendu P Biswas, Partner, VSPB Associates, New Delhi; Managing Trustee, SEARCH Kolkata defines ‘Assorted cities’, as the term to describe the phenomenon of a noticeable difference that a development trajectory of a city takes. Cities, like most other geographical spaces, are characterized by a unique diversity in their dwelling demography, in terms of identities, occupations, and also in socio-economic standing. Cities also operate within a political and administrative framework, and since the identities mentioned above are themselves political in nature, they influence the degree and features of assortment that the city undertakes.

A close look at the development path of South Delhi provides us with some answers to the problem of assortment. In 2002, two large slum areas existed in the area, one close to Greater Kailash and the second near Govindpuri. The next year, the slum near GK is cleared while the other one remains to date. Another interesting observation is in the variation in the water supply done by the state in these areas. Localities dwelled by a population of lower socio-economic standing faced continuous problems of water shortage while other places had an abundance of it, so much so that a lot of it goes wasted. From these two instances of discrimination and variability, what we can infer is that the political economy of a city plays a very important role in shaping its growth pattern and also that selective governance and variability in the delivery of services is another cause of concern.

Cities are also spaces that are plagued by a scarcity in their resources and hence the problem of how these resources are to be distributed becomes a major cause of concern for any city planner. The politics of distribution is hence another reason that leads to the formation of assorted cities. The conception of a city starts with a plan. Planning as a technique of allocating scarce resources is rooted in socialist ideals, and hence in a democratic setup, the planning process ideally exhibits principles of equity and justice. A plan starts with the conception of an idea, which is then discussed and formulated into a policy, which then becomes the blueprint of the development process.

However, things happen quite differently in reality. Governmentality, a concept first popularized by the writings of Michael Foucault, is in simple terms, the techniques of governance. Governmentality is basically the psychology behind how a body of people decide the methods and processes with which to govern a population. The concept is relevant because the politics of distribution also involves the mentality behind the governance patterns of a city. The stages in the planning process are also tinged by this, and hence a policy gets modified after its conception and before its implementation. Governmentality is the reason behind the selective implementation of policies since it becomes the backbone of the decision making by a city planner on how to distribute scarce resources. It is due to this factor that the ideals of equity and justice are failed in policymaking.

Most academic discourses on the planning process of cities can be accused of summarising features in a binary language, of good and bad or rich and poor. However, the realities of most cities exist in grey. Multiple layers of diversity end up creating multiple gradations in the delivery of policies and services, and hence, an ‘Equity Mosaic’ is a more accurate representation of how cities develop. Assortment can take place due to multiple reasons, of taste, of affordability, and of scarcity, and hence an attempt to understand them in binaries can e reductive and inaccurate. A study of the land ownership patterns and growth path of Gurgaon show us that the post informational cities, characterized by fast-moving lifestyle and a neoliberal thought of individuality, are globally connected but locally isolated.

Another form of assortment happens in the treatment of landscapes in urban spaces. Roadways have become the lifeline of a modern city and can be termed as the strand of thread holding the cities together, keeping them connected. This emphasis on connecting all major urban spaces to roads leads to huge neglect of the landscapes that exist on the periphery of those spaces. The in-between spaces of two localities, the margins between two projects aren’t focused on enough by the planners and are left to themselves. This, on most occasions, leads to their neglect and results in their degradation. Studies from the lakes of Jaipur and the canals of Chennai and Kolkata show us that the landscapes which historically connected spaces in the cities and remained in the front view have now either been shifted to the background or abandoned altogether, all in the quest of building large concrete structures.

Assorted cities are therefore fast becoming a regular phenomenon and are characterizing all cities by difference and fragmentation. However, most of the factors responsible for this assortment are traceable, and hence there exists scope for their modification to prevent further segregation of our cities. If we can somehow make equity and justice the foundations of both the public consciousness as well as governmentality, we can envision cities as more uniformly developed and as more inclusive spaces.

Acknowledgements: Sarthak Singhal is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing BA Hons in Economics from Delhi University.

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Featured Image Courtesy: Volker Glätsch from Pixabay

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