Bottom-up thinking powers India’s urban transformation: Sanjeev Sanyal

India's urban transformation
India's urban transformation has evolved from a top-down one to a contextual one which is based on the requirement of individual cities.

Urbanisation is a major driver of economic growth. For India to become a global economic powerhouse, it has to transition from a predominantly rural to an urban society. Indian cities face several challenges of efficiency and sustainability. Sanjeev Sanyal, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council and a secretary to the government of India, says the Narendra Modi government has brought about a paradigm shift in India’s outlook towards urban transformation. Excerpts of an interview with senior journalist K Yatish Rajawat:

What is the government’s approach to urbanisation?

What we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the frame of references of the philosophy we held since independence. Back in the 1950s, a new way of thinking about cities derived a lot from the thinking of Le Corbusier. It was a top-down model of urbanisation, based on the idea of an ideal city which came from foreign shores. Inspired, presumably by Le Corbusier himself, the idea was to lay out the city as a cartesian model.

In fact, the word often used is a grid. And then you had standardised building codes which led to demarcation of land for different uses. This was branded as modernism. It was a very major break from how India did cities before Independence. I am not just talking about the colonial period, but even before that. it’s not that we didn’t have straight roads. We’ve been doi that since Harappan times.

How has that changed now?

Let me first explain what happened because of the imposition of foreign ideas of urban transformation. Look at the cities that came up before independence. There is enormous variety. Jaipur is very different from Guwahati, which is different from Jodhpur. Each city had its own layout, and architecture was based on local climate and the needs of the people. Hence there was much more variety in urban outcomes. After independence, what we have is what I call cement block CPWD architecture that became the hallmark of architecture. That led to the same kind of boxes being built in Jodhpur, in Indore, and Jorhat.

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Flat cities with markets removed from residential areas; absolutely no organic mandis. And a huge amount of zoning being imposed to create order.

Absolutely. This was a top-down imposition of the town planner’s view of how the ideal city should look that went all the way up to the Planning Commission. This philosophy is evident in the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. JNNURM was about people sitting in the Planning Commission deciding what Shillong wants, what Kanpur wants, so on and so forth. This is very much a top down, cartesian approach.

Is this the reason why JNNURM failed? Most of the cities could not actually use the funding. For many, funding stopped after the first round as they could not complete projects…

There were certain interventions that worked, but I would say the cities continued to be more or less the same. whereas there has been a break in the last five years. We moved away to a different conception of how to think about cities. And there are many manifestations of this. Let me give you some examples. One of them is the smart city approach.

The assumption is that a smart city involves a central control room and most of the funds are spent on digitising the city…

This is a completely wrong idea of what a smart city is. The last seven to eight years have come to be defined by smartphones, but that is not what smart cities are all about. Smart cities are about evolving, contextualised solutions. Smartness is not about digital, but sometimes it may be about digital aspects. That is not where the smartness lies. See what happened at smart cities projects. For the first time, the Union government made an effort to find out what different municipalities wanted?

Different cities asked for different things. Varanasi wanted its Ghats clean. They wanted a cleaner city. Indore wanted to revamp the Chappan lane. Surat wanted the fort area to be cleaned up and upgraded. Some other cities wanted the old water systems. Therefore, lakes and parks were built. There were many outcomes from this bottom-up approach.

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So, every city kind of demanded what it wanted. So, different projects came up from different cities. And all these different projects got funded through smart city scheme?

That was one scheme, there are others too. What I’m trying to do is to show you the manifestation of this new approach like helping the poor get houses from the government. Earlier, the approach was that town planners would decide. DDA in Delhi would decide EWS housing would be built in a certain part of the city. Many of such houses are still empty because they’re built at wrong places with wrong design. Now under the Prime Minister’s Aawas Yojana (PMAY), money is given to an individual to build houses of their choice at places they want to live.

How is this approach changing outcomes? Is it too early to see the impact?

There are many different outcomes. Suppose somebody has access to land or can pool a piece of land. They can decide what kind of house to build. Some people are upgrading dilapidated houses. We are relying on contextualised solutions. In another approach, different cities wanted big projects, not just the smart city project, but big transportation infrastructure kind of projects. The Union government, of course, is involved, but you have to remember that the state and municipal governments are the primary movers of such projects.

For example, the presumption was that Mumbai had a particular sort of architecture and we could not interfere with it because the great British had built those two train lines. And those two roads, and we had to somehow stick to them. Maybe we could improve it a little bit on the margin, but there was no reconceptualisation of the city.

Now look at what’s going to happen. In the next 24 to 36 months, the coastal road will be complete. There’ll be an underground railway, a new link is being built to the mainland with the transferal link. There is a new airport being built in Navi Mumbai. And then, of course, there’s the Bombay Port Trust land that can also be redeployed into urban spaces.

How is this happening? Is it happening from the city’s initiative or from the state?

It depends on the capacity, location and ownership of land. There is no one single model. You cannot design Mumbai’s metro system in the same way as you’re doing the Kashi Vishwanath corridor. Kashi Vishwanath is a contextual solution to an issue relating to a particular spot. But what you can see here is a repeated willingness to engage with and rebuild in an organic way in the context of where the city is located.

Another example is the mental block against rethinking the central Vista project. What will the Ghost of Lutyens think if we interfered with his design? We are an independent country. We could do whatever we wish. Of course, we have to apply our mind to it. I don’t support mindless redevelopment. But how can you take that as the only design, and particularly since many of these buildings had nothing to do with Lutyens himself.

For example, Shastri Bhawan is being pulled down. I cannot think of any good reason why Shastri Bhawan should not be pulled down. I mean, those who visited don’t like it, and those who work there don’t like it. It is simply not a fit place to work. It is not fit for the 21st century.

So, there are disparate projects distributed across multiple cities. Each of them is arising from the demand of the city or the municipality. The funding is also happening differently. What is the role of the state or the centre in enabling these projects?

It depends on what the project is. In our Constitution, the local government and the state are primarily responsible for the city. But they don’t always have the resources. Therefore, the Union government will provide support. It may be technical like in the case of building metro systems or it may be financing support. It has to be ultimately owned by the people of that city. Just like the houses we build under the Prime Minister Aawas Yojana. You have to understand the conceptual flip that we have made.

It has changed from a centrally top-down approach to an organic bottom-up approach. Municipalities don’t have the capacity to raise funds and conceptualise projects that would absorb Rs 1000 crore or more. Where did the capacity to create these projects come from?

Unless you begin doing things, capacities will be a chicken and egg problem. We were able to build great cities in the Bronze Age, Medieval period. We built great cities in colonial times. It was not that the colonial occupiers told us to do everything. Much of it was done by Indians. So, we came to think that we don’t have capacity. We systematically destroyed capacity through the top-down idea of what a city has to be like. Jaipur was built by Indians during the medieval period. So why can’t the descendants of those who built old Jaipur be able to build today’s modern cities? The problem is we don’t seem to have the confidence.

For example, Delhi’s Raisina Hill. The buildings on Raisina Hill are clearly beautiful and we have every intention of preserving them. But there is nothing written there that the North Block and South Block have to be government offices. We are now redeploying them as National Arts Museum and National History Museum. They are clearly great spaces for doing this because they have high ceilings, they have courtyards, and very importantly, they will open up Raisina Hill to the public.

There’s a lot of opposition to how these were built to be offices. Yes, they were built to be offices of the 1920s and 1930s. There is nothing in our mental conception, our rules or anything to stop us from redeploying it to the public to do other things with it. After all, we all go to the Louvre. The Louvre was originally a palace. Then it became the finance ministry. Then it became a museum. When it became a museum and became popular, they built this glass pyramid in the middle of it. So, all great cities have evolved. The people who complain about change are the same people who go to Paris and take selfies.

What are the conceptual changes or shifts that this government has brought about, at least in terms of urbanisation? Tell me a little bit about moving forward. Is that in some code somewhere?

Everybody everywhere in the world wants to have liveable cities. In fact, some of the most liveable cities in the world like Singapore are not in the West, they’re in the east. But anyway, from the beginning of time, India has invested into liveability.

Yes, Delhi is not liveable. Most of the new cities are not liveable anymore… take Bengaluru…

The problem is that since independence we have not thought about liveability. Liveability does not correlate to what happens in our day-to-day lives. When you build a new city, where is the Ram Leela ground? It is an important part of our cultural space. Where does the Durga Puja happen? Where are those spaces? We haven’t built these spaces since independence. In the cities that are built, where is the temple? There are no spaces for temples in new cities. So, the point is that they are part of our cultural life.

Similarly, we all know we are not atomised families. We live in a certain way. Where we can say community is an important part of it. So, you go and look at the historical precinct. You’ll have the nukkad in Ahmedabad. These are the spaces where community living happens. We are not atomized, privacy obsessed families.

Where does this happen now? Interestingly, we are recreating this in gated communities, in condominiums. It is happening because we are trying to recreate it, but it is happening as an exception, not as the rule. It is almost by violating our building codes that we are going about doing it. But the buildings remain the same. A lot of it is hardwired in our building codes. Why are they hardwired in our building codes? Because we decided top-down in 1950s and the 60s that a certain kind of modernity is what we aspire for.

Is it also hardwired in our architects to build it that way?

Well, it got all hardwired that way because we had certain kinds of building codes, we educated our architects in a particular way, so on and so forth. Therefore, what is now interestingly happening in these gated communities, for example in Bangalore? They are recreating in some ways by creating common spaces. By the way, it is quite telling that this response has come from the east. So, this condominium concept of the Ahmedabad pol came from Singapore. But if you go to China, you’ll see these circular family clan villages which are built as one big house or one big family.

In postmodernism, we move away from these individual houses. Individual house on a layout is basically a recreation of working-class housing in western cities during the period of industrialisation. That us what we tried to recreate here thinking it was the urban design. We are breaking away from it ourselves and trying to recreate from these.

From a policy point of view, from a state or city perspective, where is the change happening?

One of the changes is freeing local communities to do different things without bothering about the building code. I think in the end what should happen is different cities, different states should have their own building codes.

Nobody had the capacity to build their own code…

It was not that they didn’t. After all, they were building cities before that. It’s not a capacity problem. It was an intellectual failure at every level. You have to see this in parallel to the five-year plans. The entire idea is that wise people sitting in the Planning Commission know who to give permits to produce steel, who should be allowed to produce cars. It is the same intellect that went into making policies for India’s urban transformation.

It’s well documented. It’s documented that leading intellectuals in the post-independence India, the historians, the writers, the journalists and many members of the bureaucracy were active, collaborating with the British. I’m not talking about loose collaborations like somebody happened to be a school teacher or something. No, they benefited both in terms of titles and jobs, and actively did things which perpetuated British rule. So, it’s not surprising. That the stories that tell themselves and consequently want us to believe in are the stories that consequently attempt to negate our cultural and historical legacy.

(K Yatish Rajawat works at Centre for Innovation in Public Policy, a Delhi-based think tank studying public policy and economic growth.)

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