The Wealth of Nations

What three cities in Gujarat tell us about the crisis in Indian urban planning

Gandhinagar was meant to embody an alternative view of modern urbanity from Chandigarh. The city’s supremely rational organisation underscores the fact that it is also effectively dead. AMIT DAVE / REUTERS
01 December, 2015

ABOUT 45 MINUTES NORTH of Ahmedabad, having passed under a sign that announces your impending arrival in “GREEN CLEAN GANDHINAGAR” and another advertising Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, you may or may not notice a small placard with the word “GIFT” printed over an arrow pointing east. Follow that arrow down a dusty access road, past a rusted-out advertisement for an amusement park called Gujarat Funworld, which looks decidedly un-fun. Within 15 minutes, you’ll reach Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or GIFT—a place, a video on its website proudly proclaims, “where wealth breeds wealth.”

GIFT is to be India’s first Smart City. Phase one of its construction is slated for completion by March next year. When the third and final phase wraps up in 2024, the “city” will run on an ambitious infrastructural grid that includes a citywide cooling system to decrease energy use, an automated trash collection system, as well as a tech-aided response system that will allow citizens to quickly lodge complaints, and see them rectified with a minimum of fuss and wasted time. No one living or working in GIFT City will have time to waste. This will be a place of immense, single-minded productivity.

Productivity and modernity are urban Gujarat’s calling cards, nowhere more so than in Ahmedabad and the adjacent capital of Gandhinagar, from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his home state for 13 years. Ahmedabad’s success in the nineteenth-century textile boom transformed it from a medieval walled city, and helped make it India’s most important centre for architecture, design and planning. The construction of Gandhinagar in the rash of optimistic, post-independence city-building, was meant to encapsulate a specifically Indian vision of modernity. GIFT, as an extension of its neighbours, does the same thing for India’s twenty-first century. To walk through these three cities is to experience urban India’s evolving hopes for its future, petrified in concrete and asphalt.

The source of those hopes has shifted over time from the early industrial potential of the nineteenth century, to the democratic dream of the mid-twentieth, and the mercantile and financial opportunism of liberalisation. But the goal of urbanisation in India has remained remarkably consistent: modernity and modernisation, something that India has always thought of as an escape from the unsightly realities of its urban present. If Gujarat is any indication of what’s to come—as Modi promised regularly on the campaign trail last year—then the Smart Cities programme may be the solution, and the disaster, that India has been begging for.

When I visited GIFT last July, I met Ramakant Jha, then the managing director and group CEO for Gujarat International Finance Tec-City Co Limited, the public-private company that will administer the city for the foreseeable future. Jha spent 25 years as the Chief Transport and Communication Planner for Navi Mumbai, another great (and, he himself admits, essentially failed) experiment in urban planning. GIFT City, Jha said, has been designed to create employment for a million people in the financial sector in a dense cluster of towers that will together constitute a special economic zone, or SEZ, and the first International Financial Services Centre in India, a designation that will allow it to operate as foreign territory, thereby making movement of money in and out more efficient. In a flight of rhetorical fancy back in April, Saurabhbhai Patel, Gujarat’s finance minister, declared, “GIFT City will be one of the five major financial centres of the world over the next five years.” Jha deemed that particular goal unlikely.

In his seminal essay ‘The New Landscape,’ the late architect Charles Correa described India’s cities as “mechanisms for social engineering.” The Indian government’s Smart Cities Mission, in a reference document issued to the Lok Sabha in November 2014, takes a notably more pragmatic view. It says cities are “engines of economic growth.” While every document currently posted on the Smart Cities Mission website hedges about the definition of Smart City, making overtures toward affordability and accessibility, the reference document shown to the Lok Sabha cut right to the point: “Smart Cities,” the document says, “are those that are able to attract investments.”

GIFT is the clearest imaginable expression of that aim. The plan calls for only 40 percent of the 886 notified acres of GIFT City to be built up into a total of 62 million square feet (in July, when I spoke to Jha, 14 million had already been sold). Of that built-up area, he told me, 67 to 70 percent will be commercial, 22 percent will be residential, and 10 to 11 percent will be social, including, for example, schools and hospitals. Of the residential properties to be built in GIFT, Jha told me, 25,000 units will be for mid- and high-level employees of businesses operating within the city, and 8,000—placed near the back of the complex, though connected to the centre by electric buses—will be for support staff. Of the 60 percent of land left open, 22 percent will be roads, and the remainder is slated for green space, which, Jha pointed out more than once, “will be public open space” with “no barrier to entry.”

Compare this to the city from which GIFT hopes to wrest the title of India’s financial capital. In Mumbai, more than 25 percent of land is used for residential buildings. Less than nine percent is used for commercial, industrial, and office structures. One of the GIFT project managers, an enthusiastic young man called Nisarg Acharya, compared GIFT to New York, or rather, New York as he imagined it: “Residential is kept separate from retail and commerce, because technically it has to be like that,” he declared when I met him. “In New York, most people work in Manhattan but they live in New Jersey.” In fact, Manhattan’s land use is nearly 38-percent residential, and just over 10-percent commercial—numbers comparable to Mumbai’s.

The redevelopment of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati riverfront was one of the most ambitious urban planning projects in India in the last two decades. AMIT DAVE / REUTERS

GIFT’s closest parallel is Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex. Set aside as a commercial zone in 1977, BKC covers 914 acres, of which 42 percent is designated for commercial use, and 14 percent set aside for housing. It is today a soulless showpiece, an absolute dead-zone in terms of human life. For those who set places like BKC and GIFT as standards for good city planning, India’s metros increasingly offer a preponderance of gated suburbs, clusters of towers on immense compounds designed to keep out the undesirable aspects of urban experience, which is to say the undesirables themselves. The campaign for a private real estate project in Mumbai called Island City Centre, released in 2012, was illustrative: “The Eighth Island Of Mumbai Discriminates,” it proclaimed. Syntactical boners can speak ugly truths.

The poorest citizens have not been deliberately excluded from GIFT City—they’ve been left out of the conversation entirely. “One of the objectives is the accessibility of urban amenities to the various segments of people,” Jha told me, and very clearly meant it. “We won’t have a barrier. You can take a metro and get down here,” he explained, then added the caveat, “but this is a financial centre, so there will be some security and surveillance.” Visitors from outside GIFT City, he went on, will register at their point of entry and secure visitors’ passes. He compared GIFT’s public spaces to “a shopping mall: anyone can come inside.” The cost and scrutiny implicit in that may not count as barriers to entry for middle-class citizens, but for most people from low-income groups, they almost certainly will, much the same way that security gates—however ineffectual—at malls around India do.

In 1960, when the state of Bombay was carved into Maharashtra and Gujarat, debates began over where to situate the latter’s capital, with Ahmedabad and Baroda as the two strongest contenders. Instead, Gujarat’s newly formed government conceived of a city, to be called Gandhinagar, that would be both an imitation of and a riposte to Chandigarh. That city had set the post-independence paradigm, built to express the vision of a modern India that would be, to use Jawaharlal Nehru’s phrase, “unfettered by tradition.” Gandhinagar, in turn, would be an expression of Nehruvian modernity as well as Gandhian pastoralia. “The conflicting visions,” writes the urban historian Ravi Kalia in his book Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Post-Colonial India, “compress the entire significance of Gandhinagar into a duel between modernity and tradition.”

When government officials moved in in 1970, Gandhinagar was the only post-independence city to be designed and built entirely by Indian architects and planners, led by the Cornell-educated planner HK Mewada. Typically rational in its organisation—roads, set in a perfect grid, are named by numbers or letters of the Gujarati alphabet—the city is also dead. On the brutally hot day I spent shuttling between municipal offices, I saw virtually no one on the broad, dusty sidewalks. The grand plaza at the city’s geographic heart baked under the summer sun, its broad vistas framing ugly modernist structures—built, of course, in heat-absorptive concrete—uninterrupted by a single human form. It was spacious, quiet, and empty, the antithesis of the vibrancy of the indigenous urban forms that, over the previous five centuries, had birthed Ahmedabad just 23 kilometres to the south.

Until the twentieth century, Ahmedabad’s urban life took place in the densely clustered pol houses of its old city, whose narrow lanes and high-walled houses provided shade and shelter from Gujarat’s unforgiving climate, if little in the way of privacy. After the completion of the Ellis Bridge in 1892, the western bank of the Sabarmati opened to development for the first time. Almost immediately, the rich started to abandon old Ahmedabad for the open spaces across the water, where they built European-style villas and mansions. By the 1980s, when the majority of Ahmedabad’s textile mills had closed, and a series of communal riots that would ravage the city on and off for the next 20 years began, most wealthier residents had already moved across the river, leaving the city neatly divided: the prosperous Ahmedabad to the west and the poor old city to the east.

Despite awards and accolades for infrastructure and planning projects—some of them bold, even visionary—that divide is no less stark today than it was 30 years ago. As the city has become wealthier and, especially after the violence of 2002, increasingly ghettoised, it might even have become starker. The urban planners and thinkers who have shaped many of Ahmedabad’s most ambitious development projects deserve praise for the foresight and audacity of the plans they’ve deployed in the city’s western half. But the much-vaunted Ahmedabad of manageable traffic and a functional BRT system (daily ridership: 140,000) and good roads largely free from encroachment—the city so widely praised across India—extends only as far as the Sabarmati. In the city’s poorer quarters to the east and south, autos and two-wheelers still rush up BRT lanes, and streets are as promiscuous in their utility as they are anywhere else in India.

The impulse to retreat from poverty, to treat it first as a bad hallucination and then banish it from sight entirely, is hardly exclusive to India. From the 1920s to the 1960s, urban planning in and around New York, then the world’s largest metropolis, was governed by the planner Robert Moses, who eviscerated neighbourhoods by building highways, and developed urban structures that routinely ignored the already underserved. Through much of that period, affluent white people fled the unsightly poverty and violence that afflicted their cities. It simply did not square with their self-image as participants in the creation of the world’s next great power. Mumbai, the Indian city most often compared to New York, touts its blossoming skyscrapers as signs of “high density” and of “mixed-use development.” Set in gated compounds, cut off from the street, they cynically ape the look of an integrated twenty-first-century metropolis, while replicating the classist, exclusionary tactics of what preceded them.

Gandhinagar may have failed as a city, but at least it encapsulated the grand idea of a “new India,” shaped by public discourse, of government, and therefore democracy, as the font of India’s future. GIFT does not even have a framework in place to turn administration over to a democratically elected governing body. The Smart Cities to come will not, of course, be raised out of the dust. It is highly unlikely that Dindigul or Kota or Ranchi will ever look like GIFT. GIFT is an aspiration, the perfect Indian metropolis of the twenty-first century, shaped not by the voice of the many, but by the needs of those who produce capital.

On my last evening in Ahmedabad, I took a stroll along the concrete embankments that line the Sabarmati riverfront. Young couples from nearby colleges held hands tentatively, children tumbled across the grass, and older residents strolled slowly along the traffic-free pathways, looking out to the old city across the water. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, which gave the city this new promenade, is probably the most ambitious urban planning project to emerge from an Indian city in the new century. It also required the displacement, by some estimates, of as many as 40,000 people from the banks of the river, many of whom had lived there for decades.

Today, more than ten years after the project was first announced, most of those people have been relocated, some to apartment blocks built on the relatively central grounds of former mill compounds, others to the city’s southern fringes, beyond the reach of public transport and their fragile work networks. That they were relocated at all is a noteworthy success, the credit for which belongs not to the municipality, which would happily have thrown the Sabarmati residents on the trash heap—which it did quite literally in some cases—but to the Sabarmati residents themselves. Thanks to the grassroots efforts of a few community leaders and legal aid from local non-profits, the impoverished riverfront residents were able to push back and demand that they be acknowledged as legitimate stakeholders in the city they call home.

The needs of the poor can—indeed, must—be addressed if India’s cities are to be made more liveable for anyone, but that will only happen in places where the poor themselves are present and able to speak up. Gandhinagar, GIFT and places such as Mumbai’s Island City Centre were conceived as escape valves for the powerful, the rich, and the rising middle class, just as America’s suburbs were more than half a century ago. But escapism is an evasion, not a solution. What I saw as I travelled from the rows of concrete apartment blocks in southern Ahmedabad to the gleaming new promenade on the water, from the hustle of old Ahmedabad to the eerie quiet of Gandhinagar, was confirmation of what I already knew. Solutions will emerge from living, breathing cities, and from the voices of people whom those cities have failed, not just inconvenienced.

The solution proposed by GIFT and the Smart City programme is the opposite, to finally make the poor invisible. GIFT City is not a grand gesture toward India’s next modernity. It is a sign that India has given up on making its cities better. “India has been evolving from developing now to a developed country,” Ramakant Jha told me on the day that I visited GIFT. “Desires are changing as the level of education and affluence increases.” The Smart City programme proposes that a “developed” India can be dreamt into existence simply by treating those desires as the only ones that matter.

Jha isn’t entirely wrong. India is a wealthier nation today than it was 50 years ago. But so long as wealth continues to breed wealth and nothing more, so long as GIFT is the standard-bearer of urban vision, India’s cities will be poorer places by any human measure than they have ever been before.