Thursday, October 28, 2010

Urban Longings

No son of a peasant ever wants to be a peasant. This is an old truth going back to when the first city appeared on the earth 10,000 years ago. A farmer yearns to live in a city and be called a ‘citizen’. From the word ‘city’ also comes ‘civic’ and ‘civilized’. A civilized person is supposed to show concern for his fellow citizens; and from this act of civic kindness is born ‘civilisation’. The city loosens the barriers of prejudice—of caste, religion, and feudal status--and this is why every peasant wants to part of the urban proletariat.

The city emerged in history when a farmer first discovered that he could exchange his surplus grain with something that his neighbours possessed. He stood at a trading post. Soon a bania came along. He bought the grain, opened a shop, and a bazaar was born. With surplus food, everyone did not have to toil for food—they could buy it. Thus arrived brahmins, barbers, charioteers, poets, and prostitutes--all the grand occupations and services that could be exchanged for food. So, the city came into being from banias and bazaars.

It is fantastic to the point of madness that the same city today is an urban agglomeration of 20 million inhabitants, the size of Mumbai and Delhi. Mumbai is larger than the population of 150 countries and 17 states in India and India has 25 of the world's 100-fastest growing urban areas. Half the world’s population, 3.3 billion, already lives in cities, and this will only go up. With our average farm size down to 1.4 hectares—so tiny, it is difficult to make a living—urbanization is inevitable. Already crowded, noisy, polluted and violent, the city overwhelms us with its alienating ugliness. If the Indian city is a dictionary of filth, fear, and loathing, as our newspapers remind us daily, why do so many of us choose to live in it? I shall attempt to answer this question in this essay.

Ever since its birth, the city has exercised a mesmerizing hold on the human imagination. It exists not only as brick and mortar, but also in the mind. The city is a woman who beckons but does not yield her secrets easily. It offers the promise of hope, a place to realize one’s talents and capabilities, to experience the cosmopolitan without the need of a passport. Filled with desire, fantasy and pleasure, especially in the way it catches the imaginative lives of women, their stories, their dreams and loves, the city is the ‘sinuous gait of a beautiful woman’ as Baudelaire once expressed with delight.

The city, however, also exploits and oppresses human beings, and Charles Dickens captured this so well in 19th century England. Dickens resonates with us in India today because his novels deal with an urban reality that is ours—crime, beggars, crowds, pollution, and poverty, all this existing side by side with great wealth. Yet to a new migrant from Bihar, Mumbai is an ‘amazing place’, as David Copperfield said of London when he saw it for the first time. Urban India today is at the same stage of capitalist development as Dickens’ London.

Ugly concrete blocks, decked out in tinted glass and neon-bright colours, are slowly taking the place of old tiled village houses. Commercial streets are noisy and suffer from unregulated construction. Our urban ills are the result of outdated building codes, poorly defined lines of municipal authority. It is the same sordid tale of bad, unreformed laws, corrupt bureaucrats and builders, and a government that is ‘far too big for the little things and too small for the big things’. Add to this the general pressures of development and urbanization in a rapidly growing country. These are formidable obstacles.

Because of the harsh, ugly reality of urban squalor, we try to escape in pastoral dreams of the countryside. Mahatma Gandhi, a man of the city, had such a romantic view before B.R. Ambedkar, corrected him: ‘What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’ Those of us who cannot escape to the country, dream of shady parks and tree-lined boulevards, kindly public squares, and understated commercial development. Some of it is a reaction to the rational modernism of Le Corbusier, who said notoriously that a house is a ‘machine to live in’. He designed only one city, Chandigarh, but he had great influence on urban planning in the years after World War II. His alienating urban towers for the poor are now discredited. They became the new slums after years of poor upkeep. The nadir was reached in the dynamiting of the failed Pruitt-Igoe high rise housing in St Louis in 1972.

In India too there is a reaction. Cities like Chandigrah and Gandhinagar are considered a mistake. Sensible urban planners humanely place the urban poor and our informal economy at the centre of their thinking. Walkability is their first thought when designing a road. Ranjit Sabhiki celebrates the 116 urban villages of Delhi, which have acted like a safety valve, where migrants have a found a room of their own and created businesses with an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. These villages have prevented Delhi from creating slums like Mumbai. Yet the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, teaches us about a certain humanity in the slum. Mumbai is more humane than Delhi because it had its origins in commerce--buying and selling teach you interdependence and civility. But Mumbai’s superior public culture is also due to its better transport system. Now with the Metro, Delhi has a chance to change its public culture. Rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens in the Metro could build empathy and respect and bring about a civic revolution in an unkind city.

Our other great hope is the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which has already begun to affect positive changes in some of our cities. It is making important choices in favour of public transport, sustainability, walkability and urban governance. Let us not delude ourselves. Urbanization is inevitable and no country achieved prosperity without it. Cities concentrate poverty but are they also offer the hope for escaping from it. For me, the city is irresistible. It is the turmoil of human freedom as I watch the river of life flow past in full majesty in a crowded bazaar. My hero is the statesman, Pericles, who gave the best reason why he fell in love with the city of Athens: it was because its democratic freedom awakened in its citizens’ hearts the sentiment of man’s humanity to man.


Unknown said...

Reading this essay makes me feel once again that authors are people who can effortlessly detach themselves from the bustle of life and become an observer looking at things from far above. To get a better perspective of things, one probably needs to move away from the thing and look at it.

Mr Das, I wish to make a request to you. Would you be able to take out time to go through a soon-to-be published book and give us an endorsement for it? The book is about the untold potential our country has for invention and entrepreneurship, and intends to inspire and encourage people to work towards realizing their dream. The author believes that greater self-employment can help promote and expedite economic and social progress, and has therefore made an attempt, through his book, to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Bhaskar said...

Much like america is built by immigrants, cities are built by migrating rural folks. It is such a powerful force, and properly harnessed, will make a country great. In fact it is the best way to encourage rural growth as well - diaspora send money home, build schools, hospitals, and facilities in ways that government never can.

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Suresh Vyas said...

City life could be restless, village life is peaceful. In cities, many might be living not really knowing their neighbors. In villages, almost all know everyone else. Food grows in villages. One could be more in tune with mother earth and nature in villages than in cities.

I tend to think that it will be very good if the Villages of Bhaarat become self-sufficient, and sell their surplus product or services to cities. By self sufficient, I mean that the villages should be such that very few villagers should feel like going to city for living. Software development could be done in villages. Some small home industry, eco friendly could also be in villages.

There was a TV series called Cheers in USA, whose title song was:

"You want to go where everybody knows your name."

That is village, in Bhaarat.

jai sri krishna!

fourthjanuary68 said...

This issue is complex, how will you place Bhutan in the schema of things?

isn't small is beautiful?

How doe we work with the synchronicity? psychology, philosophy and economics

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