A tale of two cities

Across gravelled pathways, behind high walls, protected by dogs and electronic guards are allusions to luxury so eccentric and exaggerated, it is hard to believe that the same high walls are also shared by some of the city’s poorest.

Leaning their broken plastic tenements against the side for support, people line up to scrub themselves, one by one, under a hand pump. While inside, a swimming pool is being drained to provide fresh blue water in case there is a sudden impulse for a dip.
The Indian city thrives on a slippery dilemma: a daily battle of wits between the rich and the poor. On the one hand is a life of instantaneous absorption of all the excesses of American life. On the other, a seemingly endless struggle just to stay alive. Compare, for instance, the lifestyle of the rich and the poor on two adjacent city plots. A Delhi farmhouse with four bedrooms, pool and extensive garden acreage has an average density of two families per hectare; the neighbouring slum has 400 within the same area. The farmhouse consumes 800 times the water, electricity and energy requirements of the slum family. In land, utilities and services, will there ever be a common ground of agreement? If the divide in the cities was less obvious, and the poverty less degrading, there might emerge a truer expression of ordinary city life.
By contrast, Singapore, with densities of up to 3,000 people per hectare, promotes a more egalitarian model of city growth. Highly subsidised mass housing blocks sit alongside private developer apartments costing millions of dollars. The swimming pools may be missing, but standardised designs and minimum space and services are assured, regardless of income. The desire to make the city hospitable to all its citizens ensures there are no glaring gaps in people’s standards of living.
In India, the visibility of the inequality makes people do strange things. Nowhere is there a more virulent and contagious strain of globalisation than in the Indian city. Combined with a government largely apathetic to urban standards, the brazen hypocrisy of the middle class is but expected in places that are utterly self-centred and acutely conscious of social position. Part of the problem lies in the heroic stance adopted by the well-to-do, the necessity to project symbolic reminders that help to restrain the encroaching poverty. So come the fancy houses and the cars, the latest Mercedes and Bentleys and Rolls-Royces (with white-gloved driver) on narrow streets, stuck in traffic jams. So too come the farmhouses of Delhi, the vacation houses of Lonavala, and the gated communities of Ahmedabad.
Pumped with new money, every aspect of architecture and urbanity tends towards an increasing isolation of the population. More flyovers, longer expressways and places further and further apart. People with excess money herded behind high boundary walls to share the spoils of their private enclosure: pool, sauna, valet parking, golf, tennis — an artificial neighborhood given sanction by purse and privacy. The isolated families of the city now isolated from each other.
In the 1980s the needs of a country beset by urban problems, were, if not taken seriously, at least recognised and debated. Architects spoke with genuine concern about the needs for low-cost, appropriate houses, a scale of technology that was affordable, that if built would produce genuine pride of craft. Ideas on urban housing and rural uplift were discussed in private seminars and government reports; development projects on water, agriculture and land were taken seriously; Sanjay Gandhi’s car for every Indian seemed like a positive step. Gharibi Hatao was a prominent — if overly ambitious — slogan; the planner, the designer, the builder, all lived in a perennial state of hopefulness. Because the sheer scale and squalor of globalisation had not reared its ugly head, it was a good time to be Indian.
Six decades after Independence, any talk of the poor is suppressed behind the mesmerising haze of GDP figures and the symbols of the material life. Poverty, low-cost and appropriate buildings, and concerns of identity and place are today not just forgotten, they are part of the laugh lines of cocktail circuits. There are no new ideas, no new dreams, no professional aims, no philosophical inquiries, no technical innovations, no restructuring of agriculture and distribution, no reform of services, no search for domestic ideals, no change in industry or automotive design, nothing that remotely suggests the possibility of imaginary flight. The one-track American approach to affluence is a strangely shortsighted view for a country embarking on an important change of life.
Today, the citizen oscillates between scenes of utterly degraded lives and an unabashed display of self-conscious materialism and a paranoid protection of private turf. Private. Tresspassers will be Shot. Tyres will be Deflated. The stink of the divide has grown to such levels that war between recognisable factions is a very real possibility.
Every day finds new battlegrounds — in Karnataka, in the tribal areas of Orissa and Chhattisgarh, and closer home, in the city itself. But that doesn’t matter. Across the pool and the barbeque pit, beyond cushioned drawing rooms, the poor India is not just invisible, but not even worth recognition. It is more important to keep the family flag flying than carry the mantle of some half-baked proposition into the uncertain arena of national idealism. The statistics are so alarming, that to save the country’s millions, to propose solutions to low-cost shelters, to actually build a green car, to resist the scourge of American temptations, or even believe in the country is now just an old Gandhian madness. A new sports Audi has been sighted in the showroom; it is time for a test drive.

Gautam Bhatia, architect, artist and writer, has built extensively in India and the US

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