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Smart Cities, Gated Communities, Engels And The Way The Poor Live

By Vidyadhar Date

15 October, 2014

Kamu Iyer , a veteran Mumbai architect, is a mild mannered man and not at all known as a leftist. But he has posed a key question in his just published book Bombay from Precincts to Sprawl. The key point, which is rarely made by architects, is that you can judge a city by the way its poor live. A chapter is devoted to this theme.

Charles Correa, one of our few socially conscious architects, said understandably at the release of the book recently that he was highly impressed by the question posed by Mr Iyer.

It is a radical question, Mr Correa said. He then spoke of how the poor , displaced by new projects, are living like rats in new buildings built by builders for them without adequate light and air and other amenities.

Unfortunately, there are few architects in India raising such questions. One can think of only a few names. Apart from Mr Correa, there is Rahul Mehrotra, his son-in-law and architect and professor in Harvard, and P.K. Das, who once led a radical movement for housing rights for the poor working in collaboration with Shabana Azmi. Laurie Baker, the radical architect with a Gandhian vision, is sadly gone. Among the academics with a penetrating look into urban issues I think of few names beyond Swapna Banerjee Guha of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The most radical writing on housing for the poor against the background of industrial capitalism and urban development came long ago in the 1840s from none other than Engels, who later became a collaborator of Karl Marx. His book The Condition of the Working Class in England is an absolute classic and I am proud to have a copy published by Progressive Publishers of Moscow.

What a fantastic, penetrating description and exposure of the abject living conditions of industrial workers. And Engels was then only 24 years of age. The son of a rich man he spent some of the best years of his life working among the poorest of people, forsaking dinner parties and port wine. It is also amazing that few urban planners and even academics in India care to read this book or have even heard of him. I know they would find it politically inconvenient but Engels writes with such descriptive power that the intellectuals need to give up their timidity and read this vital writing.

Engels showed how workers in industrial urban centres like Manchester and Liverpool suffered from higher mortality and diseases like small pox and scarlet fever than in rural areas. This is directly because of the abject conditions in which the poor lived in cities under capitalism. India, China and other countries are now going through the same convlusions that England went through in the 1800s, as Engels’s recent biographer Tristram Hunt points out. There is the same breakneck speed of so-called development which is playing havoc with the lives of the poor. Yet, our ruling class has the gall to talk of creating a hundred smart cities. So instead of letting a hundred flowers bloom, we have this slogan for cities in which the poor will have no place at all. It is so obvious. Yet, as the Economic Times pointed out on October12, there are few takers for the new dream city for the rich being created in Gujarat and the idea was initiated when Mr Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state.

Karl Marx wrote of Engels’ book as a work of steely fury after reading it in the British Museum reading room in 1863.

In more recent times there has been an explosion of very radical writing on urban issues in the West by such eminent figures like David Harvey, Jane Jacobs and Mike Davis. Charles Correa frequently mentioned the importance of Jane Jacobs in his remarks at the release of Mr Iyer’s book. But the irony is that when I attended a meeting of leading figures of Mumbai’s architecture and activist community at Max Mueller Bhavan some years ago, I was the only one to know that Jane Jacobs had died just a few hours ago and many among architects had not heard of her. I say this in all humility and I knew of her death because I closely followed her life and writing purely as a layman interested in social and urban life. Jane Jacobs, the most important influential writer on urban issues in the last half century was not a trained architect at all. This also goes to show that the so-called non expert can be a real expert if one has the

dedication and vision. Again, Lewis Mumford, the biggest name as architecture historian, had no formal training in architecture or town planning.

Mr Iyer does well to mention the rich tradition of social housing in Europe and Corbusier’s public housing work in Karl Marx Hof in Vienna. He also mentions the work of the Egyptian architect Hasan Fathy who specialized in mud architecture. I fondly remember listening to Fathy in the J.J. School of Architecture many years ago.

In his introduction to the book Correa blames politicians and the steep increase in FSI, floor space index, a wild increase in high rise buildings, for the ills of Mumbai. Mr Iyer also mentions a interesting point that Correa once suggested how arrangements could be made to provide for sleeping for the poor on streets at night on little platforms which can be used by hawkers during the day and by the houseless at night for sleeping. Some people may be shocked by this. But this is quite possible and can be done in a humane way without creating ugliness. If we can tolerate uselessly parked cars on the road, why can’t we tolerate human beings whom we are denying a right to shelter ?
Mr Iyer said certain colonies like Parsi colony and wadis of different communities were interesting areas but these had an element of the ghetto. Rushed Wadia, a research scholar studying Mumbai’s history who lives in one of the Parsi colonies, said there was nothing elevating about living in these ghetto colonies. He had come across several houses in these colonies where there was not a single book on the shelves.

My personal view is that architects and activists are not raising their voice against the new gated communities of the rich which are springing up all over the metropolis. Their very exclusiveness is illegal. In Bangalore the authorities have made it clear that any citizen had a right to enter these colonies as the roads and other open spaces were public spaces. Gated communities are illegal, the then commissioner of the Bangalore Development Authority Bharat Lal Meena had declared. They cannot stop people at the gates with all their heavy , arrogant security with stern, heavily uniformed guards and high gates. I remember architect P.K. Das telling me some time ago that in Mumbai large housing estates were by law expected to have access to the public. More searching questions need to be asked about the new exclusive and controversial cities like Lavasa which are coming up, some are clearly vandalizing the natural

environment. How can they deny access to common people ? Access through these controlled spaces will vastly reduce walking distances and reduce traffic. It will be a win win situation. The residents of these private colonies cannot claim exclusive right to the road space which is public.

After casting my vote in the assembly election on October 15 at St Andrew’s school in Bandra in Mumbai I realized how a little access can vastly make things easier. Because of the elections, an access to the road behind had been opened up and one could easily go to the other side. The church compounds are much more democratic spaces normally. It is imperative that the private, gated communities give access to common people. Exclusiveness and exclusion cannot be tolerated in a country that prides on being the biggest democracy.

Apart from Mr Kamu Iyer’s book one also needs to welcome a new bi-annual journal of architecture, urban design and planning, Tekton, which was launched last month and is brought out by the MES Pillai college of architecture, Navi Mumbai. It is to be welcomed particularly because there is such a paucity of serious , analytical journal on the issue.

It is astonishing that should be such scarcity of such journals in a country with an outstanding tradition of architecture and where the landscape is being changed almost daily because of rapid urbanization.

The first issue of the journal which came out last month includes articles on a variety of subjects. These include a conversation between architect Mustansir Dalvi, professor of architecture at J.J. school of architecture, with noted architect Rahul Mehrotra. Prof Dalvi is also a fine poet, translator and writer. Then Richa Sharma reviews a book on cities written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Amita Sinha looks at the architectural history of India and Sonam Ambe writes on the ladies’ compartment in Mumbai local trains.The journal editor Prof Smita Dalvi hopes the journal generate critical thinking on architecture, urban design and other topics.

(Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority).



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