Written by Michèle Clarke.

The partition of India 70 years ago offered the opportunity for urban planners to create brave new worlds, a bright new future to paper over the cracks caused by the social and economic cost of migration, loss of property, material goods and livelihoods, and extreme sectarian violence. Politicians on both sides of the border were keen to grasp emerging geopolitical opportunities to reassert power and authority over their domains through the creation of two new cities: Chandigarh, a new capital for the Indian East Punjab; and Islamabad, a new capital for a new nation.

The brave new world of the Modernist capital, more than five decades since inception, has proved to be a Utopia, a myopic idyll for the rich civil servant.  Where are the town planning visions for the reality of life for the less well-off urban citizen in India and Pakistan?

Both cities have much in common. They are utopian Modernist visions created to gridded Master Plans designed by European architects, promoted by national leaders and offering futuristic models for urban living and perhaps a respite from the anxieties and identities of the past.  Of Chandigarh, Nehru declared on 2nd April 1952: “The site chosen is free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions. Let it be the first expression of our creative genius flowering on our newly earned freedom. Let it be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, and an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

Both cities were created for the practice of government, with iconic administrative buildings and sectors of housing laid out in different densities according to government employee rank and status. Sector living, while embedding social stratification based on government rank, was designed to ensure all amenities were provided locally, enabling a self-contained, almost inward-facing style of urban life where everything within a sector could be reached on foot. Unlike traditional towns where roads were by nature multifunctional, used by pedestrians, vehicles, as places where children could play and adults socialise, for the Modernists, streets were conduits for cars and not people. Today Chandigarh has the highest car ownership figures in India and Islamabad suffers from a dearth of public transport. The car is king and air quality and pedestrians needing to get between sectors, suffer the consequences.

Have these cities evolved to meet the needs of modern India and Pakistan? Put simply, no. Wealthy residents love the order, the cleanliness, the history and the ‘healthy’ environments typified by planned green spaces, trees, lakes and, incongruously, rose gardens.  Both cities were designed to cater for the displaced, however town planners failed to plan for change, for rapid urbanisation and the needs of the lower income households, the poor and the social migrants. At their inception, the labourers who built the cities lived in squatter settlements around the construction sites and many stayed on when the cities were finished. Today around nine percent of the 1.2 million residents of Chandigarh, also known as ‘The City Beautiful’,  live in slums and informal communities; a similar figure of ‘katchi abadis’ reside among the 1.5 million people in Islamabad.

Ironically it is these very low income families that provide the labour to build the infrastructure, office blocks and apartments for the growing cities, keep public buildings, offices and houses clean and the city’s wealthier residents fed. Cities need these workers to function effectively, to remain ‘beautiful’, yet both Chandigarh and Islamabad have active slum clearance programmes and Chandigarh is currently vying to be the first city in India that is ‘slum free’. Neither city has sufficient affordable housing to re-home those affected by clearances, and City Development Authorities do not obviously cater for the needs of the poorest in society, who remain an ignored, and preferably unseen, embarrassment.

The urban green spaces too are under pressure as land is appropriated for new buildings and mature trees lost to create bus lanes. The rapid rise in population has seen a gradual, incremental, loss in the urban ecosystem, originally designed as part of the Modernist legacy to ensure a healthy city. As one senior Indian academic put it to me recently: “parks are a western concept, in the Indian sub-continent we have communal spaces built around the family”; these are clearly not meant to involve vegetation!  More families, less green space; the multiplier benefits to clean air, flood regulation and individual wellbeing are being gradually removed from these garden cities.

The brave new world of the Modernist capital, more than five decades since inception, has proved to be a Utopia, a myopic idyll for the rich civil servant.  Where are the town planning visions for the reality of life for the less well-off urban citizen in India and Pakistan? Where are the ‘chawls’ and ‘kholis’, the tenements and almshouses of the future? Today urban planning appears irrevocably hijacked by the need to be ‘smart’, a rhetoric that does nothing for those whose lives aren’t digitally connected, whose concerns are not congestion or where to park. The smartest cities are those who value all of their residents and look to build a more inclusive future for the migrants and dispossessed at the bottom of the income ladder.

It is in this context that I watch with fascination the increasingly futuristic plans for Amaravati , the new capital city of India’s Andhra Pradesh Region. Looking more like a set from ‘Bladerunner’ than a modern Indian city, I wonder if 70 years on it will suffer the same fate as Chandigarh and Islamabad and serve the administration of government well – but not the rest of civil society.

Michèle Clarke is the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor (Global Engagement) Asia-Pacific, and a Professor of Environmental Change at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Vidur Malhotra/Flickr.

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