Utopian heterotopia in Indian cities


By Sadiq Zafar

While getting trained by Charles Keith, a British academic in New Delhi, we were asked to speak about the urban lifestyle and city’s social fabric. In the group discussion with my batchmates Megha and Gauri, we initiated a discussion by taking the virtual case study of one of the busiest cities of India, Mumbai, and we quoted National Geographic’s comment about Mumbai in its program on Megacities, “To survive in this sea of humanity, one needs a lifeline of asphalt in steel.”

To experience the tides in that sea of humanity I moved from Delhi to Mumbai and the UNESCO world heritage site of Victoria Terminus greeted me with a huge warm hug. As I was being pushed from all around, I moved in the high tide without making any effort. Yes, this was Mumbai, the financial capital of India, the city of stock exchange, Dharavi, Gateway to India, Haji Ali and Shahrukh Khan. The city, whose socio-economic profile is pivotal to its growth, needs no introduction today but the temporal changes narrate that it needs attention. Mumbai’s population has paved the way for not only luxury condominiums but also sub-standard housing, ghettos, slums, and squatters. This highlights a huge housing gap and inhuman living conditions as well as suggests discrimination and exclusion.

Foundations of Heterotopia

In the name of development, man is in direct conflict with nature. Depletion of natural resources, risking the biodiversity and ecological systems, environmental degradation, global warming, and climate change are some of the consequences of anthropogenic interventions. As per the Environmental Kuznets Curve, rise in per capita income directly affects environmental conditions and leads to the degradation of environment but at the point of saturation, even the rise in per capita income does not harm the environment. If we plot a graph to show relationship between per capita income and environmental degradation, it gives an inverted U. With this relationship, we can conclude that the developed economies can contribute to the environmental conservation to some extent but for the developing and underdeveloped economies, these issues are secondary as masses in these geographical settings still struggle to fulfill their physiological needs.

It is evident that industrialization led to the creation of opportunities, resulting in the move of a large number of rural population and establishment of new urban centers. This whole process of urbanization which aimed to provide the tertiary workforce a better living condition led to a number of opportunities. When population pressure started to rise, cities started to crumble, environmental degradation started to happen resulting in the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and enormous amounts of energy consumption. This led the global temperature to soar with the rise in sea level and abrupt behavior of weather conditions with outbreak of deadly diseases. At this point of time, the world started to think of plans and policies to mitigate environmental pollution and degradation globally, in order to maintain the harmony between man and environment.

At the same time, wealth and resources started getting concentrated in a particular class of the society. This made the world witness one of the worst human conditions because of poverty. Poverty in the form of hunger, homelessness, lack of opportunities, unemployment etc., led to a conflict between classes of the society. Though it was the duty of a welfare state to provide basic education, primary health, shelter, food, and other physiological needs to its citizens, it failed in many cases to provide such basic amenities to its citizens resulting in extreme poverty.

Transitional Spaces

Since urban areas became a pivot of opportunities, it started attracting masses towards it, resulting in a shift from the agrarian frontiers to the urban sector of the workforce. While we analyze the issue of homelessness due to poverty, we find that when focal points started to shift from basic human values to economic opportunities, urban areas started degrading natural ecosystem, overshadowed by the built environment. Urban land became a commodity which was beyond the capacity of the poor people to afford, raising other related issues like degraded living conditions and emergence of slums, ghettos, and squatters. With a shift in the workforce, the idea of providing better opportunities to the urban dwellers emerged.

When the state withdrew itself from regulating the disposition of urban land, it created a void which acted as a source of opportunity for private players to replace the state. A large amount of investment came to fill that void in order to make it fiscally sustainable. With investment coming from the private players, many urban spaces started to be seen as potential sites for the development of the real estate industry, accommodating luxurious condominiums to suit those classes of the society who had accumulated wealth and resources. This class started segregating themselves from the masses.

Sprawling Cores

With the influx of migrant population, urban spaces started to succumb to the demand of residential units which expanded frenetically, resulting in the neglect of the natural resources. Therefore, this vast expansion at such a pace started to degrade the environmental conditions and the natural ecosystem. Those who were dwelling in inhuman conditions became the workforce for those who were living in the luxurious residential units. With this segregated setup coming up in urban areas, the basic issues of water, electricity, waste disposal etc. assumed importance. This gave rise to a particular urban mindset that anything which is beyond the cone of vision has nothing to do with the one who is dealing with it, and this paved way to a new menace in the form of urban waste. Expanding cities are now unable to cope with the problem of waste disposal.

With increasing population pressure cores of the cities started to expand resulting in the creation of fringes and sprawls. Most of the cores started to decay because of the crumbling infrastructure, forcing people to move out of the cores and reside in new townships. Neglect in the upkeep worsens the core conditions. These urban centers need to be laid out in such a manner that they can accelerate development, while taking care of the core of the city and issues related to poverty, opportunity, and migration.

Heterotopian Urbansim

“Smart City”, which was once the most talked about subject in an urban morphology and about which the whole nation was abuzz, was never the part of the union government’s election manifesto. It promised to take major steps for urban upliftment and build ‘hundred new cities’ adhering to the concept of sustainability. To bridge the gap with the poor and marginalized sections, it talked about prioritized and integrated development of the hundred most backward districts of the country.

Smartness is still an urban perception of a utopian thought. Though no one seems to know what the concept of being smart entails, the idea itself has been advocated vaguely. The idea seems to have been imposed on the dwellers of a city by the administrators of the ‘welfare state’. If the authorities want the acceptance of any such ideas, it should first be accepted by the people at the grassroots level. Before planning and imposing such ideas on the people living in a democracy, people should be made to be involved in the decision-making process as one of the stakeholders. In a democracy, every policy that underscores public interest should be critically analyzed before being imposed.

Other projects and schemes have faced similar bottlenecks earlier. A nation where a holistic approach toward tackling problems is not always present, lack of coordination between union and state governments is evident. We see a lack of political will in implementing state policies and schemes in districts, overlapping of governance authorities at the third tier, lack of accountability and transparency, partial implementation of 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts, and most important, the lack of public participation in most of the planning and decision-making process. With these governance issues which are present in the administration, the idea of a ‘smart city’ leads to the making of a heterotopian space instead of achieving utopia.

Sadiq Zafar is an urban planner and architect and the author of a book on sustainable development. He is presently working in the capacity of an urban policy researcher in which he explores built form and issues in poor urban neighbourhoods. He has worked with a reputed national research institute and has also served as an Assistant Professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


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