Gurgaon Floods: State remaining blind to private interests overruling public good?

The last week was a great reality check on the hyped India story. India’s two major cities and one upcoming smart city were flooded due to rains in three different parts of the country.We have already witnessed shocking scenes in another major city Chennai last year.  These were not untimely rains but pretty timely as South West Monsoons happen this time of the year. Infact good rains were highly anticipated this year due to two years of successive poor downpour. All this has become pretty common now and each rain shows the same story. One wonders the status in other cities now.

Given this, the coverage was mostly partial to Gurgaon given the traffic situation looked far worse there compared to others. People were stuck for 6 hrs and above in Gurgaon and perhaps 4-5 hours in other two. Those in Bangalore actually brave traffic wit or without rain on a daily basis. Bangaloreans can safely say “This time is not different”.

One wonders when pathetic life in India’s cities ever be a part of our agenda. It is just getting worse and worse. The media is also just ignorant about these issues and reacts only when there is a crisis. The current obsession is GST where utopian columns are being written how goods will move smoothly from one part of the country to the other. It is of least worry that people are now increasingly unable to move from one part of the city to another in desired time.

Coming to Gurgaon, this article by Prof Sanjay Srivastava says we have moved from being modern to global to smart. But reality is haunting as we are far from being good even on a local basis:

The 20th century history of Indian-ness is, very significantly, a history of words to describe aspirations of being and becoming. As the 20th century unfolded, the most significant of these words was “modern”. The word was added to an entire range of hopes, activities, goods and institutions to suggest an entirely new way of being and doing. So, we had Modern Tailors, Modern School, Modern Bakery and Modern Bazaar, each offering a vision of an improved and reliable present and a hopeful future.

After decades of trying to be modern, however, we decided it was even better to be “global”. From the 1990s onwards, then, we had global schools and universities, shopping complexes and commercial buildings and whatever else that was thought to require the patina of trans-nationalism.

In the current time, globalism has, however, given way to “smartness”: the landscape of our imagination is now filled with smart cities, smart highways, smart governance and smart technologies. What has remained constant through all the word-play is our capacity for self-delusion about the Indian realities. The urban nightmare that is the “millennium city” of Gurgaon is a tragic case study.

On September 3, 1979, the DLF corporation wrote to the Director of Haryana’s Town and Country Planning Department seeking permission to develop an area of around 200 acres in village Chakkarpur in Gurgaon into an urban residential locality. After an eighteen month period of “scrutiny” – for mutually beneficial negotiations between businesses and bureaucracies – a licence was granted.

However, a senior bureaucrat objected to the department’s decision on the grounds that the “plan” that had been approved was no plan at all: there was no road planning or service lanes, residential plots were to be converted into shopping areas, and that the layout plan was faulty in the manner in which traffic flow might be impacted. The objecting bureaucrat noted that the process of approval “raises doubts about the integrity of the [department] officers”.

Notwithstanding such objections, the new Gurgaon roared ahead, creating new lifestyles, real-estate millionaires and, if you’ve been following the news of the past week, an urban mess characterised by blocked sewers, concreted water-courses, flooded roads and traffic jams of unprecedented proportions.

He then points to what led to current mess:

Firstly, right from the beginning, the state has ceded all capacity to oversee the public good.

Secondly, the lines of demarcation between state and private responsibility are very rarely clear. So, sectors are developed by the Haryana Urban Development Authority, new areas within the sectors by private real estate players and the old city is managed by the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, or MCG. In between , there are highway concessionaires, the Public Works Department, the Town and Country Planning Department and various other official bodies with their own claims and counter-claims regarding their responsibilities and jurisdiction. Gurgaon is like an Octopus with each leg heading in a different direction, the body torn asunder at its seams.

Thirdly, modern urban life requires a balance between private capital, the state and private citizenry. The last group should, ideally, be part of a civic sphere that keeps the other two honest. In Gurgaon, however, there is increasingly no independent civil sphere that can create and look after civic spaces. Indicative of this is the fact that the largest and best resourced resident’s welfare group was created by a real estate company. Private capital has created its own citizenry which neither questions activities of the private sector nor the state’s inability to rein in the haphazard urbanisation pioneered by the former. The logic of profit is the natural underpinning of private capital, but what happens when there are no spaces outside it and when what is meant to be outside is a creation of the inside?

He says Gurgaon shows how private interests can lead to complete collapse once things begin to break down.

It takes me to this analysis of Gurgaon as a private city which pointed to these issues earlier. But it was more hopeful of a private solution:

In the 1960s Walt Disney bought up a 25,000-acre wilderness known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida. Today, you probably know it as Walt Disney World, and Rajagopalan holds it up as an example of what private developers might need to do once they own massive parcels of land. They’ll build every public service imaginable — from roads to power plants to a metro system — in a bid to retain residents. “Disney benefits if people decide to stay in one of the Disney hotels when they visit Disney’s theme park,” she points out — so Disney basically built its own city, though of course sans traditional city perks like citizen participation and social services. “They have their own sewage system, police system, fire system — and everything seems to work completely in the background,” she says. “They are large enough in scale and they’re large enough in terms of profitability that they can have their own systems for each of these problems.” Gurgaon’s developers have the same incentive to serve residents, Rajagapolan suggests — but only if they can unite their scattered developments into a single, city-sized expanse of property. Currently, Gurgaon encompasses 730 square km, large enough to hold seven Disney Worlds — or as Rajagapolan sees it, seven privatized cities competing for residents. It’s a rather fanciful vision of urban development that leaves some troubling questions unanswered. Then again, the same could be said of Gurgaon itself.

This has clearly failed here in Gurgaon. Here multiple private interests with each worried about its bottom line exited the public good space hoping someone else will do it and they shall free ride on it.

But then what about cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai where state remains at the centre of all activities? Have things been better there? Hardly. State is as clueless in cities which it governs compared to those which it does not.

Prof Srivastava says “modern urban life requires a balance between private capital, the state and private citizenry”. In Gurgaon, may be the private capital ruled but in others it is State all over.   Private citizenry is neither involved nor interested in succh activities as most are stick in traffic jams struggling to reach their offices.

It is even more worrying that urbanisation process has just started. It is just likely to become even more threatening in future.

The obsession to ease doing business in India should be met with an equal obsession to ease living in India. Unless latter happens, first does not make sense. We have failed to understand that all these tags of modern, global, smart etc are not about private capital and fancy buildings. They are about making things easier for local people.



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