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How Even Planned Cities Are A Breeding Ground For Discrimination And Unsustainability

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India has been among the fastest-growing economies in the world for two decades now. This growth is characterised by the growth of the middle-class and inadequate planning that is socially and financially unsustainable. This growth also raises the question: how do people go about their lifestyles without compromising the natural resources? Indian cities are riddled with infrastructural deficits and service delivery gaps due to poor financial health and planning.

This jeopardises the quality of the urban populace and undermines the competitive edge of these cities. This is attributed to weak institutional capacities. The question for planners and policymakers is how the quality of life in cities can be improved to accommodate future growth ensuring better living conditions. Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay addressed such questions in the webinar organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at IMPRI, New Delhi, and Indrastra Global on ‘Assorted City- A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity’.

Suptendu Biswas _ Assorted City- A Reading of Contemporary Indian Urbanity

Dr Suptendu P Biswas, Partner, VSPB Associates, New Delhi; and Managing Trustee, SEARCH, Kolkata, defined ‘assorted cities’ to describe the phenomenon of a noticeable difference that the development trajectory of a city takes. Cities, like most other geographical spaces, are characterised by a unique diversity in their dwelling demography in terms of identities, occupations and in terms of socio-economic standing. Cities also operate within a political and administrative framework and since the identities mentioned above are themselves political in nature, they influence the degree and features of assortment that the city undertakes.

A closer look at the development path of South Delhi provides us with some answers to the problem of assortment. In 2002, two large slum areas existed in the area: one close to Greater Kailash and the second near Govindpuri. The next year, the slum near GK was cleared while the other one remains to date. Another interesting observation is in the variation in the water supply provided by the State in these areas.

Localities dwelled by a population of lower socio-economic standing face continuous problems of water shortage while other places have an abundance of it, so much so that a lot of it goes wasted. From these two instances of discrimination and variability, we can infer that the political economy of a city plays a very important role in shaping its growth pattern. Additionally, elective governance and variability in the delivery of services is another cause of concern.

Cities are also spaces that are plagued by a scarcity of resources and hence, the problem of the allocation of resources becomes a major cause of concern for any city planner. The politics of distribution is, hence, another reason that leads to the formation of assorted cities. The conception of a city starts with a plan. Planning as a technique of allocating scarce resources is rooted in socialist ideals, and thus in a democratic setup, the planning process ideally exhibits principles of equity and justice. The plan starts with the conception of an idea, which is then discussed and formulated into a policy, which then becomes the blueprint of the development process.

However, things happen quite differently in reality. Governmentality, a concept first popularised by the writings of Michael Foucault, is in simple terms, the techniques of governance. Governmentality is basically the psychology behind how a body of people decides the methods and processes with which to govern a population. The concept is relevant because the politics of distribution also involves the mentality behind the governance patterns of a city. The stages in the planning process are also tinged by this, and hence, a policy gets modified after its conception and before its implementation.

Governmentality is the reason behind the selective implementation of policies as it becomes the backbone of the decision-making by a city planner on how to distribute scarce resources. It is due to this factor that the ideals of equity and justice are failed in policymaking.

Most academic discourses on the planning process of cities can be accused of summarising features in a binary language, of good and bad, or rich and poor. However, the realities of most cities exist in grey. Multiple layers of diversity end up creating multiple gradations in the delivery of policies and services, and hence, an ‘Equity Mosaic’ is a more accurate representation of how cities develop.

Assortment can take place due to multiple reasons: taste, affordability and scarcity. An attempt to understand them in binaries can be reductive and inaccurate. A study of the land ownership patterns and growth path of Gurgaon show us that the post-informational cities — characterised by a fast-moving lifestyle and a neoliberal thought of individuality — are globally connected but locally isolated.

Another form of assortment happens in the treatment of landscapes in urban spaces. Roadways have become the lifeline of a modern city and can be termed as the strand of thread holding the cities together, keeping them connected. This emphasis on connecting all major urban spaces to roads leads to huge neglect of the landscapes that exist on the periphery of those spaces. The in-between spaces of two localities or the margins between two projects aren’t focused on enough by the planners and are left to themselves.

This, on most occasions, leads to their neglect from policy implementation and ends degrading their life. Studies from the lakes of Jaipur and the canals of Chennai and Kolkata show us that the landscapes that historically connected spaces in the cities and remained in the front view have now either been shifted to the background or abandoned altogether, all in the quest of building large concrete structures.

Assorted cities are, therefore, fast becoming a regular phenomenon and characterising all cities by difference and fragmentation. However, most of the factors responsible for this assortment are traceable, and hence, there exists scope for their modification to prevent further segregation of our cities. If we can somehow make equity and justice the foundations of both the public consciousness as well as governmentality, we can envision cities as more uniformly developed and as more inclusive spaces.

Acknowledgements: Sarthak Singhal is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing BA Hons in Economics from Delhi University.

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Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

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