What is the Future of the City in South Asia?

By Anjum Altaf

This is a very broad and brief overview of the past, present, and possible future of the South Asian city. It raises a number of points each of which can be discussed in much greater depth in future posts depending on the interest of readers.

Any discussion of cities in South Asia has an inspiring point of departure. Almost 5000 years ago, Mohenjodaro was probably the most advanced urban settlement in the world. It had a planned layout with a grid of streets laid out in perfect patterns. Wastewater was disposed through covered drains that lined the streets and were sloped such that the water never stagnated and it was treated before being discharged into the river.

South Asia has rarely been able to provide that level of urban planning and efficiency since. It is worthwhile subject to explore (later) why that might be the case.

Let us fast forward to the South Asian city of the present. It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of livability and urban services; virtually no one would consider these cities unproblematic and it is no wonder that they are thought of only in terms of the problems they pose. Once again, the reasons for this dismal state of affairs need to be explored and we shall do so at another time.

Given what we know of the present, what can we say of the likely future of the city in South Asia?

Many people look at the now developed cities of the West as models and hypothesize that the South Asian city would follow the same trajectory of urban reform. London, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, was an unlivable city with death rates higher than in the surrounding countryside. Dickens captured its degradation for history; Engels did the same for Manchester.

Conditions were more or less the same in all the major cities – Paris, Milan, New York, Philadelphia – all were ravaged by epidemics and unhealthy living conditions. One book that captures the period very well is Naples in the Time of Cholera 1884-1911 by Frank Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Today all these cities are amongst the most attractive places in the world having undergone major urban reforms that transformed them beyond recognition. Will South Asian cities follow the same trajectory with a lag?

We think not for a number of reasons. Very briefly, the urban reform movements in the developed cities of today emerged out a set of peculiar circumstances. First, the state of technological development was such that the easy segregation of rich and poor residents was not feasible. Think of the absence of automobiles and suburbs and bottled water. The list of distinguished citizens who fell victim to disease in these cities at the time included ministers and prime ministers.

Second, and very ironically, experts of the time believed an incorrect theory of disease transmission (the miasma theory), which held that epidemics were spread by foul odors emitted by decaying effluent carried by the air.

The urban reform movements in these cities were therefore led by the elites of the day (physicians, business leaders, etc.) who feared for their lives and businesses. They had the ability to force legislative changes and allocate resources to investments in environmental improvements related to sewerage and sanitation. The impetus for the eradication of slums and the design of wide boulevards in Paris were direct consequences of these peculiar factors.

This set of conditions does not exist any more in the developing cities of South Asia today because of advances in both technology and medical science. Technological advances have allowed the rich to physically segregate themselves from the poor. Thus, instead of improving as a single entity, each South Asian city has split into two – the rich enclaves and the poor slums.

At the same time, the discovery that disease is spread by germs not polluted air has shifted the focus from collective sanitation reforms to protection of the individual through immunization. The rich have thus also isolated themselves from the diseases of the poor. As a result, there is no powerful lobby of influential citizens behind urban reform that benefits the entire city.

So, is the South Asian city doomed to a schizophrenic and split future? Perhaps, but there is a now a new dynamic that portends a possible new trajectory in the years to come.

The new wave of globalization and privatization sweeping the world is structured more around a fierce competition amongst cities than among nation-states. In some respects, Bangalore and Bombay have become more relevant to business than India as a country. And this new competition amongst cities has put a premium on their livability and civic order. This creates a possible new opening for those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of urban life.

The new development mantra is that cities are the ‘engines of growth’. Cities are actually investing money in improving their efficiency, competitiveness and livability. The process is most advanced in East Asia where cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok are investing not only in traditional infrastructure but also in social infrastructure like museums and opera houses to become attractive to global capital and the footloose experts of the knowledge economy. (See an illustration of the ambitions of cities in the new China.)

This points to a possible trajectory for cities in South Asia reflected in the ‘Bombay First’ initiative. But one must be just as cautious in extrapolating casually from East Asia to South Asia as one was in extrapolating from the Europe of the past. For one, most of the cities in East Asia are characterized by much more ethnic homogeneity than is the case in South Asia. For another, migration from rural to urban areas has been strictly controlled in China for decades.

Cities can just as easily become hotbeds of conflict as engines of growth. It is easy to forget the fact that as recently as 50 years ago, there were major urban riots in the US; that there are major issues related to identity politics in a city like Mumbai; and that a rapidly industrializing city like Ahmedabad has been the home of violent ethnic cleansing. Even in China, the experience of Lhasa indicates that matters can be considerably more complex than they appear.

The reasons for these pathologies in South Asian cities can only be understood through a comparative historical analysis. One of the best is included in Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1997):

Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity…. The rise in Bombay of a movement like the Shiv Sena should therefore hardly occasion surprise…

Deeper analysis is also needed to understand the nature of recent urban growth and development in the industrialized countries. Many inner cities in the US were, and are, decaying while growth is coming from exurban or edge cities giving rise to new issues in an age of higher energy prices. In Europe, one can see the emergence of new strains in cities like Paris as the percentage of immigrants rises – a trend likely to continue given demographic disparities.

In China, too, a significant proportion of the economic output till very recently was coming from Town and Village Enterprises located away from the big cities. Now, with the easing of migration restrictions to the big cities necessitated by a market-oriented economy, there could be something different in the future. Edward Friedman (Is China a success while India is a failure? World Affairs, Fall 2004) claims that “China’s Calcutta-like poverty is hidden away in the marginalized countryside. In India it has exploded into the cities, a dynamic just beginning in China.”

For all these reasons, it is important to not be complacent about the future prospects of the city in South Asia and to question the premises of the new development mantra. At the same time, it is equally important to think of what might be needed to actually turn the South Asian city into an engine of growth in the globalizing world and to lift its marginalized and excluded citizens out of the poverty that has been their fate for so long.

This is a birds-eye view of the history and prospects of the South Asian city. At this stage it leaves out many issues that need attention and also does not elaborate the politics of the urban reform strategy that is implied by the analysis. The post has also focused only on the major metropolitan cities while issues in secondary cities and small towns are quite distinct. Sunil Khilnani is very perceptive in noting that L.K. Advani’s 1990 ‘padyatra’ focused largely on the smaller new towns for good reason.

Sunil Khilnani provides one of the best entries into the study of the South Asian city. Readers should also refer to the October-November 2008 double issue of Himal magazine that is focused on urban issues and includes snapshots of 15 cities in South Asia.

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  • ndrdesignnaturally
    Posted at 05:37h, 02 May Reply

    Very provoking post. Very interesting issues on the past and present of the South Asian city. Though there is one more example of a South Asian planned city that might attract your attention: that of Chandigarh in north India. As one of the few planned modern South Asian cities, Chandigarh continues to raise polemic.

    Once again, great to read your post and looking forward to more!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:02h, 04 May

      NDR: You are probably familiar with it already but other readers might not be. There is a good discussion of Chandigarh (pp. 130-135) in Sunil Khilnani’s book The Idea of India in a chapter devoted to cities in India. You are quite right about Chandigarh continuing to raise polemic. Khilnani characterizes Chandigarh as an epitomization of Nehru’s desire to display Indian modernity. I am not quite sure why the task of showcasing Indian modernity was assigned to a Frenchman who, when offered the commission, is reported to have noted in his diary that India was a humane and profound civilization which hadn’t yet created an architecture for modern civilization.

      It would be great if you could comment on Khilnani’s account and update us on how the city is evolving.

  • Bharat
    Posted at 06:30h, 14 July Reply

    Care should be taken to not exoticize or essentialize cities of the subcontinent.

    Older (that is to say, pre-20th century) parts of most major cities and towns in India are indeed planned, laid out on a grid and so on, not basically different from their American counterparts. Poorer or oppressed sections of the cities had less planning, and fewer services, again, no different from America. Read Richard Wright’s novel Native Son for the contrast between the black section and white section of a major midwestern town.

    Insular ethnic communities in conflict, even unto proto-fascist gang activity, et al is very much in evidence in American cities, has been through history. Cities are complex and dynamic entities that have a lot in common worldwide. It is interesting and useful to look at what is special about subcontinental cities, but only after a fair understanding of what they have in common with other cities.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:28h, 10 March Reply

    “The assessment of seven expert committees, which reviewed the state of urban planning ahead of the 12th Five-Year Plan, is that Indian cities will soon reach a precipice—unless a course correction takes place, cities will turn into a nightmare…

    First, the conclusions of the expert committees: while cities are rapidly expanding and outpace all projections, institutions that manage them are moving on leaden feet. The plans they make are rigid, least comprehensive and less inclusive. Lack of institutional clarity, poor intellectual capacity and dearth of enabling tools are making things worse for the cities and their citizens.”


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